Residency Interviews in the Time of COVID
I made sure I was squarely in frame. The lights were set up. I adjusted my tie. Then I looked into the webcam, took a deep breath, plastered a smile on my face, and hit "Join Meeting".
This pandemic has been the source of "unprecedented times" for many facets of life, interviews being no exception. It goes without saying that there isn't any other avenue; the pandemic is a serious issue, and the less travel overall, the better. But as with all change, there are pros and cons. I'll briefly describe some of the pros before you, and I take a plunge into the ocean of cons. Welcome to my rant.
I learned that the interview trail could be a tiring, lonely place in speaking with prior applicants. To attend every interview, you would essentially trade a weekend to fly to a place you hadn't been before to display the best version of yourself for people you've never met. After ten such trips, I can't begin to imagine how draining just the act of checking into the flight for the next interview must have felt. Speaking of the flights, a benefit this year is that we save money, which is nice. Every interview used to have big-ticket costs such as a round trip flight and hotel stay. There were also small purchases that would add up, such as food or transport. This interview season, all these costs are replaced with just a few minuscule costs. I purchased an economical lighting setup and brushed the dust off of my old standalone microphone. Even if I had to buy a new microphone, the two combined would have cost less than a single night in a hotel. However, at the end of this season, as I'm creating my rank list for which the all-mighty algorithm will decide my fate, there is a part of me that wishes I could have paid the thousands of dollars to at least see these institutions in person. Compared to the cost of the education to get to this point, a few thousand dollars more is a drop in the bucket. C'est la vie.
Now for the cons, where to begin. In discussing the pros, I accidentally dipped my toes in the cons. Maybe it's the acute-on-chronic seasonal depression overlaying covid-depression, maybe I just don't enjoy virtual interviews, maybe it's Maybelline (just to be abundantly clear, I don't believe I have any depressive disorder, I'm only a 2/9 on SIGECAPS). Not having the opportunity to meet the people and observe the program, I may be contractually obligated to spend the next four years of my life does weigh on me from time to time. Interviews exist for programs to better understand applicants, but it's a two-way street. Applicants want to see how the program faculty interacts with residents or one another when we pass them in a hallway. We want to read the body language from residents when someone important enters the room. Is it respect and comfort? Is it fear? In online interviews for dermatology, I may get to meet a few or all of the residents. For the times only a few of the residents were on, a part of me wonders whether these few are an accurate representation of the program overall or if they were the more outgoing residents chosen for this ambassador role specifically. I'll never know.
When interviewing with these programs, you only get one chance to make a first impression; you want everything to be clear and bright. I had half my interviews at home and half out in an apartment, which meant I packed a suitcase and moved. I left my nice lighting setup, my tasteful home library background, and most importantly: my comfortable chair. Which meant I had to find a new background that worked in my cramped studio apartment, improvise some different lighting, and figure how best to deal with the new acoustics. In my first setup, I felt like the king of the world. In the second, my derrière would get uncomfortable a few hours in. I suppose there are worse fates.
One of those worse fates is learning an altered social cadence on the fly. Think about the last weather segment you saw on the news; when the anchor asked the field reporter a question, the reporter would nod and smile emptily for an awkward gap and then respond with their answer. The same lag happens in video interviews, which naturally causes a shift away from casual conversation. Earlier in the season, people would almost have this Christopher Walken-Esque lilt, as though they expected to be interrupted at any moment. Eventually, you get used to allowing slightly longer pauses than a real conversation calls for, just to ensure that it's not just a break in the sentence but the true end of the thought.
Then there's "eye contact." Imagine interviewing in person, but there's a mirror right next to the interviewer. If you choose to, you can see every facial movement you make. Did my lips always look that weird when I say the word "program"? Was my nose always this big? And I hope that tuft of rebellious hair isn't distracting them as much as it's distracting me. After an interview or two, I realized that seeing myself is Pandora's box, and I'm the only one overanalyzing my appearance. But throughout all the interviews, there's the difficulty of the person on the other side of the table, so to speak. It's normal to want to look at the person you're talking to. A conversation is so much more than words; we emote with all our facial musculature. But looking at the picture of your interviewer means that your eyes shift from looking into the camera to appearing as though you're looking down. In an attempt to seek that connection, you actually lose it. These are all subtle and subjective changes, but in a season where we don't get to interact in person, this is all we have. If you look directly at the interviewer on your screen, you will come across as not actively engaged. Normal conversations don't have 100% eye contact because that's just creepy. But on Zoom, if you look away, it almost looks like you're trying to read notes off-screen. So you stare at the green dot right next to the webcam, and you smile.
You smile, but it's forced. You're happy to be here, and you know it's a privilege. But behind the computer in the corner of the room, your laundry hamper smiles back at you, reminding you that you're just sitting in front of lights, a camera, but the action feels fake. When I interviewed for medical school, the smile came naturally. It was a social smile because I was actually happy to be here. This virtual interview introduces a virtual smile, and when the call ends, you're just left with sore cheeks.
The worst culprit for sore-cheek-syndrome is when a program tries to share more of their institution with you, but it just falls flat. I applaud programs that went through the effort of creating a video tour of their institution, but screen sharing that video and playing it over Zoom as we all sit quietly can be painful. The most forward-thinking programs made these videos but thankfully just shared a link to them.
As this ramble comes to an end, I do have to re-iterate that zoom interview was still the correct way to do it this season. How many infections did we prevent by not allowing the 40,000+ residency applicants to travel from city to city for interview after interview? This process had issues, sure, but in the grand scheme of things, I should say it all went rather ok.
Written by Paarth Dodia, MS, OMS IV
WCUCOM Class President