The Road Less Traveled By Has Made All the Difference

Hello again residents, I hope that you enjoyed the recent posts from your colleagues about their experiences at the 2014 ASCP Annual Meeting. Hopefully, we’ll see you there next year in Long Beach, CA during October 28-31, 2015 and we can celebrate Halloween together! I’ll let you know in late winter/early spring 2015 when the abstract submission period opens for those interested in being chosen to present during the oral and poster sessions. And congratulations to those residents recently appointed to various ASCP subcommittees! As always, let me know if you’d like to get more involved and I’ll pass on your info.

So I’m writing this post from the air while flying from Newark to San Francisco via a layover in Phoenix. When I arrive at SFO, I would have spent 9.5 hours today traveling. In fact, I’ve flown every month since I moved home to NJ this past July either for conferences where I presented posters or meetings for national leadership positions I hold in organized medicine organizations.

I’m tired from all the travel but at the same time excited to finally start my fellowship interviews. I postponed them until November when I’d have a month free from most of responsibilities I’ve had the last few months. The only responsibility I have this month is to serve as the ACCME/AMA monitor at the Ohio Society of Pathologists meeting for CAP. But November is actually somewhat late for interviews. Some of my PGY-3 friends who interviewed early have already matched to their fellowships because they were given offers at or shortly after their interview at programs that have rolling admissions (which is quite common).

So if you’re a PGY-2, I suggest asking to have your letters of recommendations written and ready by end of July 2015 at the latest and send out your applications in July/August or as early as the application period opens at your programs of interest. Spend early 2015 researching programs and refining your personal statement and CV so that everything is ready early. But the bottleneck most likely will be your LoRs so make sure to follow up with your letter writers to make sure they are completed in a timely fashion. Also remember to follow up with programs to make sure your applications are complete because I had lost LoRs that delayed the process, and one program that I did eventually get an interview at, never received my initial application because the email address was incorrect on their website.

If you’re a PGY-1 and unsure of what you want to do for fellowship, make yourself opportunities in 2015 to help answer this question for yourself early. For 2014, concentrate on learning on your rotations, especially surgpath/grossing. Ask to have rotations of interest or electives in your chosen subspecialty completed by second year so that you can make this decision and so that you can get letters from attending physicians in your subspecialty area. PGY-2 is also your opportunity to shine during an external “audition” elective and possibly be considered almost as an internal candidate at your top program if you schedule one early before you apply. You can even apply for a subspecialty grant from ASCP (deadline is Jan 16, 2015) to help fund your external elective expenses.

Get involved in research in your area of interest, participate in and ask to present monthly at tumor boards for your area of interest (go above and beyond the minimum!), get involved in the lab validating tests (for CP oriented folks), and attend CME meetings in your area of interest (I used to attend Chicago Lymphoma Foundation Rounds even when not on the hemepath service) – anything to learn more about and show your interest in your chosen subspecialty. Also think about getting involved in a resident leadership position within the organization that represents your interests (eg – ASCP, CAP, USCAP, Association of Molecular Pathology, etc) and take your responsibilities seriously in this role because pathology is a small specialty. Word gets around if you do your job well (and also vice versa). The connections I’ve made in these positions not only allowed me to meet inspiring pathologists who will be my future colleagues but also helped me in terms of letters of recommendation.

Well, at least all that travel and the fact that I have a credit card from a major airline, saved me in terms of paying for interview travel as most of them were paid with frequent flyer points! During medical school, I got an airline credit card at least a year before residency interviews and paid for most of my interviews that way as well. Another way I saved money on interviews back then and again now, is to rent a private room in private residencies for a fraction of the cost of a hotel through the Airbnb app. Sometimes, the programs will give you a list of hotels – remember to ask about discounts for those interviewing at that specific program. Both during residency and for fellowship interviews, some programs are paying for all my expenses except for airfare! Another way to save money is to take rides using the Uber, Lyft, or Sidecar apps especially if you can find a promotion or coupon code. And remember to keep all your itineraries organized using apps such as Tripit or Kayak.

I’ll drive to most of the East Coast interviews. But this week, I have 5 West Coast interviews in 4 cities and pretty much jetting to the airport right after to catch a flight and get into the next state around midnight in time to sleep for my interview the next day. Since I have to use vacation days, I thought it best to interview every day instead of wasting a day for the bi-coastal flight. And lucky for me, I start in San Francisco and end in Seattle where I have friends to chillax with and can do the long cross-country flight back and forth on Saturdays so as not to lose a potential interview day.

I feel fortunate with respect to fellowship interviews. I’m grateful that I received invitations at most programs that I applied to unless they took internal candidates or candidates that they interviewed who submitted applications earlier than I did. I applied for two consecutive fellowships (hematopathology and molecular genetic pathology) and upfront informed programs of my intention in my cover letter. I left it up to the programs to choose in which order I’d complete the fellowships if they were interested in interviewing me for both. I’ve found that most programs were open to my proposal. Three of them even coordinated the interview so that I either had both on the same day or over two consecutive days. Among other residents that I’ve met, the popular combo this year seems to be cytopathology then molecular genetic pathology. Makes it more competitive to get a MGP fellowship as there are currently only 52 ACGME accredited positions and that does not account for those which will go to internal candidates out of that number.

I’ve never been traditional. I graduated college as a super senior (took >4 years and time off working in a biotech company), went to grad school (I have a masters in pharmacology and experimental therapeutics with a focus on transcriptional regulation and signal transduction with respect to molecular neuroscience), worked as a research scientist in molecular and cell biology and transgenics, went to med school in my 30’s, and then completed my MPH (focusing on molecular and ID epidemiology along with minority/urban health and domestic and global health policy and development) before I went to residency.

But just like Robert Frost’s poem, I think that having taken the ‘road less traveled’ has made me into the person I am today and I wouldn’t trade in my experiences for a more traditional path. Along the way, I’ve gained knowledge and skills that I think have helped me to get interviews at great programs and that hopefully will help me develop into the triple threat I aspire to be (hematopathologist, molecular pathologist, and researcher). If this is possible or too naïve a dream, time will only tell. I blog to hopefully share helpful advice or to pass on advice from practicing pathologists that I’ve met in terms of those areas of which I yet do not have experience (eg – job market). As for me, and also for you, advice is only meant to be a trigger to thought. You will need to decide what works for you and work diligently to make your personal goals a reality. As Robin Williams said in one of my favorite movies, “Carpe diem…live EXTRA-ordinary lives.” I believe that he was telling us to aspire beyond mediocrity, to push to change and not merely accept the status quo, and to create our own destiny while not dwelling on those things that we cannot change. When my fellowship interviews are complete, I’ll let you know how the journey went.



-Betty Chung, DO, MPH, MA is a third year resident physician at Rutgers – Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, NJ.


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