Decisions That Will Impact the Direction of My Pathology Career

So, I’m in Midway Airport in Chicago with a 2.5 hour layover back to the East Coast from my West Coast tour of fellowship programs and interviews. I flew on 5 separate flights and interviewed at 5 programs in 4 cities in 3 states over the past week. Quite a whirlwind schedule to keep even if it wasn’t exacerbated by the fact that I’ve had a wicked flu the entire time (and still am sick as I type). But I look forward to getting at least one night’s comfortable sleep in my own bed and spending some time with my kitties before I start with my first East Coast interviews (2 in 1 day) on Monday. I’m very fortunate that my program director, program coordinator, and fellow co-residents have been supportive, especially when I’ve had to switch multiple days on-call.

On the left coast, I interviewed at 3 hematopathology and 2 molecular genetic pathology programs with overlap at one program where I interviewed for both hemepath and MGP. All of the people that I met at each program were people who I felt that I would like to become colleagues with (and who will be my colleagues in the future). But despite this fact, each program was vastly different from the other and I am reminded that these next decisions about where I’ll spend my fellowship years will probably impact the direction of my career more so than any other decision thus far. The people who will touch my life will help shape the pathologist I will be!

I thought that I had adequately prepared my list of questions that I carried around to each interview but I found that each interaction spurred additional new questions that I had not thought of prior to the interview. Many times, my interviewers had anticipated some of my questions and had answered them as we talked even before I asked. The current fellows I went to lunch with were very helpful in answering my questions and telling me about their lives within their fellowship programs. For me, the “fit” and culture of my working environment is important – finding colleagues who treat each other with respect and notice when others might be struggling and help each other out. I value a strong teamwork mentality as much as I appreciate a rigorous academic environment that will push me to be the best that I can be.

Having come from a graduate research training environment in what I might call some of my formative years, I also value an environment that spurs creativity. I enjoy being able to have open door policy discussions where we bounce ideas off each other and challenge each other in a positive manner to “think out of the box.” I know that research will be an integral part of my future career, hopefully along with hematopathology sign-out and molecular genetic lab directorship (even if it is not for the entire lab but possibly just the molecular hematopathology portion of it). The question for me is whether that research will be more basic science (which means I’d probably be committing to more like 80% research, 20% clinical in terms of my service duties) and on a K-R01 grant track as a physician scientist or will be more toward translational research where I can apply some of the knowledge and skills I gained during my graduate and MPH training. I was very flattered that at my first interview, the fellowship director told me that I could come back after my fellowships to do a post-doc with him and one of his mouse models of hematopoietic disease.

Mentorship for me is really big. I really want to find a program where the faculty take an interest in my career. I want mentors who look out for my future career and who will guide me toward opportunities that will enhance it. Mentors who will support me and make those all-so-important phone calls to help me get my first job, or better yet, offer me my first job. It is not far-fetched to think ahead that I might want to lay down roots where I complete my fellowships so that is an additional factor to consider when it comes time to make the final decisions.

Each program varied with respect to educational philosophy and resources. More so than I previously realized that they would even though I’ve been in two residency programs that I can compare. But right now, I compartmentalize everything I see and learn from each interview and just try to soak everything in like a sponge without assumptions or judgment. I’m placing those observations aside in my head until the time comes that I will need to think about them (which will probably be the end of this month or the very beginning of the next).

It has become very clear to me that being self-motivated and proactive to make opportunities for myself when they did not necessarily exist within the formal structure of my residency program has been a pivotal aspect of getting me this far in interviews. If your program does not have a resource available (eg – NGS for a MGP-minded person like me), then find one and gain access to it (eg – I will go to Rutgers for my last molecular pathology rotation to help with NGS clinical testing validation, and hopefully, a hematopathology elective rotation at an institution with a higher volume and diversity of cases than I can see at my own program)! If you are interested in a particular subspecialty, get involved in research, tumor board presentations, and sign-outs in that area (eg – look at hemepath cases on your free time or on the weekends if that’s what you like) from your first year as much as you can. Whining is not allowed nor is a quality that will help anyone so don’t waste time complaining about aspects of your programs you cannot change. Make your destiny happen rather than be a mere participant in it by accepting the status quo! Good luck to my fellow residents who are also on the interview trail! May we all find our future homes for the next phase of our careers very soon!

 

Chung

-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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