by David Lam, OMS-IV
This piece was originally published in the January/February issue of the Tarrant County Physician. You can read find the full magazine here.
The residency application process has changed significantly over the past several decades. I remember a grey-haired attending telling me that when he applied to residency, it consisted of hopping in a car, driving down the freeway, and requesting meetings at hospitals he encountered along the way. A strong handshake later, and the promise of training in the specialty of his choice was secured. Since then, the Match process has been transformed with the stratification of candidates by board examinations which dictate competitiveness for certain specialties. We are under pressure to shine starting on day one, with no assurance that our labors will be rewarded by placement into a residency program.
The class before mine underwent the pomp and circumstance of their Match days at home, sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic. My class is interviewing for residencies through virtual platforms. We do our best to capture the vibe of a program through an online tour of a hospital recorded on a GoPro camera attached to a resident’s forehead. Our webcams are always on, and we exercise our zygomatic muscles to maintain a soft smile throughout the events of the day. We try our hardest to convey ourselves in the best light possible, both figuratively and literally (many of us have invested in elaborate lighting set-ups).
This is not an indictment of the residency programs whose attention we are vying for. These are unique times, and residencies face similar obstacles to those encountered by the applicants being interviewed. As we evaluate a place we may call home for the next three to six years, residency programs are navigating how to choose a class of interns without meeting them in person. Then there is the additional challenge of representing the program’s values and culture on a screen. Many have attempted to replicate pre-interview dinners with meal delivery gift cards or virtual resident speed-dating. One residency even sent a care package with personalized memorabilia from their city.
Although we have lost the ability to explore our future landing spots during the “golden year” of medical school, there are still many silver linings to consider. Instead of having to coordinate plane rides and lodging, applicants can interview from coast to coast in the comfort of a home setting. For students under financial strain, there are fewer restraints on our ability to consider programs that are farther away. Then there’s the benefit that few will admit—wearing shorts or yoga pants out of view of the camera frame during your interview.
While this certainly is not how I dreamed my fourth year would go, I nevertheless feel grateful. Leaders in graduate medical education are creatively finding ways to help us make informed decisions about the next step of our training. As we interview with leaders in our respective specialties, we reflect on the rollercoaster journey of medical school and the plethora of lessons learned. In the process of making our rank list, we ask ourselves hard questions about what our priorities are. How do we envision our professional identities and who are the people we want to be around during the formative years of residency training? I look forward to the day when I can be the grey-haired attending who wistfully shares stories of virtually interviewing in the midst of a global pandemic.