Medical students quickly become familiar with residency match (“the Match”). Almost every attending and resident physician has interesting stories about his or her experience. Older students share endless advice regarding the Match, and many institutions and professional societies shine spotlights on the process each year. On a larger level, the Match receives regular attention across numerous Internet forums and occasionally in the mainstream press.
These factors have helped tether the Match in student consciousness. But behind the massive collection of coverage, opinion, anecdotal stories (and lore), we students sometimes miss what a unique way it is to find our first jobs as physicians.
On one level, considering residency programs requires uncommon diligence. After synthesizing enormous amounts of advice from mentors and peers, we must carefully construct our applications over several weeks and then invest considerable time, energy and resources visiting a number of programs. Subsequently, we spend the better part of four months methodically studying features from each, a process that proves as demanding as it is essential. While grueling, it reflects the arguably unprecedented academic importance of our choices and their implications for our careers.
On another level, the Match is also unlike any other process most of us have ever experienced. At every other transition point in our educations, from high school to college, and then to medical school, we were largely in control. We applied to as many schools as desired, interviewed as circumstances allowed, and received exceptions when needed. We heard back from all schools definitively, giving us concrete acceptances, rejections or waitlist statuses to use in our decision-making. We could take full inventory of our options and arrive at choices that felt like ours.
With residency, the process is distinctly more opaque. Some programs respond more quickly to our applications than others, if at all, and ultimately, we only receive feedback from one. We must process our goals using potential scenarios and consider our preferences without any assurance of acceptance.
What makes the Match unique, however, is how this uncertainty can blend with personal reflection to create powerful self-understanding. While we sometimes visit programs that are exactly as we imagined, it is not uncommon to be over- and underwhelmed by many. While we might set up complex rubrics and systems for ranking programs, decisions often boil down to what is known in the medical community as “gut feelings.” While certain features pique others’ interests, they might not pique ours.
As obvious as these observations might seem, they point to crucial lessons: that to find true matches, we must understand ourselves as we try to understand programs. To emerge clear-minded from a potentially opaque process, we must diligently take inventory of our values and remain resolute in them.
In my case, that required regular exercises of courage and honesty. To my surprise, several programs did not fit my career goals despite excellent reputations and resources, while others complemented those goals but did not resonate with me. Some programs disappointed in certain domains but exceeded my expectations in others. Ultimately, I did not want to reflexively follow popular opinion or make far-reaching choices based on brief, subjective feelings.
To avoid that, and to filter through the complex array of academic and personal factors, I had to dedicate considerable time to ensure that while I could not control the outcome, I would handle the process well. The task frequently required enough honest introspection to ask myself difficult questions about my motivations, as well as the personal courage to trust my final judgment more than rankings and other opinions. That sustained disciplined proved harder than expected, a sentiment many of my peers around the country seemed to share.
Amid the important but often overwhelming attention given to the Match, this opportunity for self-understanding is crucial. As applicants, we do need evidence-based approaches to critically assess our options and soberly understand the academic rigor of each. We do benefit from early curriculum vitae preparation and knowledge about scores, attire, etiquette, and commonly asked interview questions. Anecdotal advice from mentors and older students can be appropriately tailored to our individual backgrounds. But the importance of self-knowledge, and the way it helps us create rank lists that are true to ourselves, seems too often lost in the frenzied preparation.
So despite the Match process’s many attendant challenges, my parting charge to my peers is to pursue self-knowledge diligently. For some, it may mean drafting personal statements early to understand their degrees of confidence and understanding in their specialty choices. For others, it may mean deeper consideration of how research interests or advanced degrees fit with clinical medicine. Those still undecided may benefit from asking trusted advisors and loved ones about their observations. And for most, it will be essential to ask themselves what matters most to them and what they are willing to compromise.
Regardless of detail, the benefits of this pursuit are tangible: more thoughtful personal statements, clearer ways of communicating our interests on interviews, more penetrating analysis of various programs, and greater contentment that we have done everything possible to pursue the very best match for ourselves.
Ultimately, that is crucial. Behind the massive collection of opinion and information, the Match is not just a unique way to find our first jobs as physicians. It is also a unique, powerful way to find out more about ourselves and the people we are becoming.
Editor’s note: A version of this piece first appeared on ACP Internist on March 16, 2012.