Hoping for a better sense of self? Maybe applying to residency will help

Time is crazy in the sense that moments can pass in the blink of an eye, or seem to last a lifetime (ie. waiting for your apple update to load, Dovetale training, getting stuck behind slow moving people and cars).

While applying to the Canadian Resident Matching Service (CaRMS) – what’s known as the NRMP in the US – felt like an intensely slow, arduous process, I simultaneously felt like I was stuck in a pressurized boiler. Maybe it’s because I went through almost daily quarter-life crises, but these introspective weeks left a strong impression. They forced me to think about who I am, what’s important to me, what skills I have, what skills I wish I had, and all the things that are critical for me to stay sane.

In these weeks, I particularly realized the importance of friends, of family, of running, of stress-relieving hobbies such as knitting and of doing things other than obsessing about applications. Just ruminating about myself and on how to turn my weaknesses into strengths probably would have driven me crazy. You can only read through your application a certain number of times before the words all blur together.

Applying to residency is like applying to medical school all over again, but this time, with the added pressure of determining who you’ll be and where you’ll end up in the not-so-distant future. Applying to residency is like applying to be an adult – you’re finally taking that step into the real world, where your line of credit is no longer an excuse to YOLO. Before medical school, you have a lot of choice. You may be accepted to one, to four, to twenty schools across the country or across continents. You can choose to be by the beach, suffer through bitter cold winters, or decide that your true calling is actually in business or fashion and skip medical school altogether. Regardless of your background in university, you have a crazy amount of choice throughout these formative years that can leave you dazed and confused, but also optimistic and determined.

When I applied to medical school, I knew that my seven-year-old dreams could withstand the test of time. I indulged in my other passions – business, healthcare technology, travel, research – but becoming a doctor was always the ultimate goal. Once you’re in medical school your interests become more focused. Where previously you engaged in global health as a primary interest, now you think about these skills and how you can apply them to your future practice. Where previously you did hobbies for fun, now you do them because they keep you grounded after long shifts at the hospital. Where before, you could take classes like philosophy, ocean sciences and negotiations because they sounded interesting, now you take courses on evidence-based medicine, medical education and pharmacology because you believe they will make you a better, more well-rounded provider. What I love about medical school is your ability to take all the passions you’ve accumulated over the years, and turn them into something productive for society. With this MD degree, you have the ability to leave a legacy – but what that legacy is is up to you.

While I love reading travel blogs like this one: I am Aileen, and occasionally wish I could run off for a life on the road, I’m pretty sure my school, the Canadian government, the bank and my parents would hunt me down pretty quickly. But through your experiences in medical school, you realize that being a medical student, and soon to be physician do not preclude you from also being yourself. Applying to residency, and all the steps leading up to application submission on November 21st, helped me learn more about myself, my achievements, my failures, and the challenges that have shaped my personality and my ambitions.

They say that you should know your CV intimately for interviews, but more importantly, your CV can help you understand what’s important to you. What electives did you do over the course of medical school, who were your most influential mentors, what extracurricular activities did you participate in, what hobbies did you keep despite time and resource limitations. Writing my personal statements was even more so a challenge in distilling everything I’ve done in my life, understanding the story I’ve woven, and highlighting the things that stand out. A question that has repeatedly popped up while going through this process is why? Why did I apply to the specialties I did, why do my experiences make me a good fit, and why do I think I’m qualified to be in these fields?

At the age of twenty-four, I’ve watched my friends go into a variety of fields – into consulting, investment banking, research, and marketing, as well as pursue MBAs, Masters and PhDs. If you ask most millenials where they’ll be in 10 years, the answer is usually uncertain. There’s usually a goal in mind but the journey there is far from set in stone. They have all of these choices, whether they want to make partner at their firm in 10 years, whether they want to make a lateral move into another field, or whether they want to move to Africa and work for a NGO.

While medicine is by no means a locked box, on match day, when that final decision comes out, you’re effectively committed to whatever is written in that email. Whether that is your top choice program, your tenth choice program or no match at all. For the first time in my life, I feel as if I’m taking a plunge into the deep end. The plunge into adulthood, where I will be responsible not only for myself, but for the lives of others. The decisions I make can and will impact the patients I serve, and my mistakes could, for the first time, be life threatening.

