Fellowship 101: Insights for a Successful Fellowship Interview–Volume 3

Fellowship 101: Insights for a Successful Fellowship Interview–Volume 3

Guest Commentary

Oct 07, 2021
By Dawood Findakly, MD
This series aims at providing insights to help determine future medical careers and subspecialty selection. It utilizes concepts the writer learned through his career while going through this process, as well as insights and strategies to improve the chances for success.

Volume 3: Insights for a Successful Fellowship Interview 

This volume conveys insights on the virtual fellowship interview process and complements previous volumes in the series (Read Volume 1 and Volume 2). 
Throughout the specialty fellowship application season, thousands of internal medicine residents are preparing for one of the most important phases of their careers and it is noticeable that the discussions in residency programs are mostly about career plans, including those planning for fellowships. It can be overwhelming, especially when you are facing difficulty in securing your fellowship of choice. 
Most fellowships are competitive for many reasons. This is largely because of the limited spots available, which makes them even more challenging to apply for than residency programs. The key to success is to be ambitious, plan ahead, and prepare to show your full potential. Thinking one step ahead is vital when deciding to apply for a competitive fellowship, particularly for one in the field of hematology/oncology.
Because it Matters: Things to Look for From the Beginning
Your passion should translate into hard work—that is the key to getting into your desired fellowship. Never let the competitive nature of certain specialties impede on your ability and passion. Think about it this way, if you didn't match in the first season, that's fine. You will have more time to do more work and will have plenty of opportunities to pursue, which will help you achieve your dream—all of which is the cornerstone to a successful career.
After applying to programs, applicants at this point become anxious and eagerly wait to receive their first interview of the season. In the first week or two, a tune will play to notify you of a new email arriving in in your inbox. Unfortunately, rejection emails are fairly common as programs are filtering through applications. But fear not, the interview invitations will come later. When receiving an email, try to relax, take a deep breath, and open it to see what it is regarding. Respond promptly to invitation emails as they are mostly first come-first served.  Look at your calendar and be mindful of the time zone difference and the span of the interview. To be honest, if you have a conflict in your schedule, it is okay to reach out to the program to ask for other dates as they might have saved some dates to accommodate such requests. Be respectful, coordinators and program directors receive hundreds of emails during the interview cycle.
Adjusting to the New Norm: The World Is Moving Into Virtual!
The interview is a very important aspect of the fellowship program selection process.  Since they get to know you within a few minutes to hours during the interview process, first impressions are always very important.  
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to create a unique set of challenges in various aspects of our daily life, including the fellowship application process. Earlier applicants didn’t know how hard it would be to steer away from in-person interviews until the emergence of the virtual era and videoconferencing. Having to sit for an interview in person with masks makes it very difficult to communicate as non-verbal cues are limited. This challenge makes virtual a better alternative to in-person since eye contact, with a bit of a smile, is the perfect recipe for a successful interaction. 
Additionally, stressed body language is not as much of a burden during a virtual encounter since facial expressions and tone of voice are the only factors in play during the virtual interview process. 
Pros and Cons of Going Virtual
Virtual interviews come with a lot of ease for both programs and applicants. Applicants can schedule more interviews and avoid the hassle and expenses from travelling. Additionally, more candidates can apply to more programs because it is more convenient and less costly. On the other hand, this change has increased the competitiveness of specialties with more applicants. It has also created a new set of challenges as the virtual interview format doesn’t allow applicants to visit prospective programs in person. As a result, candidates are unable to be fully acquainted with their program, hospital, facility, and city of interest if they have never visited before.
Navigating Through the Virtual World!
Now that virtual lectures, conferences, and applications are utilized more, it’s becoming easier to manage. Despite that, make sure to get used to the major interfaces that could be used for virtual meetings and, if not provided in the emails, ask for what will be used to convey the virtual interphase and try to learn to navigate through it beforehand.
Preparing for the Virtual Interview
1. Interview Format: While interviews are now held virtually, the interview format still hasn’t changed much from its in-person counterpart. Most programs will hold a virtual platform meeting that starts with a program overview, then you’ll either have one meeting at a time or have a panel interview with the faculty and program director. Some interviews will set up some time during the interview day to engage candidates in the program’s conference lectures or grand rounds to help them get a sense of the quality of academic education and training in the program.
2. Be Prepared: Set up your personalized background that describes you, expresses your passion, and encourages those during the interview process to remember you. It can be a tough road to navigate—you can’t include too much that would distract the person behind the camera but keeping it too simple could prevent interviewers from learning about the unique things that express who you are. Finding a balance is key. 

Believe it or not, people are still able leave a good first impression in a virtual format.  

