What You Always Wanted to Know About the Retina Fellowship Match (PART II): INTERVIEW DAY & RANK LIST

Yoshihiro Yonekawa, Mass Eye & Ear
Eric Nudleman, UCSD
Jon Prenner, NJ Retina
RETINA Roundup Editors


Welcome back to the Fellowship Match series, where we interview 15 program directors to discuss the inner workings of the retina fellowship match. Last week we had great insights on what program directors look for in applications.

This week, we look at how program directors approach the interview day and how they formulate the rank list. We ask what interviewees shouldn’t do on interview day, and the program directors also tell us how the behind-the-scenes “phone calls” work.

We hope that this post is helpful for current and future retina fellowship applicants, and thanks again to the program directors for their time and generosity.

How is your interview day structured?

Arunan Sivalingam (Wills): The afternoon before the interview we start with a PowerPoint/Prezi presentation by a first-year fellow outlining our fellowship. Since the fellows interact frequently with the residents in clinic, in the ER and on consults, we have a second-year resident speak briefly about their experiences. Following orientation, we have cocktails and dinner off site. Interview day begins with imaging conference followed by interviews with 14 to 15 faculty divided into five rooms. In between interviews, our fellows give a tour of the Hospital and the Retina service. We finish the day with a fellows and applicants lunch around 2pm.

Prithvi Mruthyunjaya/Darius Moshfeghi (Stanford): We have a half day of interviews, tours of our clinics, OR, and campus by our fellows, followed by a dinner at the program director’s house.

Dean Eliott (Mass Eye & Ear): Prior evening: meet and greet, surgical conference, reception. Interview day: formal powerpoint presentation followed by interviews. Applicants meet with current fellows between interviews and take a tour of the institute.

Harry Flynn/Nina Berrocal/Tom Albini (Bascom): We conduct the interviews on a Saturday morning between the hours of 8:00 am and 12:30 pm. Individual fellowship candidates interview with individual faculty for 15 to 20 minutes. Immediately after the last interview, our current fellows take all of the applicants for lunch at Monty’s Seafood Restaurant in Coconut Grove.

What do you try to focus on during the interview day?

Dean Eliott (Mass Eye & Ear): I mainly focus on trying to stay awake since it’s such a long day.

Elliott Sohn (Iowa): Making sure the applicants get the most honest assessment of what our program is about. It’s a 1-2 year marriage where you’re together 5-7 days a week (with more hours than your spouse). Having applicants get to know our program is just as important as us getting to know the applicant.

Arunan Sivalingam (Wills): Keeping to the schedule so each interviewee gets an equal opportunity. Also, to make sure each applicants spends enough time with current fellows to ask questions.

Sharon Fekrat (Duke): We try to focus on the applicants having a relaxed and enjoyable time so that they can learn as much about our training program as possible.

Chirag Shah (OCB/Tufts): There are about 100 applicants who apply for our 2 fellowship positions. If we invited an applicant to interview with us, we know they are superb on paper. We try to focus on learning more about the applicant as a person during the interview. Will he or she be a good fit with the attendings and staff? Is he or she a good, honest, and kind person? 

Harry Flynn/Nina Berrocal/Tom Albini (Bascom): Meeting the best candidates from around country is gratifying and truly an honor. We want the applicant to feel as comfortable and as relaxed as possible. First, it is important that candidates are likely to interact well with the faculty, staff and patients at the institute. Additionally, the focus is on getting to know applicants beyond their resume, their motivation, goals and how a candidate thinks on her or his feet. It is important to us, that our program can help the applicant achieve their professional goals. We are looking for a track record of hard work hard combined with an open curious mind, humility and teamwork. Equally as important, is a focus on giving the applicant as honest and complete picture of our training program as possible. The interview is designed to maximize the time applicants spend with the current fellows who are essential in this part of the process, because the current fellows can detail their day-to-day experience honestly and directly.

How do you get to know an applicant in such a short snapshot of time during the interview?

Sharon Fekrat (Duke): We get to know them on paper before they arrive, at the interview dinner the night before, and then during the interview itself. There are 8 of us interviewing each applicant ???? and each interview is about 15-20 minutes. As physicians, we often can ‘read a person’ in just a few minutes!

R.V. Paul Chan/William F. Mieler (UIC): We all have a series of questions that we ask to help us get an impression of the applicant. But there is also a significant amount of work that goes on before and after the interview day to help us learn about the applicant.

Prithvi Mruthyunjaya/Darius Moshfeghi (Stanford): We start with the basics: I want to know if they can carry a normal conversation, have a semblance of a plan for their future, and have a passion in their lives.

Arunan Sivalingam (Wills): We review the applications extensively and speak to mentors prior to the interview. We get to know the applicants during the social program the night before the interviews as well as input from our fellows and office staff.

How important is academic pedigree in your decision process?

Prithvi Mruthyunjaya/Darius Moshfeghi (Stanford): Pedigrees are helpful in Hollywood and British Royalty. We are more interested in hardworking fellows who have made the most of their training and show early evidence of creative and innovating thinking.

Arunan Sivalingam (Wills): The most important factor is having a solid clinical foundation and patient volume at all levels of training – medical school and residency.

Sharon Fekrat (Duke): A strong surgeon who is motivated to make a difference can come from any program or pedigree. However, some ophthalmology residencies are known for and can be relied on to train strong applicants.

Does an early commitment to retina contribute to your decision?

Prithvi Mruthyunjaya/Darius Moshfeghi (Stanford): Yes, it means that the applicant has been thinking long-term about their future goals, and their commitment and understanding of the unique needs of our specialty is likely to be more informed.

Sharon Fekrat (Duke): No.

Arunan Sivalingam (Wills): No.

What are your pet peeves about fellowship applicants?

