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.