At Long Last, I Know Where I’m Doing Residency

Last time I wrote, I was waiting for Match Day (the day graduating medical students find out where they’re headed to residency). I’m now on the other side and know that I’m heading to Richmond, VA for internal medicine residency! I’m stoked!

Having never applied to residency before, I wasn’t sure what it would be like when I started the application process last April. Now that the year-long application cycle is done, the thing that surprised me most about applying to residency programs was how hard it was to decide which program/location I wanted to go to most. Let me explain a little bit about how the residency application process works to put my challenge into context. Then I’ll explain my process.

Applying to Internal Medicine Residency

When applying for residency, medical students rank all the residency programs where they interviewed from their favorite to least favorite, and residency programs rank all the applicants they interviewed from their preferred to least preferred. Both the applicant’s list and the program’s list are called “rank lists” because they rank their options in order of preference. Then, a computer program attempts to match the students with the highest program choice on their rank list and the programs with preferred applicants on their rank list – if you’re familiar with sororities then you’ll realize it’s the same system used to place new recruits in sororities.

There are many internal medicine residency programs each with multiple positions to fill, so entering internal medicine is less competitive than entering a specialty with fewer available residency positions (for example surgery or radiology). What this means is that, if they have between 10-15 interviews (the magic number that almost guarantees a match somewhere), US-based MD internal medicine applicants (like me) have a lot of control over where they go for residency. According to my research, most US-based MD students will end up in one of their top 5 internal medicine residency choices. So, I knew the order in which I placed the top 5 programs on my rank list had a large influence on where I’d end up for residency.

Challenge of Forming My Program Rank List

Having the above background, here’s my processes for creating my rank list (realizing every medical student has their own process). You might think that the programs (themselves) would have enough unique features to guide how I ranked them. However, the more I researched and thought, the more it seemed that all my programs were more similar than disparate when it came to almost everything except location. Using program culture as gathered from my interview and academic rigor together, I was able to determine which programs I would rank in my bottom third (well below the top 5). I still had to put all the programs in order from my first to last choice with special emphasis on the top 5. In other words, I felt confident that I’d become a good physician regardless of which of the programs in my top two thirds I attended. I also came to realize that the location could potentially change the course of who I would become as a physician and my future life. This did not simplify things but rather made them more challenging.

Being a geographically flexible person, I interviewed with programs mostly on the West Coast and in the mid-Atlantic region (plus a few outliers) with no preference for one region over another. The geographic clustering came out of a long list of criteria I used to define the ideal place where I’d like to live and was how I determined which residency programs to apply to in the first place. As I continued to research after interviewing, I found that these same criteria (which I hoped to use to rank program locations) were often mutually exclusive. For example, I wanted a location with a diverse patient and physician population that was also close to mountains. My list of comparisons went in a similar fashion with all programs missing several criteria (just different ones). I realized the hard truth that I simply couldn’t have it all when it came to location.

“Great,” I thought. “I can’t have it all when it comes to location and I’m confident that any program in my top two thirds will teach me to be a good physician…Now how do I put them in order?”

Having exhausted external factors to rank programs, I turned to self-reflection on my personal values and how those values might be upheld in the different program locations. Reflecting on personal values is a funny exercise and it’s not one I’ve had time to do since starting medical school (however it was a large part of my life as a Peace Corps volunteer so it’s quite familiar to me). It’s an odd and uncomfortable place looking inward and trying to make sense of the thoughts and feelings zooming around your mind. It’s uncomfortable in a different way than standing in the operating room for 8 hours or getting up at 4am to go to hospital so you can see patients are uncomfortable. I felt lucky and privileged to be in a place where I had enough choice over where I’d go to residency to grapple with something like personal values as a key part of my choice, but it was still uncomfortable.

The curious thing about values is that they form the core of who you are and while they shift with time my experience suggests they don’t change dramatically. Despite going around in circles trying to decide how to rank residency programs, I found myself most valuing the same things that sent me to Washington, DC for undergrad so many years ago: weather, quality of life, diversity, and politics. (I also value challenge, but residency is always challenging so that wasn’t helpful). So weather, quality of life, diversity, and politics are what ultimately determined my residency rank list order. All that hullabaloo to decide on a program based on 4 things that have nothing (and yet, perhaps, everything) to do with medicine.

Like many things in life, I won’t be able to go back and see how attending a different residency program would change the course of my career and life. But, in addition to being thrilled with where I matched, I’m at peace knowing I had a chance to look inward before I cast my dice this time. I find that in America we spend a lot of time looking outward, yet often the answer comes from within and not from without. I try to break this trend and make space to sit uncomfortably for a while to find the answer within when it comes to big decisions. I was successful this time around.  


Nothing to Do but Be Happy

The water is so clear it’s like looking through nothing to see the creatures and plants that are stuck in small salty pools contained in the rocks until the tide comes in again. I’m on the edge of the tide, so an especially high wave crashes on the rocks and skuttles across the other pools and seaweed to reach the pool absorbing my gaze. The longer I gaze into the pool, the more I see and the more the patterns swirl. The wind ripples the surface of the pool, such that I must be patient if I want to take a picture – timing my snapshot for when a high wave isn’t threating to dowse me, and the wind isn’t distorting my image.  

I love walking along the ocean’s edge and gazing into the tidal pools – each is a mini world populated by the randomness of being caught in a rock hole as the ocean slides toward center, letting its edges dry for a few hours. The creatures in the tidal pools are waiting for the ocean to return but, until then, they live their lives and try to avoid the birds and others searching the pools for their next meal.