The idea of starting residency is like the open water scuba diving course I finished this weekend. They teach you all of these skills in the pool – how to put your gear together, how to share air and rescue other divers, how to fix problems that come up and how to be safe but have fun at the same time. After the weekend-long course, it was time to go into open water for four deep water dives (felt pretty blessed that these could be done anywhere in the world ie. Mexico and Panama, as opposed to the freezing waters of eastern Canada), to review all the skills we learned under the supervision of a trained instructor. I recently finished two of four dives in Mexico, but it won’t be until I finish the last two dives that I’ll be fully certified and deemed ready for deeper open water dives. In the ocean, everything is a lot bigger, mistakes are more dramatic, and things can truly go wrong. If you’re not prepared in the pool, you certainly will not be prepared in the ocean. Much like the path to becoming a doctor, where you first get eased in as a medical student, practice and hone your skills as a resident, and finally, prepare for independent practice as a staff physician, it’s important to learn the basics in a low-stakes environment before facing the reality of responsibility.

Two-and-a-half years in medical school, I still can’t believe I will carry a “Dr.” before my name from May onwards (hopefully). It’s a huge privilege but also a humbling responsibility. There will be people trusting my advice, and patients for whom I can make difference. I’m excited, I’m terrified, and I feel as if time has rushed by, constantly yelling back at me to catch up. I feel like just yesterday I was a first year medical student, who had yet to do my first history and physical exam, and had not experienced the thrill of the OR or the reward of seeing patients improve over time. Although CaRMS is far from over, and we have interviews coming up way too soon, this application process has been an incredible growing process, and has demanded introspection into everything that makes me, me.I mean what is medicine but a commitment to lifelong learning?

Of course, all of this being said and done, it’s important to stay sane while going through this process, take those holidays in Mexico, do that half-marathon, share a bottle of wine with friends.

Now that Part I is over, I guess I’m a little more ready to tackle Part II: the interviews. There will definitely be more ramblings to come.




Medical School Q & A

So it’s been a while since I last posted, but I thought this might be a relevant one considering some of the questions I’ve been asked in the last few months regarding undergraduate opportunities, medical school applications, interviews and physician shadowing.

Q: I was wondering how should I approach doctors to shadow or volunteer at clinic. I’d like to shadow/volunteer but don’t know any doctors that are willing to take pre-meds in _____

A: It’s really hard to shadow physicians as an undergraduate. That being said, I would first reach out to family or friends in the medical field. If that’s not a possibility, I would either look up physician emails and phone numbers and just reach out to them to ask if you can observe them for a day or two. If you email 50 people, there’re bound to be at least 1 or 2 positive responses. OR reach out to medical students who are working on research projects that you’re interested in. It’s always great to have keen, interested undergraduate students helping out, and you can ask them to introduce you physicians that they work with. This is a great way to expand your medical network AND build your resume with a publication (or at least an acknowledgement on a publication).

Q: What’s a good way to gain more patient exposure in undergrad?

A: In terms of volunteer opportunities, to be honest, I feel like volunteering in hospitals is kind of useless since you don’t get much patient exposure. A couple things I did during college:

1. I interpreted for low-income clinics serving immigrant communities. If you speak another language, check if your school has an interpreting program like mine – you get tons of patient contact, exposure and can also network with physicians.
2. I went on a medical volunteer trip to Peru, which was life changing. I had such an amazing time, was able to actually perform many procedures, and they give you a lot of liberty regarding what you can see. I would highly highly recommend going on a trip, even if as students, we’re basically useless and are there to learn 🙂
3. I volunteering for a complementary care centre serving cancer-affected women. They provided things like acupuncture, herbs, massage etc., that are not necessarily “medical care” but all of the patients were affected or had been affected at one point by cancer and were undergoing medical treatment. You could also look for something like this, as again, you get a ton of patient exposure and you really get to communicate with the patients. It was a really great experience and something I did for 2 years pre-medical school!
4. I worked on a clinical research project in the hospital; I can’t say I really enjoyed this, but I basically had to deal with patients every week to collect data. This is another avenue you can look into!


