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SheMD Interview Series: How to Interview During a Pandemic

As a participant in the couples’ match in 2019, I did nearly twenty interviews. For four months, my husband and I passed like ships in the night trying to find our new home. While some of that time was spent getting to know residents and faculty, much it of it was spent wandering through cafeterias, workrooms, and hospitals. Many times I had to finish one interview and drive to another dinner in the same day. On one interview, I forgot my suit and had to buy a brand new one at Target the morning of. The whole thing was exhausting, and frankly I was so stressed and tired that I spent most of the interviews wishing that the day was over.

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With the advent of the virtual interview season in 2020, I think applicants have a great opportunity to spend more time learning valuable information about programs and less time checking in and out of hotel rooms.

However, much like everything else in medicine, interviewing is a skill that benefits from practice and preparation. Unfortunately, many applicants will find that in simply reading this article they have put more thought into the process than many of their interviewers. However, I strongly believe that applicants have the upper hand in the match process and have the ability to drive the interview in a way that gives them the information they need to inform their ranking process.

In preparing to interview, I believe some preliminary introspection is a critical step.

Now, I can hear you rolling your eyes (I would be too), but stay with me. If you don’t know what you want, it’s impossible to ask the right questions. It’s important to evaluate two major things: what you need out of a learning environment and what educational experiences you hope to gain through residency.

For the former, try to assess what kind of working environment you think you work best in. Do you learn by doing or do you like to be guided step-by-step? Do you like being challenged or is comfort key? Do you want to be constantly busy or would you prefer the ability to take breaks for structured learning? Are you serious at work or easygoing? How do you like to receive feedback and how often? Think about the rotations you enjoyed in medical school and try to find what they have in common. Equally, what rotations did you least enjoy and why?

For the latter, ask: What parts of your future specialty most excite you? What kind of patients and problems do you want to treat after residency? Are you interested in working with medical students? There’s so much to learn in residency and you will find that most programs offer similar experiences but in varying amounts. What are you willing to sacrifice and what is a non-negotiable in your training? All of these questions will contribute to you having a strong sense of self before you open the virtual door on an interview.

Finally, the number one question I get asked: What questions should I ask? Keep in mind that faculty and residents rarely have any specific interview training. There were many times during interviews where it was up to me to drive the conversation. I suggest you have upwards of fifty different questions prepared and that you keep them handy.

To truly evaluate program fit, it’s important to consider the structure of your questions just as much as the content:

Ask for Specifics

Think of open-ended questions that starts with the following:

“Tell me about...”

“Give me an example of…”

“Tell me about a resident who…”

“What is the procedure for…”

“Tell me about a time where…”

Let these open-ended questions open up into conversations. If you ask “Do residents get along well here?”, you’ll most likely get a “yes” without gaining much insight into the program. If you ask “When was the last time all of the residents got together socially?” you’ll learn a lot more about how residents spend their free time and how often they truly get together.

Ask for Personal Experiences and Stories

People love to talk about themselves and it’s something most people find comfortable to do. Asking about your interviewer helps build rapport but it also gives you insight into what it might be like to be a part of this program. Asking about concrete experiences gives you more objective data about a program.

What was your interview experience like here? What did you like about the program?

Can you think of a time when a faculty member or fellow resident really helped you out?

Who would you consider a mentor (or close friend) at this program? Tell me about them. How did you get to know them?

What has it been like to be a program director/attending/resident in 2020?

Share What's Important to You Through Questions

Programs will learn what you’re interested in by what you ask. If an interviewer is not asking you about your passions, you can tell them about your passions while still engaging with questions.

To this year’s applicants, I’m sorry that you will not have the opportunity to experience the match in its full form in 2020. You will have to navigate new challenges none of us can prepare you for. However, I hope that with some of these tips you still find ways to have quality conversations and can find some joy in the process.

Know that I am so proud of you and wish you the best of luck!

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