I can’t help but identify with the little stripy fish in the tidal pools. My life, too, is in the tidal pool phase. The daily requirements of living and being a responsible adult remain, but I’m suspended in time – I’m caught between being a med student lost in her studies and residency. These days I’m finishing up my last medical school credits, by design some of the easiest courses I’ve taken. I continue to strive to remember the medicine I know and solidify and learn new things. But mostly I’m enjoying the salty air while I wait to find out where I’ll do residency.

As my husband pointed out recently, “There’s nothing to do but be happy.” It’s hard as a planner to not think of the future. But, when you’re in limbo there is no future only now, the moment. Once I know where I’m destined to train as a resident there will be hundreds of things to sort out – but none of these things can be tackled until I know where I’m headed. I have about a month of not knowing and shortly after that I wrap up my last rotations of med school.

The stripy fish darts around the tidal pool, at first worried I’m going to eat it. It becomes bolder and still as I wait; its attention span is shorter than mine. I peer into the pool. We stare at each other. The sound of the waves is my soundtrack. The sun is sparkling in the sky. By some happenchance of luck and delivery on the part of my planning nature, 7 of my last 12 weeks of medical school rotations are in Puerto Rico, which is even more awesome when you realize these weeks fall exactly in the worst of New England’s winter. I’m studying while I’m in Puerto Rico, but I have plenty of time to explore the island.

Nothing to do but be happy and be present. And it’s not a hard task with the sun shining down on me, the waves and wind fluffing my hair with salt spray, and a party of palms and plants wearing their best green, red, and yellow dancing at the edge of the beach which abuts a turquoise sea. Nothing to do but be happy, what a wonderful situation. Eventually the tide will come in and I’ll be tossed into the wake of wrapping up school and starting residency, but that’s the tide chart of a different day.   

Battle at the Kitchen Sink


This is a throwback story from my Peace Corps days. I’ve been thinking a lot about Paraguay lately and decided it was time to share some of the stories I didn’t share when I lived there. I always find myself thinking about Paraguay when the weather gets cold in New England (my current home), because I miss the sun and the mango trees Paraguay reliably had year-round.


The last quarter of my 27 months in Paraguay as a Peace Corps volunteer. Which is to say, I was very comfortable. At that point, Paraguay was my home.

Battle at the Kitchen Sink

It was grapefruit season. I remember this because we had gone foraging for grapefruits. In Paraguay there’s a citrus season (there’s also a season for every fruit you love… passion fruit, avocadoes, mangos, pineapples…). The Peace Corps volunteers who came before me had shown me how to hunt for grapefruits, so it was one of the first things I showed the new Peace Corps volunteer visiting me that weekend. It was her first time traveling beyond the training community in Paraguay where all Paraguay Peace Corps volunteers in my era spent their first three months learning language, culture, and other skills they might need once they arrived in their sites (where’d they work for 2 years). She was visiting me to learn about what it was like to transition from training to working in Paraguay.

After our lesson on foraging grapefruit, I showed the visiting volunteer (just as the Paraguayans had shown me) how to peel the grapefruit properly. This involved using a knife to carefully cut the peel off in a spiral, leaving a thick layer of that bitter white stuff that hides under the colorful part of the peel. I showed her how to cut a little cone-shaped hole in the top of the grapefruit. Then, how to squeeze the whole thing and suck the juice out until the grapefruit was dry. This is how Paraguayans most frequently eat grapefruit and oranges. It is my preferred method above all methods I’ve tried.

We then had lunch. I took the dishes out to my kitchen sink, which was located outside my apartment in the back under a mango tree. I had running water (which was nice) but my kitchen sink was outside – an unfortunate location on rainy days, but perfectly fine on this day. I set the dishes in the sink and then looked around for my soap and sponge. As with all full sinks, the sponge was hard to find. I went to dig under the dishes to see if it was there. Sitting among the dishes exactly where my hand had just been when I put the dishes in the sink, was a tarantula about the size of my palm.

I don’t know your position on spiders. But, living in Paraguay I developed a set of rules for all home invaders. Spiders were included in that list and my rules for them were as follows: they received the death penalty if they were too big and in my home territory (which included my sink), if they were too close to my bed, and if they were too close to the toilet. If they did not violate any of these rules, I was willing to live peacefully together. The tarantula in my sink resoundingly violated the size rule permissible within my territory.

My heart thumbed. I didn’t know much about tarantulas, but it was the largest spider I’d seen outside of a zoo exhibit. I yelped (sound effects are always part of my life) and then promptly went to find my bottle for fighting invaders (obviously I developed rules for invaders because there were many including ants and roaches). My invader-fighting bottle was a rather short (maybe 10 inches in length) plastic bottle that was square and originally contained my favorite yogurt in Paraguay.

I banged at the tarantula as hard as I could. Of course, having never fought one before, I was jittery.

I missed.

The tarantula climbed out of the sink, plopped on the ground, and started marching toward me.

I didn’t miss the second, third, and fourth time I tried to hit it.

Luckily, the new volunteer was at the front of the house and did not witness this battle, though I told her about it promptly thereafter. All in good time. She would likely battle her own home invaders during her years in Paraguay.


These years since I’ve returned to the US have been challenging as I plodded through pre-med classes and several jobs and now, medical school. I’ve encountered many challenging situations with people who act tough and aren’t particularly nice. Most, if not all, of these tough-acting people have never battled a tarantula. Knowing that they lack tarantula experience has put my interactions with them into perspective. Afterall, toughness is relative, like all attributes.

There are many times in medical school where I’ve thought of my Peace Corps days as reminder that the current challenge is not harder than ones I’ve encountered before. Resilience comes from knowing where you’ve been even if others don’t. It comes from applying skills you learned in the past to new scenarios in the present. Most challenges can’t be overcome with a plastic bottle weapon. But, having a plan and being ready to implement it even when surprised can be applied to almost anything.