After 30 applications, 35,000 miles in the air, 1,000 miles on the road, 14 security lines, six hotels rooms, eight homes of family and friends, 16 dinners on my best behavior and 22 days of fitting into (what used to be) my slim-cut suit, I can finally say that residency application and interview season is complete. Rank lists are in and as they say, the hay is in the barn. An exciting, introspective, anxiety-provoking and eye-opening process, match season is the culmination of all of the work we’ve done in medical school, even dating back to our previous jobs and undergraduate studies. After countless late nights, more exams than we’d like to admit, clinical clerkships in every wing of the hospital and extracurricular activities of our choosing, we put everything we’ve accomplished on paper in the form of an application. We talk about it with faculty members, chairs of departments and program directors of residency programs around the country, and then we make our rank lists based on 6 hours of face time with a department in a city we’ve often never visited before.
An average interview experience goes like this: There is generally a dinner the night before. These range from expensive meals with white tablecloths and bottles of wine to burgers and beers. It is often said that this is one of, if not the most important part of the interview “day,” as only residents (and no faculty) attend, none of what you say (supposedly) affects your ranking (unless you embarrass yourself terribly) and it gives you a glimpse into what the residents are like outside of the hospital. It is a “red flag” if no residents have time to attend a dinner, and it’s encouraging when people bring significant others and seem like they’re all friends, provided that’s what you’re looking for in a program. The next morning, official interview days generally start around 7 a.m. with coffee and breakfast. There is a presentation by either the program director, chair, or both, highlighting the program’s offerings. Then there is a combination of a tour of campus, a lunch with residents and interviews, the number of which can range from two to ten depending on the specialty and the program. Most days end sometime in the mid-afternoon.
During the interview season, you smile a lot, you schmooze a lot, you make a lot of small talk. By the end, I think I said “where are you from?” hundreds of times. This is perhaps the most difficult part of the trail, because after long hours and days on the road, it can be tough to keep up the energy to make conversation. Luckily, the world of medicine is small, and each specialty is even smaller. As a result, I started running into more and more applicants that I knew as the season went on. By the end, I recognized nearly half of the applicants at my interview days. If all goes according to plan, some of these people will be my colleagues in a matter of months.
The other difficulty of interview season, which I was not expecting, was the travel. It turns out traveling to a new place every two or three days isn’t as fun as it seems. I have an entirely new appreciation for people who travel constantly for work, because while it seems glamorous (and at times, it is), you end up spending a lot of time in airports, rental car offices and hotel rooms. I think the key is to use the travel to your advantage, and I was lucky enough to stay with my sister in New York City (twice), visit my grandparents in Chicago, meet up with a friend for a weekend in Ann Arbor, stay with my step-sisters in San Diego, visit my parents, brother, and friends in the Bay Area and plan a bash of a birthday party on Venice Beach in Los Angeles, all under the guise of “traveling for interviews.”
When it’s all over and rank lists are put together, reflection is the name of the game. Trying to parse out the details of each interview day is difficult. Call schedules, vacation days and average weekly work hours begin to blend together. Even the notes I took after each interview seem fairly irrelevant. Instead, each program leaves a gut feeling. Based on the residents I met, my interviews, the location of the hospital and my overall experience, it all creates one instinctual reaction. That feeling, along with things like closeness to family and friends, prestige of program, fit with other residents, program leadership, etc. are what most people, including myself, end up using to make their rank lists.
Since my friends in surgical subspecialties will be upset if I don’t mention it, every specialty is different, so each 4th year medical student has a unique experience on the interview trail. My chosen field is anesthesiology, so that is what I hope to match in this Friday. At this point, our fate is completely out of our hands. It’s a waiting game. Some of us are anxious, some excited, some far too calm. Regardless of whether we get our first choice, last choice or don’t match at all, the weight of the day is heavy with anticipation and promise. Once we open those envelopes and read those pieces of paper, we can begin making plans for the next phase of our lives. What was once a decision will become a roadmap that is set in stone, as our applications and rank lists included a contract that we already signed. It seems crazy, to many, this process, but to medical students, it’s just another step in a difficult but rewarding road. As one faculty member used to say to us as first-year medical students, “it’s supposed to be hard, because at the end, you get to be a doctor.”