I haven’t been able to blog as much of late. It’s been a busy year with more than its fair share above the usual crises that a chief resident is expected to handle – an “August year” for me as my program director put it. But I’ve learned a lot and have been lucky to have the support of my attendings, program coordinator, and program director to help. Even when we’ve not always agreed on what is best for our residents, I’ve always been allowed to speak up for our residents and felt as if our concerns were heard and acknowledged even if policies didn’t go our way. I think that’s the biggest strength of a smaller program–the ability to form strong relationships with mutual respect, whether it is with one’s mentors, peers, or hopefully, both–and I know we will cheer each other on when we hear of each other’s accomplishments in the future even if we won’t see each other daily as we do now because of those bonds we built during these past couple of years. The lessons I’ve learned regarding “soft skills” have been equally as important as the knowledge I’ve gained about my favorite lymphomas or molecular mutations. And four years is really shorter than one might think to fit in all we need to as AP/CP pathology residents, so see it for the gift it is–protected time to grow into the physician you want to be. I see the fruits of these lessons more clearly now as I prepare to graduate. Much of it was obtained through mentorship, formal and informal, from those more experienced and with my best interests at heart.
So here are some pearls I’d like to hand down:
- Know thyself as early as possible: Be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses so that you can build on the one while working on the other. As we have now signed on to be life-long learners, identify what works for you early or adjust those learning habits which might have worked before but are no longer working. Designate a couple of hours on a weekend day every week to do learning above and beyond what is expected for your current rotation and consistently stick to it. If you can, designating an hour everyday would be even better and it doesn’t have to be hard core studying like our med school days—you can leisurely read a review article, watch TedMed videos, casually look over boards materials or qbanks from day 1, and so forth as long as you do set aside time consistently. Take advantage of experiential opportunities to help decide early where you see yourself as a physician (academics, private practice, commercial lab, subspecialty, etc) in the future so that you can plan as early as possible your rotations, electives, opportunities, and networking with that goal in mind. But most importantly, knowing who you are, what you believe in, how you work best, and what you want and knowing early, will help you plan and see opportunities earlier. But always, be true to yourself.
- Time management is key: Learning to plan early and efficiently is a skill and it takes time to learn. Honestly, I’m not the best on a daily basis unless I take time ahead of time to plan my day, which I don’t always do, but plan to be better about during fellowship. But I do know how to plan effectively to juggle multiple long-term projects with deadlines at a time. You will constantly hear about time management – whether on rotation evaluations or during fellowship interviews. I find that those who are very good at time management, all have checklists and planners (whether hard copy or digital) so maybe they’re on to something there. Whatever works for you, being a deliberate planner ahead of time will serve you well.
- Be proactive: In some way, we’ve all be conditioned in a passive learning style where those who are more experienced hand down information to us which we are expected to regurgitate or ruminate on and respond. During residency, we don’t have the strict structure we are used to from medical school as we may be only given loose guidelines but are expected to figure out how best to manage our time on our own. We no longer have every hour planned out for us and so the quicker you learn to plan ahead and effectively use your time while at work, the more time you’ll have for personal activities. Don’t just do the minimum but use gaps in your time during the day to study, to build relationships with mentors with whom to work on book chapters, abstract submissions (for posters/platform presentations at conferences), and publications, to attend conferences/tumor boards outside your rotation even in non-pathology departments, to work with others outside of pathology on interdisciplinary projects. In some ways, these activities are networking without our even realizing it. For the rest of our lives, we will constantly be judged and compared to others by our character and work ethic and that often will include tangible items on our CV whether this is fair or not. Challenge yourself on every rotation by trying to do as much as a junior attending would within the limits of what you are allowed to do and not just the minimum.
- Get involved in advocacy: Participate in leadership positions at an organized level–within our professional organizations, with interdisciplinary teams within your hospital, or with volunteer organizations in your community. Bringing about change takes time but if done with a positive goal in mind, can have such a rewarding impact on those we wish to serve as well as yourself. You might discover a previously unknown passion or skill you possess that you can share. Before residency, I was heavily involved with on-the-ground, upstream-minded health equity efforts in immigrant and minority communities. And while I took a hiatus from my work due to residency training, I know that as a future public health pathologist-scientist with both public health and research training, I will return to working to change those systemic and institutionalized societal structures that maintain health inequity within those communities. So it’s now your time to find your passion and to give back. Pay it forward for every good gesture someone has shown you.
- Build relationships with mentors: Since I’ve been involved with organized medicine, I’ve always heard the word “networking”. Too me, it always seemed somewhat a Machiavellian “ends justify the means” insincere word but I guess that’s all up to interpretation. What I prefer to say is focus on finding colleagues with whom you share values and passions, who you respect and would like to emulate, and with whom in the future, you might want to collaborate. If your premise is sincere, opportunities always unexpectedly follow has been my experience.
- Step outside your comfort zone: As busy physicians-in-training who are used to structure and consistency, it’s good every once in a while to try something new. You never know what you may find–it may even turn out to be a new passion for you. Life is too short and you want to live it without regrets. You want to say when your time comes that you lived life to the fullest and maybe even tried some things that scared but surprisingly made you happy.
- Recharge with some “me” time: All work and no play can make any of us dull and cranky. Set aside time to spend with friends (especially non-physician friends) and family and do non-work related activities. Especially when life is getting you down, some time away from thinking about work may be the recharge you need.
-Betty Chung, DO, MPH, MA is a fourth year resident physician at Rutgers – Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, NJ.