Arunan Sivalingam (Wills): When they try and over sell their CV.

Tarek Hassan (Beaumont): Applicants are obviously nervous on interview day — or they should be inside at least. It’s a significant step that they are undertaking by interviewing for a fellowship position. A big pet peeve of mine though is when an applicant is so inhibited by nervousness or so overly compensates by appearing too laid back, that their true nature and personality do not come through at the interview. Our goal as the program is to get to know the applicants as potential mentees, coworkers, and friends. Almost every applicant will become a retina specialist and will hopefully train at a program that is the best fit for them. We interview to find the fellows that match our clinical, academic, and very importantly, personal characteristics so that we have a great time with each other for two years.  Applicants need to be themselves! It’s OK to be nervous…it’s not OK to, intentionally or not, show us someone other than who you are… because for a number of reasons, we can usually tell.

When do you make the initial rank list?

Dean Eliott (Mass Eye & Ear): The same day as the interviews.

Arunan Sivalingam (Wills): Immediately after the interview process. Final rank lists are submitted within a week.

Harry Flynn/Nina Berrocal/Tom Albini (Bascom): The faculty convenes in our conference room the same day of the interviews to rank the candidates usually into 3 groups: Top, Middle, Lower. We divide up the best candidates in order for faculty to make phone calls to the physicians involved in recommending or training the candidate. Before making the final list, input from direct discussions with an applicant’s mentors is helpful in perhaps moving a candidate up or down as the discussion suggests.

R.V. Paul Chan/William F. Mieler (UIC): Our preliminary rank list is made immediately after the final interview day. There may be some tweaking over the next several weeks, as we do our due diligence and oftentimes contact the candidate’s mentors for additional information.

Prithvi Mruthyunjaya/Darius Moshfeghi (Stanford): We meet twice: once the afternoon of the interview day and a second time 2 weeks prior to match list submission.

Sharon Fekrat (Duke): The afternoon of interview day, although our list is continually changing until the last minute!

Chirag Shah (OCB/Tufts): The eight of us grade each applicant immediately after the interviews. These grades are averaged and ranked, and this is our rank list.

Anton Orlin (Cornell): We meet right after the interviews finish. That way the applicants are fresh in our mind and it is much easier for the faculty to get together, as we value everyone’s opinion.

Do you contact colleagues to discuss applicants before or after the interview?

Tarek Hassan (Beaumont): This is an important question because I think it is very important for applicants to understand that most program directors DO contact the mentors of applicants that are being strongly considered to get a more “off the record” assessment of strengths and weaknesses. Moreover, since many program directors are in fact friends with one another, you should expect that they may speak among themselves about the applicant pool and about some applicants specifically — it’s just human nature. For these reasons, I encourage applicants to be themselves at the interviews because programs look to match the person they briefly met at the interview with the person that is much better known by the residency program and the one that has been seen elsewhere on “the circuit.”

R.V. Paul Chan/William F. Mieler (UIC): Yes. Absolutely. Like any job interview, checking references is important.

Sharon Fekrat (Duke): Yes, both. It allows the gathering of information beyond the written word.

Arunan Sivalingam (Wills): I do talk to my colleagues before and after the interview. We have all developed a mechanism for background checks. I personally make phone calls not only to my colleagues but at times to current fellows or residents who I have met along the way.

Prithvi Mruthyunjaya/Darius Moshfeghi (Stanford): Yes, it is great to hear about the candidate from their mentors and teachers to learn what happens in the trenches and between the lines.  Sometimes we are most important to know if the candidate handles pressure well, if they are pleasant with staff and colleagues, and if they are the kind of person they enjoy hanging out with.

Anton Orlin (Cornell): We highly respect our colleagues’ views on applicants as they have been working closely together for a longer period. We usually speak to them both before and after the interviews to ensure that the candidate will be a good fit and work well with those in our department.

Elliott Sohn (Iowa): Talking to colleagues who have worked closely with applicants is usually helpful but it’s most helpful if we know and trust the source of information. We try to talk on the phone to faculty at every program for applicants we interview.

Dean Eliott (Mass Eye & Ear): We contact colleagues after interview day. We obtain very valuable information that can’t always be conveyed in a recommendation letter.

Programs are discouraged to contact applicants, but applicants are allowed to initiate contact. Do you recommend or not recommend applicants to contact you after the interview, or it doesn’t matter?

Tarek Hassan (Beaumont): I think it is vital that the rule that programs cannot initiate contact with applicants or contact them with information about their position on the rank list is followed. It is unfair to the applicant, whose interests the SF match are meant to protect, for a program to potentially sway his/her decision with the information that they are so highly desired.  The opposite flow of information is much better and appreciated. Again, to maximize the interests of the applicant, it is often helpful for a program to hear from applicants that are strongly interested. It is completely appropriate for an applicant to try to “sway” a program to take him/her — that is in fact exactly what the applicant is trying to do throughout the entire process! I would strongly recommend applicants let their first couple of choices know that they are being considered so highly…

Arunan Sivalingam (Wills): We definitely tell them there will be no calls from the panel or our fellows. Applicants can initiate phone calls to the fellows to ask question about the program. We are happy to receive emails but it does not influence our decision process.

Prithvi Mruthyunjaya/Darius Moshfeghi (Stanford): We are happy for them to contact us to discuss questions about the program but contact does not influence our decisions.

Sharon Fekrat (Duke): We are always happy to hear from applicants who enjoyed their interview experience at Duke.

Elliott Sohn (Iowa): We do abide by this and I try to tell all applicants at the end of the interview that they should feel free to contact us if they want to have a dialogue regarding specific interests in the program and/or how strongly they feel about us. It doesn’t hurt an applicant if they don’t express this directly to us but they should have someone at their program advocate by calling or emailing the PD in the weeks before rank lists are due.