Q: What are some tips for medical school interviews?

A: So since we’re in the thick of medical school interviews right now, here are some important (but fairly intuitive) things to remember:

  1. PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE. Whether this is with current medical students, with your friends who are applying to medical schools, with Facetime, with physicians etc., it’s important to know how you’re going to answer the popular questions like “what are 5 words that define you,” “introduce yourself,” “tell me about your greatest strength and your greatest weakness,” “what are some challenges you’ve faced and how did you overcome them,” “how would your friends describe you?” And the like. They’re pretty obvious, but if you come up blank during your interview, that’s going to look bad because other people will be prepared.
  2. THAT BEING SAID, DON’T BE A ROBOT, AND DON’T SEEM “TOO REHEARSED.” Make sure you come off as genuine. No one likes robots or people who memorize “all the right answers.” During MMIs, draw on real world examples and anecdotes. Don’t be afraid to brainstorm situations in which you’ve _______ and put them into a memory bank to be used for later.
  3. READ! I would recommend “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande, “Doing Right” and “The Woman who Wanted to Die”
  4. RELAX! Of course, everyone tells you to be yourself. That’s true, in the sense that you want to be the best version of yourself! Come prepared with good manners, be kind, compassionate, social and display good leadership qualities.
  5. MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE PEOPLE YOU’RE INTERVIEWING WITH! More than likely you’re going to see the same groups of people over and over. Take the time to make some friends, you’ll probably see some of these people again!

Q: How do I find resources for MMI questions?

A: Some schools will send you out a document with sample questions. READ THIS and practice answering these questions in 8 min. Otherwise, just look online, there’re tons of question banks available, but I would go with published questions from previous years first. Don’t waste time or money on prep programs, it’s really unnecessary. MMI stations go by so fast, I promise you won’t even have time to feel nervous!

Q: What’s medical school like? Do you have time for activities other than school?

A: The answer is YES. I can’t even describe how much I love medical school. It’s like undergrad, but with a much much smaller class (140 on my campus), more individualised attention (6 people per tutorial group), flexibility in your schedule (I have around 15 hours of mandatory class a week, the rest can be made up through our medical school portal) and the time to pursue extracurricular activities, research projects and community outreach. I definitely have more time than I did in undergrad, but I also have better work-life balance, I’m able to sleep more, and I’m overall a happier being than I was in junior year. It may not be like this at all medical schools, but I feel like I have staff and faculty support to pursue my interests here.

Q: How soon do you have to choose a specialty?

A: So this is something I’m not really qualified to answer, since I’m only in my first year. Currently, I’m leading toward plastic surgery, or at least something in the surgical field. That being said, A LOT of my classmates have no idea what they want yet. If you don’t know in your first year, you’re in the majority! That being said, because my program is truncated to 3 years, most people will have to decide pretty soon, especially when we start choosing our electives for clerkship. A good idea is to decide early whether you’re interested in 1) Medicine or 2) Surgery. From there, you should do tons of observerships during your first couple years of school to find something you like. Surgery is often glamorised, but remember that most specialties demand long hours, 12-24 on-call shifts, back-breaking work, long residencies and a lot of scut work while studying.

Q: Are you worried about your student debt?

A: Yes and no. Banks will lend you $250k for medical school, since it’s unlikely you’re going to drop out and run away to a foreign country. That being said, you definitely don’t have to and SHOULDN’T use all that money while you’re in medical school. I would say on average I spend about $3-4k on cost of living per month, and tuition is $27k a year. That totals to about $60-70k a year. Pretty expensive, but according to my financial advisor, I should be able to pay that off 5 years after residency (or 10 years after if I want to pay it off really really slowly). So don’t worry about getting a job in medical school or scrimping and saving, because your classmates WILL want to go out and have fun, and you should have fun too! Be proud of where you are and how hard you’ve worked to get here 🙂

These are just some questions that I thought were particularly relevant. I just came back from Japan, like, yesterday and I’m a little bit jet lagged. As always, if you have any additional questions for me, shoot me an email, a tweet, or add me on instagram to follow my adventures in medical school.