For fourth-year medical students across the country, the end of January means the culmination of months of struggling to keep suits unwrinkled, waiting at airport gates and sleeping on friends’ couches.
This process did not just begin. Many students begin bracing themselves for The Match the moment they stepped into their first medical school class. As a medical student, you know that performing well on tests is essential to building a competitive residency application. Throughout your clinical rotations, you focus on learning to function like a resident. Most feedback begins with: “When you’re a resident…,” or “Soon you’ll be a resident, and you’ll be expected to….”
When fourth year finally rolls around, it feels like you’ve been preparing for this process forever. You spend the summer fine-tuning your application. You ponder who to ask for recommendation letters, proofread your personal statement until you can no longer make sense of it and put the finishing touches on your resume. You build a list of programs to apply to, weighing the relative importance of professional opportunities, geographic location and personal preferences. One day in September, you finally gather the courage to hit “Submit,” and let out a sigh of relief as an anticlimactic page appears requesting your credit card information.
A few weeks later, interview invitations begin arriving. When you receive an invitation, you dash to your computer, frantically respond to the message with your preferred interview date and then pencil it into your obsessively updated calendar.
You spend the next three months traveling, exploring cities, touring hospitals, chatting with residents about their experiences, and telling program directors about your career goals and what makes you unique. You learn to live out of a suitcase and you memorize the food court at every major airport. At the culmination of all this, you hang up your suit and finally face the task of ranking your preferences.
Having recently finished interviews, I just arrived at this stage. Looking back, while all the airplane food, interview questions and resident lunches blend together, a few themes about this process emerge.
First, it has given me the space to reflect on what I want. As simple as that sounds, we are not often forced to bluntly articulate what we want from our futures. I realize now that I have been focused on the details throughout the last few years, tackling each day as it comes and frequently forgetting to step back and look at the big picture. Throughout the course of interviews, I found my own vision of my future growing sharper, with once-blurry details coming into focus each time a new person asked me to describe it. Of course, the future is never completely clear for anybody. However, I can say that amidst all the busyness and exhaustion of interviews, I gradually gained a clearer understanding of my own hopes and plans. Going forward, I hope to be more intentional about regularly making space for this reflection.
I have also gained a fuller understanding of how challenging but important it is to stay grounded in the moment. While the whole matching process unfolds, six months of life also happen. Leaves change color and fall off the trees, holidays come and go, and we spend time and make memories with family and friends. I found myself realizing firsthand that, regardless of The Match, life goes on. And I came to appreciate how grounding and liberating this is.
Finally, I have grasped the simultaneous challenge and power of vulnerability. As humans, we often become wary of accepting and showing vulnerability. Throughout the Match process, however, I realized that it is important to recognize when your own need for support is normal. I have learned that reaching out to mentors for help and advice is a good thing. Additionally, everybody in the process feels nervous, overwhelmed and exhausted at times. This often facilitates the ability to connect with fellow applicants. Making friends on the interview trail has been one of the most rewarding parts of the experience. As we all finish our travels and eagerly make our way home, we know that friendly faces in cities all over the country are experiencing the same whirlwind of emotions that we are. In this way, accepting vulnerability has actually proven to be empowering and rewarding.
As we await the final results of The Match, I will remember these lessons and hope to take them forward into residency.