Congratulations. After four years of college, four years of medical school, and three or more years of residency, you’ve decided to pursue extra specialized training, to get you a step closer to your life’s dream. Whatever subspecialty you decide on, it helps to approach the interview process fully informed. Fellowships tend to be even more selective than residency.
In 2015, of the 9,538 applicants in the 2015 National Resident Matching Program, 2,384 did not receive a position at the end of the match process. While an interview does not guarantee you a spot, it helps get your foot in the door. Your goals once you get that interview are to make the best impression you can and determine which program will be the best fit for you.
Having just finished my round of fellowship interviews, here are some tips and strategies that I found helpful:
Just like in all stages of your medical career, early planning is key. In my experience, you need to give yourself about one year to plan for the process. Organizing your CV, requesting letters of recommendations, doing your homework on a list of potential programs, getting your research projects published and keeping up to date on breakthroughs in the field are all important but can also be time-consuming. Planning early helps reduce some of the stress that comes with getting these things done.
Once you get interview offers, schedule your interviews immediately. Planning travel early also allows you to cluster your interviews geographically to save on travel expenses. Additionally, you can seek out friends in the area for hosting options. Some airlines even have vouchers for rental cars, depending on accumulated travel mileage. Arrive early, at least one day prior to your interview if possible so you can explore the city and find your interview location ahead of time. You don’t want to get lost on your interview day.
Know your story
Nobody can tell your story better than you can. You are your own best advocate. The fact that you got invited for an interview means programs want to learn more about you. What motivates you? What do you want to achieve? How does the fellowship training fit into the bigger picture of your life? Know your research and everything you included in your CV. If you can’t talk about it, don’t put it on your CV. Do not embellish or exaggerate. A stellar CV means nothing if you’re unable to discuss those listed accomplishments. It’s also important to understand the prospective program’s story. What is it about? Do the program’s goals align with yours? Although most fellowships like to surprise you, others will send you a list of those who will be interviewing you ahead of time. If you can, always read up on interviewers ahead of time. Knowing a bit about who will be interviewing you can help establish rapport in discussing common interests.
Once you’ve gone through a handful of interviews, the differences among programs begin to blur. Taking diligent notes in between interviews on your interview day will help mitigate this problem. Creating a spreadsheet to compare the strengths and weaknesses of every program can be a great way to organize information. Some important things to consider include what previous fellows have done after training in that program, if the program location is a good fit for your family, which departments are seeking to expand their programs, and if the program is academic or private practice-oriented. Having some pre-existing questions in mind can make it easier to ask relevant questions with regards to the program’s curriculum, clinical experience, teaching responsibilities, and overarching mission and philosophy.
Be polite and thoughtful
Being decent and polite in all your interactions on your interview trail goes a long way. In particular, treat the support staff members with the utmost respect. Their opinions can have a big influence over ultimate decisions. Beyond that, the nature of fellowship interviews means you will often run into your competitors several times while on the interview trail. Because many fellowship programs care about team dynamics, these interactions with peers can also play a big role in how you’re perceived by the potential program. Negative interactions here could seriously jeopardize your potential acceptance. In addition, sending thank-you letters at the end of your interviews can help let programs know of your sincere interest in what they have to offer. Do not make the mistake of sending the same generic email to all programs or faculty members interviewing you.
Keep an open mind
Remember: available rankings of fellowships, while helpful in the decision process, can have little meaningful impact on whether you will personally be happy at a program. While you are at your on-site interviews, it’s important to look out for program qualities that are more difficult to discern from rankings alone. These can include the availability of the kind of mentor you’re interested in, the appropriate training environment for your personality and the overall program culture. After seeing several programs, the atmosphere and culture can make a huge difference in how you’ll personally rank the programs. Ultimately, at this phase in your career, what counts the most are the quality of the relationships and mentorship networks that fellowship affords. Keeping an open mind and meticulously reviewing programs will help you decide on the program best tailored to meet your career goals.
You have made it this far in your medical career. The interview trail can be a fun experience to reflect on how far you’ve come since that first day in organic chemistry class through to when you first took that Hippocratic oath. Enjoy the ride as you embark on the next phase of your journey, honoring the call to serve others through medicine.