Monday, November 14, 2005

Interview Season

They're here. November through January is resident interview season, and they appear like a flock of black-suited birds migrating for the winter. I interview four in a row every interview day, and although we've only had two days so far, they're already starting to blur together. Same clothes (conservative), same hair (ditto), same questions ("How are the fellowship opportunities here?" "What changes are in store for your institution?") I desperately search their personal statements for something interesting to talk about, but I find the same statement every time:
I walked through the doors of [name of free clinic / institute in a developing country / hospital in a bad section of town] with [appropriately humble emotion]. I was faced with [appalling scene of human hardship / touching scene of expected death / inspiring scene of personal courage]. I knew then that I wanted to [help others / make a difference].

When I was [
age between 10 and 20], my [rather distant relative] fell ill with [not especially concerning illness]. Watching [him / her] suffer made me realize the impact of illness on others.

During my medical school career, I have volunteered at [
a free clinic / a highschool to talk about contraception / an elementary school to tutor youth]. This has taught me the vital importance of [giving of oneself / feeling grateful for my position in life].

I will never forget the face of my first patient to [
call me "doctor" / ask me to hold their hand / die]. I hope I will always remember the important lesson this taught me about [trust / empathy / death].

Ten years from now, I see myself as a practicing physician who is also involved in research in some way and who teaches students and residents, but I will never forget the feeling I had that first day I walked through the doors of [
name of free clinic / institute in a developing country / hospital in a bad section of town] and really [felt like a doctor / understood what it means to be human].

Afterward they all send the same thank-you note, as they were instructed to do by their medical school. So how can I be expected to keep them straight? How I wish they would leave their hair long, wear a purple suit or a nose ring, talk about politics or a broken heart or religion or the kids they hope to have. I know it's scary for them -- for the ones with so-so academic records, anyway -- but it makes me sad to see them so conformed.

I know there are some medical students reading this. When you go on your interviews, give me a break. Wear green -- or at least gray or brown. Ask, "What do you love about your job? What do you love about your life?" And if the above is your personal statement, throw it away and start over. It's not so hard -- just talk. Tell me what makes you you.

ADDENDUM: jgt asked,
My husband is making the interview rounds right now. They're told over and over that the majority of attendings are conservative folk and that anything that makes you stick out is more likely to tip the scales against you than for you.

Do you think you're less conservative than the average attending?

It depends on the specialty. In most surgical specialties (General, Plastics, Ortho, Urology, Ophtho), yes, they're relatively conservative, for doctors anyway. (In my unscientific investigations, doctors in general are more socially liberal than those in other professions, but surgeons tend to vote Republican whereas the non-surgical types are more often Democrats.) Peds, Family Practice, EM, and Internal Medicine are all fairly liberal groups, and Psychiatry is waaay out there groovy. (I'm not sure about Neurology and Dermatology; OB/Gyn is a mixed bag.)

Am I less conservative than average? Oh yeah -- I'm pretty much a lefty -- but a majority of my colleagues do agree with me on issues like abortion, the war, same-sex marriage, universal healthcare.

I certainly wouldn't advise anyone to try to be deliberately wacky to try to stand out from the crowd -- that's sure to backfire -- but hiding what's interesting about you seems like a bad idea too. What I'd do if I were on the interview trail today is try to get the interviewer talking first -- ask about a picture on their wall, maybe -- and get a sense of what they're like. If you have anything in common, start talking about that, and everything is easy after that. I love talking cats, kids, running, travel, photography, art, politics ... it's easy to get me going on any of it, and I'm not a very schmoozy person. Other colleagues would love to talk about cooking, sailing, biking, gardening, dogs, oh, I don't know. But if you don't start talking about something like that, you'll end up talking about how your worst quality is "my perfectionism!" and getting asked dumb questions like, "if you had to be the only doctor on a desert island, what two texts would you bring?"

The folks I remember clearly from last season were: the professional guitarist, the guy who drove ATVs during his every free moment, the guy from Ireland, the woman who had a baby the same age as mine (and was worried about even mentioning it in interviews), the guy whose parents immigrated to the U.S. and picked crops to get him through college, the almost certainly gay guy who directed an a capella choir with a cute name, the nine-months-pregnant woman, the professional surfer, the woman in a short skirt and spike-heeled boots ... if there'd been a juggler, I'd certainly have remembered him. And at the rank meeting months later, it wasn't hard to call these people to mind, unlike the rest of the plodding masses.


B.E.C.K. said...

An old friend of mine once applied to work in an emergency room while he was becoming a paramedic or something. He was also a professional juggler, so he mentioned it on his resume and NOBODY ever forgot him -- "Oh, you're the juggler!" I think he got the job, too. :-)

DoctorMama said...

Checking if comments are working down here now -- looks ok to me -- please let me know if it's not.

B.E.C.K. said...

Trying to leave a comment...

B.E.C.K. said...'s taking comments now but I see no sign of the two comments I left a few hours ago. Strange!

DoctorMama said...

I stupidly turned "comment moderation" on the other day and then realized it and turned it off, but left the comments in limbo -- till now. I don't want to moderate -- let 'em all in.

Billie -- yeah, it drives me crazy that some of my colleagues don't read the stuff. Some of them want to go into an interview with no preconceived notions (seems odd to me, but whatever), but they usually say that to the interviewee. Others are just lazy, I think. You don't want to have to put key words sprinkled through your statement -- "DEATH! DESTRUCTION! MAYHEM!" just to get the damn thing looked at.

I'm so sorry about your parents. I really leaned on mine during med school -- I can't imagine having had that taken away.

carolinagirl79 said...

I've done interviews where I was just myself. Usually it bombs. I get a phone call saying they loved me, and I came in 2nd among hundreds of applicants, but they're hiring Ms./Mr. Conservative instead. But I agree with you. It's boring to give those interviews and boring to listen to them.

sometimes they must hire someone's niece, and they love me bestest of all, and tell me that. Oh well, at least I come in 2nd.

DoctorMama said...

Those nieces are the worst, aren't they? I've gotten that phone call myself. I'd rather they just said "NO!" and slammed down the phone -- I hate having to act all nice, "oh thanks, I really liked you too, please think of me in the future, blah blah," when all you really want to do is get off the phone and wail.

I don't deny that there are some folks who, if they really told me the truth about themselves, I'd want to blackball. (I recused myself once when an applicant said that one of his goals was to spread christianity to muslims.) But in the residency match there's a bunch of slots, and we make a list of applicants in order of how much we want them. So rather than "you were #2" it would be "you were #65, and we only had to go to #64 to fill our slots, but we loved you!"

Anonymous said...

My husband is making the interview rounds right now. They're told over and over that the majority of attendings are conservative folk and that anything that makes you stick out is more likely to tip the scales against you than for you.

Do you think you're less conservative than the average attending?

DoctorMama said...

jgt -- my answer above.

Anonymous said...


STS said...

I'm in the throes of trying to figure out where to apply and am feeling overwhelmed. Your comments are heartening... I feel like I am at such a disadvantage and that I won't match. I've been living in Australia for 8 years and am planning to finally return to the US for residency. I feel like the IMG stigma will be too much to overcome even though my application is decently competitive. This has just inspired me to turn my Australian adventure into a strength and interesting quality rather than a weakness :). Thanks for giving me a glimmer of hope!