Navigating the Challenges of Applying for Residency

Image: Shutterstock/ESB Professional

In the world of medical education, July 1st is an important date; it’s when residency begins, when interns become second year residents, when residents become attendings, and when third year medical students become fourth years. For these students in particular, it is time engulfed in preparing to apply for residency. Among the many pieces of this process — choosing a specialty, requesting letters of recommendation, writing a personal statement, and updating CVs — deciding which programs are of interest is central to applying for residency.

Many medical students wonder how to even begin making this decision — out of all the possible programs in a specialty, how to know which ones are worth applying to? And if offered interviews, how to decide which ones to accept? Ultimately, these programs will be ranked, but this will likely be based on the experiences during the interview day, meeting residents and faculty, etc. There a few ways that this decision process can be simplified — for example, geography is the limiting factor for many students, so students apply to every program within a certain radius, state, etc. In some narrow but competitive specialties, such as plastic surgery, applicants might simply apply to all the available programs in the country, eliminating the need to narrow it down until selecting where to interview.

For everyone else — including me and most medical students — resources like the Doximity Residency Navigator can be a lifesaver. Along with the AAMC website and the American Medical Association’s FREIDA, the Residency Navigator is one of the few places where it is possible to see a list of the available programs in a specialty. This alone is valuable when beginning the process, allowing applicants to browse all available programs and get a sense of the scope, since each specialty is a little different in the distribution of available programs.

By far the most useful part of the Residency Navigator for me was the ability to filter programs. I began using it very early on — maybe in my second year of medical school — just to look at what programs were available in my state, across all the specialties I was considering. The tool allows the user to sort by region and state, type of program (VA, public hospital, pediatric hospital, AOA dual accreditation), urban or rural, and available fellowships, if applicable. Results can be sorted alphabetically, by size, by the percentage that subspecialize and that are board-certified, and finally by reputation or research output. These last two somewhat nebulous categories are based on opinions of physicians who were surveyed and by the collective h-index of the program, respectively; thus they may or may not be useful as applicants are deciding on programs, depending on applicant preferences and values.

After selecting a program, the user can see a variable amount of information. Much of the data, including reviews of the program, is filled in by Doximity users, so not all programs have the exact same information. Generally, though, users can see the typical destinations of graduates, the breakdown by gender, information about board certification and research, and ratings and reviews by current residents or alumni.

The Navigator was really valuable to me before narrowing down my application list. It’s helpful to see how the tool sorts different programs — for example, what is classified as rural vs. urban. I would suggest looking at programs alphabetically first, because sorting by reputation first can be misleading. Although this can be a helpful component, I would urge caution in this area, since reputation is based on surveyed physicians. Even if this is accurate, it may or may not have anything to do with any individuals fit at any given program. Thus my additional advice about the tool: it’s most helpful when applicants have already clarified their values and attributes for which they are looking in a residency program, then finding programs that fit that profile.

When I was applying in psychiatry, I found the Navigator to be extremely valuable for narrowing down my list. In conjunction with the other tools I mentioned before (FRIEDA and the AAMC) I was able to ultimately apply to the right programs for me. I always wonder if there were others out there I could have or should have applied to (it’s always possible to wonder this, no matter how thorough the research), but because of the Doximity tool, I’m not left completely in the dark; I had the chance to look at all the programs, no matter how cursory the look, and that gave me more confidence as I applied for residency.

Brent Schnipke, MD is a writer based in Dayton, OH. He received his MD from Wright State University in 2018 and is a first-year Psychiatry resident at Wright State. His professional interests include writing, medical humanities, and medical education. He is also a 2018–2019 Doximity Author.

More from Op-Med