Looking at the calendar it hit me that around this time in 2015 I had completed my final residency interviews. Like all of the current fourth year medical students, I’d spent a lot of time, money, and energy traveling around from place to place, eagerly and anxiously trying to guess if and where I would end up for residency. Medical training is a strange experience. You’d think that a field that is based on the scientific process and data driven in many ways would equip students with the tools they’d need to not only choose the right specialties but also the right residency programs for them.
Well, you’d think wrong.
Finding a residency program that suits you is like ordering a full wardrobe for 3-7 years based on online pictures, reviews, and referrals from others, but the catch? You can’t experience the clothes – you can’t try them on. You are expected to synthesize a bunch of circumstantial information mixed with some objective data such as salary, estimated cost of living, etc, and make a calculated, prioritized list of programs – the holy grail of lists – your rank list.
To that effect, as I’m sure many fourth years are currently pulling their hair out, finishing their fine whiskies and liquors, and ranking and re-ranking their programs over and over from now until the certification deadline, I want to share 5 pieces of advice I wish someone had shared with me when I was a big eyed MS4.
Disclaimer: There’s a LOT that goes into these decisions. I offer my humble thoughts here because I hope it will help at least one person out there struggling to make some hard choices right now. Obviously there may be some controversial suggestions below, but it’s meant to foster discussion and thought. I welcome your feedback too! Let me know if my thinking is flawed!
They’re in reverse order, because I’m weird that way.
5. Be a 5 year old again and use your imagination!
Seriously, one of the things I wish I’d done better in 2015 is spent time visualizing and picturing what my life would be like at my various potential programs. What would working in the ED feel like? What would the relationship I had with the nurses, technicians, administrative staff, respiratory therapists, consultants, etc, be like? Where would I live, if I moved there? What would I do if I had a family emergency? The more detailed your vision of the future, the more you will understand how your life might look like if you ended up at a particular program. This is a crucial exercise to perform with the top programs you are hoping to end up at. You may know they are going to prepare you in your chosen field well, but what will living through residency be like? The problems I have faced over the past 18 months have less to do with my residency program’s curriculum, and more to do with my finances, lifestyle, hobbies and how I am or am not able to keep up with them, what I can do with my wife when I have free time, etc.
4. When you talk to current residents, pay attention to their walk, less so their talk.
Surprisingly, it’s easy for someone to look you in the eyes and lie. They may not even do it intentionally. After all, if you’re already at a particular residency program and stuck there for a while, you will find ways to acclimate and you may not want to badmouth your program. However, it is hard to fake satisfaction and contentment. A truly happy resident, a fulfilled resident, who feels supported and able to focus on learning and excel in their work, is a rare commodity in medical training. Looking back, there were some outstanding programs where I could literally feel the synergy between the residency program leadership and the residents themselves. When you are thinking of your rank list, don’t make light of your observations of how residents behave. It’s easy to say you’re happy but harder to show it. Lastly, if you found it easy to get to know residents, or if you were able to spend time with them outside of the interview dinner, lunch, and interviews, that’s a huge sign of a healthy residency program.
3. Run your rank list by your best friend, mentor, significant other…whoever knows you best.
You may have been told that you know yourself best, and you have worked hard to get to where you are today. Why should you share your thought process with others? Why should you let your significant other or parents or best friend mess with your rank list? The concept is simple here, really. We all have blind spots. All of us. And if you think you will figure out your rank list all by yourself, without discussing it with ANYONE else, you’re making a huge mistake. We are not perfect. We do not think of all scenarios. This is why you should discuss your reasoning and thought process with other people. The caveat? They have to be people you trust with your life. They have to be the kind of people you could call at 1 AM in the morning, and say, “I need you here, right now!” and they would buy a plane ticket and fly across the country or continent to be with you. If you discuss your reasoning with people like them, they will definitely pick up on things you may have missed. They will SAVE you from misery. Trust in them, and their judgment. Personally, I made my rank list, and discussed it with my wife a great deal. Ultimately, she helped me see that the rank list I generated was based on my comfort zone and what I assumed she’d want for us moving forward. By talking with her about the list, she helped me see that I actually needed to change my rank list to challenge myself, ensure I ended up at the best possible program where I knew I would be offered a chance to really grow and except, but also, to end up in a city that was a better fit for my wife and I to live and grow ourselves.
2. For programs you’re considering highly, go back for a second look.
The wisest mentors I had made sure to suggest this to me. It is quite doable for a residency program, the residency leadership, and residents to put on a show for you when you come into town for your interview. It’s also easy for you to play the interview game and ask the right questions and show the right amount of interest, etc. However, when it all comes down to it and the chips are on the table, the best thing you can do for yourself, whenever possible, is try to arrange a second look. First, whether or not you are even able to set one up is an indicator of the situation. If the program doesn’t have time for you, turn around and run…fast! If it’s relatively easy to set up, and if you ask to stay with or meet with current residents and this is also easy to do, those are all good things. When you have your second look, your goals are twofold. One, you need to spend time with residents outside of the hospital and away from the residency leadership, and try to get as candid an experience with them as possible. This can be a treasure trove of information for you. Second, you should try to shadow or spend some time in whatever unit you will be in primarily as a resident. This time, though it may be brief, will give you better insight into what actual work as a resident might be like, and can give you information to help you with your ultimate rank list.
1. Residency is less about the program, and all about YOU. Who are YOU really? The better you know YOU, the more likely you are to be satisfied with your decisions.
You have to really figure out yourself. This is the hardest part about this entire process. It is true that any residency will prepare you for a fruitful career doing whatever specialty you pursued. However, the time you will spend in residency is a life experience. Where you live, what you do with your free time, what support structure you will have…all of that will make a huge difference. But, unless you spend time really thinking about the things that are really important to you, it’s not really possible to make a good decision as far as your rank list. My dad always says, it’s hard to achieve a goal if you haven’t figured out what your goal is first. So I challenge you, work hard the next few weeks to figure out what you value. Write, talk to your loved ones, think…think a lot. You will need this soul searching to really make good choices so that when you look back on residency, as I am starting to do, you can feel good about your decisions and your experiences.
I wish you all a lot of luck, and want you to know that medical training is challenging, but you made it this far because you have something of value to contribute to this entire industry. Without you, and what makes you unique, we all become cogs in a machine. Let’s ensure we deliver the best care to our patients by first making sure we make the best decisions for our training.
Find me on twitter at @S_P_MD with questions, comments, or feedback!