You’ve decided to pursue a fellowship. How do you actually get one? The application process can be tedious — it’s a multistep affair that demands a lot of preparation. These seven tips from the YO Info editorial board can help you stand above the competition and optimize your chances of matching with your dream program.
1. Do Your Homework
Start by learning which fellowships best match your interests. What do you want to learn? What program has the faculty to teach you those skills? Vitreoretinal specialist Brian Chan-Kai, MD, recommends talking to other fellows and recent alumni. “I printed a list of all the retina fellowships,” he said, “and asked retina fellows to list what they knew about each program and highlight the most prominent faculty members.” As you review the different programs, keep in mind that compatibility with faculty is critical. The number of faculty you’ll work with in fellowship is much smaller than residency, so the quality of training often hinges on just a handful of individuals —sometimes just one person.
2. Make the Best Use of Your Rotations and Research
If you have an idea of what field you want to pursue, ask your chief resident and program director if you can put that subspecialty rotation in the middle of your second year. Although this isn’t always possible, it can help you gain early exposure to the subject matter -- and potential mentors. It can also give you time to evaluate the subspecialty fit before committing to a fellowship.
Strategically positioning your rotations will also give you exposure to more research opportunities. Oculoplastics fellow James G. Chelnis, MD, said this is important for a number of reasons. “Not only does research show your commitment to the field,” he said, “abstracts submitted to your subspecialty organizations can be used as a catapult to attend conferences, where you can network and develop the ability to speak confidently about your work — skills that will come in handy during the interview process.”
3. Prepare Your CV and Personal Statement in Advance
In most cases, faculty want both your CV and personal statement to help them write letters of recommendation, so prepare these documents well in advance. Having your CV as organized as possible will also help you fill out the applications themselves. Be sure to include presentations, papers and any peer-reviewed and non–peer-reviewed submissions. You could also add your OKAP scores. While not always necessary, they may pop up in letters of recommendation or, more rarely, interviews.
Your personal statement should show that you are indeed personable. “Be honest about why you are pursuing your subspecialty,” Dr. Chan-Kai said. “Program directors want to pick all-stars, but only those that they can get along with and depend on.”
4. Choose Recommenders Wisely — and Give Them Time
With your CV and personal statement in tow, it’s time for one of the most important aspects of your application: letters of recommendation. You’ll need one from your chair and a least two from attendings in your field. Remember that content and quality both matter, as does the author’s reputation. The more recognizable your recommenders, the more helpful their letters will be for establishing interviews across the country
Regardless of whether your program requires you to formally request letters (vs. asking in person), respect the letter writers’ time. You should ask them at least a few weeks before you need the letters. Also consider meeting with them even earlier to discuss your goals and ask for advice. “Come prepared with anecdotes and notable patient interactions to share with the letter writer,” Dr. Chelnis advised. “These can help add some color to your letters.”
5. Network, Network, Network
Fellowship director Olivia L. Lee, MD, recommends attending the Academy’s Subspecialty Day meetings during the application process. These fall meetings generally coincide with the middle of the interview season and are the perfect opportunities to get more face time with faculty members you might interview with. If you’re comfortable with not seeing a program’s facilities firsthand, you might even consider having your interviews during a meeting — it could save you time and money.
Dr. Chelnis said that during an American Society of Ophthalmic Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery conference, he met with half the preceptors from programs to which he was applying. “Program directors are more likely to take the devil that they know than the one they don’t,” he said. “It’s just human nature — reading a letter of recommendation about someone you have a personal relationship with or respect carries a lot of weight.” Dr. Chelnis ultimately matched with Vanderbilt, where he’s now a fellow.
6. Enjoy Your Interviews
Interview season can last up to three months, so make the most of it. While the travel may cost you time and money you don’t have, the faculty you meet will almost certainly cross your path again. And the friendships you make with other interviewees can span your entire career. “The experience I gained was invaluable,” said cornea specialist Natasha Herz, MD, YO Info editorial board chair. “It’s amazing how many contacts I still have in the cornea community from this process — and it’s been 10 years since I was on the interview trail!”
7. Get Ready For Match
After the interview storm is over, Dr. Chan-Kai recommends reviewing your notes about each program to determine the best fits. “There’s certainly a tendency to pick the most prestigious name as a first choice, but it’s perhaps more valuable to consider how the package as a whole fits your personality and personal needs,” he said. Once you’ve decided on your rank list, go back to your faculty members and ask them to call your top programs. Don’t delay, though! Many programs make their own lists quickly; after-the-fact calls may hold little value.
You’ll want to finalize and submit your rank lists by Dec. 8. Match Day occurs a week later — a whirlwind of a day, when match results will be made available to programs, medical schools and you!
For more information on the matching process, visit the SF Match website. For a helpful month-by-month outline of the application process, check out Dr. Chan-Kai’s “Residents’ Timeline.”
* * *
About the author: Mike Mott is a former assistant editor for EyeNet Magazine and contributing writer for YO Info.