3. Making the First Impression: This is a vital aspect in the process. An appropriate tone of voice and a smooth flow of conversation could improve communication and leave a good impression that positively reflects who you are.
4. What About Common Questions? Expect to have questions such as "Tell me about yourself,” “Why this field?” or “Why our program?" repeated multiple times in each interview. To answer them, dive into your inner self and explore why it really matters, how it relates to your life, and what difference it will make to your patients. Show your passion and enthusiasm for your specialty—the case here being hematology/oncology. While they sound like cliché questions, they are very important in the selection process for programs. Your responses can showcase what make you special based on your insight and should not be answered haphazardly. Remember what was discussed earlier in this Volume regarding first impressions. The first question should have an answer that adds value to your interview and upgrades your first impression from good/great to excellent/superb.
Believe in Yourself and Rise to the Challenges
Despite the enormous pressure, believing in oneself is essential to be able to carry out any task, no matter the odds, challenges, or adversities you face. Being a hard worker is always the one and only quality that fellowship programs are looking for in a candidate. This could be reflected in your resume, the amount of work you have done, and the letters of recommendation that you include in your application. Feel free to express your thoughts and goals for the future as they have a remarkable impact on helping you stand out in the interview process.
Things to Consider
It is very important to realize that program filtering is not an easy process. Schools, USMLE scores, training locations, and other factors are a part of a set selection criteria that is dynamic and changes every year. Try to ace in common areas through careful preparation. Be presentable. Programs are looking for candidates that they can work with for the next few years. Your work on paper should be complemented with your interview. Keep in mind that the door will open only for those bold enough to knock.

Tips for a Great Interview

Before the Interview Day
  1. Be mindful of the time difference and have a calendar that includes a list of your interviews throughout the day. Use this list to review your agenda so that you know what your interview day will look like.
  2. Try to learn about the program and your interviewers. Do your research.
  3. Ask for time off from your program to be able to do the interview and respect the time of the interviewers and the program. Most of the interviewers are squeezing time out of their busy schedules to be able to meet with applicants to help recruit fellows for the program. 
  4. Have a good night sleep to prepare mentally for the interview.
  5. Review your resume. Expect to be asked about some details mentioned in your resume—this varies based on the interviewer’s interests. It could be as simple as asking about a hobby that you mentioned that grabbed the attention of the interviewer. Having knowledge on your scholarly activities and research topics is important as it could also be brought up during the interview. Therefore, it is crucial to revise your Electronic Residency Application Service (ERAS) resume multiple times. Don’t fall into the mistake of regurgitating things from your resume. This will not add to your interview and will make the conversation less interesting as you move forward.
On the Day of the Interview
  1. Try to avoid joining an interview late.
  2. Connect from a location that won’t produce distractions, or cause you to have a weak internet signal, as you need to maintain focus during the time of the interview. 
  3. Have a backup plan and be prepared. Unexpected things can happen, so be prepared for any kind of scenario. Make sure to have a standby device running on a different network; for example, you can use a cellular network if you are unable to use Wi-Fi. Also, check that your secondary device is fully charged and working so that it’s available to use in case your device stops working, or the internet is disconnected. If you are using a laptop, it is very important that it is plugged into a power source so that you don't run out of battery in the middle of an interview as some interviews will be lengthy and last several hours. The backup device could be a phone, and it is very critical to have the application you are using for the interview installed on the device—with an email account open either on a browser, or installed on the device just in case. If you want to find the link to log in again this will likely be provided from the program in advance. 
  4. Be proactive. Preemptively answer emails, be flexible, and be available a couple of hours prior to the interview in case the program wants your interview to start earlier. 
  5. Focus on your meeting. Use earbuds to avoid sound echo or issues with the voice. 
  6. Dress professionally. This will give you the inner sense of formality during the virtual interview and will help you get in the right headspace. 
  7. Find a quiet spot with good lighting that makes you feel comfortable and focused during the interview. 
  8. Always plan some questions in advance to ask during the interview.
  9. Finally, your professionalism is very important. Don't be surprised if an interviewer has read one of your prior publications or a post that you have written. Be prepared to respond to any questions that they have about your previous work, whether it is included in your application or not.  
  10. Keep 100% interest throughout the interview, interact with others, and stay engaged in all conversations during the interview day. 
After the Interview
Congratulations for concluding your interview at a program that you would love to be at. Simply enjoy the rest of the day and celebrate moving one step closer to making things happen and prepare to see your dreams come true.
To be continued…
Dr. Findakly is currently a first-year hematology/oncology fellow at Louisiana State University (Shreveport) Program. Follow him on Twitter @dawood_findaklyDisclosure.


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