May 27th, 2020

Virtual Residency Recruitment in the Time of COVID

Dr. Prarthna Bhardwaj

Dr. Bhardwaj is a Chief Resident at UMMS – Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, MA

COVID-19 has undeniably altered life as we know it. As if getting into residency wasn’t hard enough already, COVID has made it a notch harder. Graduate Medical Education across the nation is preferably adopting video interviews for a virtual residency recruitment. This noncontact change was further endorsed by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).

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What are some of the implications of this? It is pertinent to look at this from two different perspectives — the applicants’ and the programs’.

Financially — More Viable 

One of the greatest advantages of virtual recruitment is the time and money an applicant saves on travel and accommodation during interview season. On average, depending on number of interviews, applicants spend between $1000 and $5000. Not having this expense is a nice breather for medical students who already have heavy loans on their backs!

It goes without saying that programs will be saving a ton of money as well. A large portion of money that is usually spent goes towards social events, including pre-interview dinners and lunches and breakfasts on interview days. This is especially important for programs that already had lower funding and budgets for recruitment. One hopes that residency programs will offer virtual pre-interview social interactions with residents.

More Interviews?

There is a chance that programs might choose to interview more applicants, given that applicant behaviors will be more difficult to gauge, to maximize their chances of filling their slots. Virtual recruitment might also allow for multiple interviewers to be available, thus allowing programs to interview larger numbers of applicants. This could mean more interviews for each applicant.

Culture of the program and the ‘fit’

The flip side of a virtual recruitment, for both applicants and interviewers, is that it might be difficult to get the ‘vibe’ of the program and know if the fit is good. ‘Fit’ has anecdotally been rated consistently high among students who are choosing a residency program. Applicants might find it difficult to learn how happy the residents in the program are, unless the program offers virtual socializing opportunities.

For applicants, it will be incredibly hard to show personality in just 20 to 30 minutes on video chat — opportunities to socialize will be much more limited. This means that you will have to shine during your interview – you better have your elevator pitch ready!

Video Fatigue

Having resorted to Zoom for virtual educational conferences this spring, I can say for certain that there is something exhausting about staying glued to a computer screen and remaining engaged. After about 40 minutes, I want to stretch. Worse still, I am looking down at my phone if the content is not stimulating and interactive enough.

Video fatigue could be an even bigger problem for interviewers who are interviewing several applicants consecutively. To avoid it, one should ideally be taking breaks between each interview and should do no more than 2 hours of interviews consecutively.

How do FMGs fit into the picture?

Personally, I believe that Foreign Medical Graduates (FMGs) are at a slight disadvantage, compared with their American counterparts, during virtual recruitment. A few things for FMGs to consider: Can you even travel to the U.S. right now? Some countries are restricting all travel. Is your home country in a time zone that would make interviewing difficult? (For example, a 11am interview with a U.S. East Coast program would be a 9:30pm interview for an applicant in India.) Programs and applicants will need to be mindful of time differences. How is the Internet connection in your country? Not every country has uninterrupted and great Internet to ensure smooth functioning of the interview itself. .

Tips for Applicants During Virtual Recruitment

Regardless of advantages or disadvantages, the mantra to a successful recruitment season during COVID is to embrace the unknown. Here are my top 5 tips to prepare for a virtual recruitment:

  1. The set-up

Ensure you are in a well-lit room with a neutral background. Several video interfaces like Zoom allow you to choose a virtual background or even blur the background. It is also vital to choose a quiet space where you will not be disturbed. Try to avoid distractions. While some interviewers might be charmed by children crying in the background, not all will appreciate it.

Ensure you have good internet access and a reliable desktop or laptop, of course. Nothing is worse than choppy internet video. While programs might be understanding of technical difficulties, they are more likely to remember the encounter for the wrong reasons.

  1. Dress the part

This is a virtual interview, so dress the part, just as you would for an in-person interview. A lot of people love to wear pajamas on the bottom and their formal attire on the top. We all know what happened to Will Reeve on Good Morning America. Trust me, you do not want to be that person during your job interview. Make sure you are well-groomed.

  1. Body language is everything

  • Avoid the temptation to look at yourself on the screen. Instead, look directly into the camera to allow for direct eye contact.
  • Use a stationery chair — swivel chairs are distracting.
  • Have a balanced power pose! If you have not heard about power posing, watch this TED Talk by Amy Cuddy.
  1. Keep your virtual identity professional

In today’s digital world, your email address or username is often your first impression. Don’t give the interviewer a reason to question your professionalism before they even meet you by providing a once-hilarious high school email address you still might be using. Keep your email and usernames simple.

  1. Prepare ahead of time

Ask a friend, your advisor, or a mentor to do a test run with you to make sure someone other than yourself can assess your performance. In addition, saving time in travel should allow you to research a program more thoroughly. So have good questions ready for the interviewer!

Tips for Programs During Virtual Recruitment

Here are my top 5 tips for programs:

  1. Make your program stand out

One of the biggest challenges for a program showcasing the culture of the program. Pre-interview dinners served this purpose traditionally, so programs are going to have to think harder about how to stand out virtually. Some ideas are ‘Virtual Happy Hour’ or ‘Virtual Teatime’ with the residents or perhaps even a dedicated themed chat channel. You can make a short video of ‘a day in the life of an intern’ to provide more realistic appeal. Involve your residents — ask for ideas to make your program stand out!

  1. Put your candidates at ease

Reach out to applicants and give them a rundown on the details of their interviews, just as you would if they were coming to talk to people onsite. These are times of high stress and uncertainty for everyone. Some useful things to share are:

  • Tips on how to access the videoconferencing technology and whether applicants need to download any software.
  • Your team’s expectations for the interviews.
  • A timeline that details when interviews will start and end along with name and title of each person applicants will meet.

Finally, as an added precaution, give them a backup phone number to reach you, in case there is a glitch. Ask them to share the same with you.

  1. Go with the flow

Expect to have internet and connection issues. In addition, applicants often live with spouses, children, and pets. If life interrupts the interview or a dog is barking in the background, candidates should not be penalized. Use a little extra compassion and thoughtfulness during these challenging times. Be flexible and forgiving as an interviewer.

  1. Your Digital Presence

Put simply, Digital Presence is the space that your brand owns online. Some ideas for that are:

  • Create an Instagram or Twitter account for your program if you do not already have one. Celebrate your residents and ensure you post at least once a week. Applicants are often more tech savvy that you are. Talk to them in their own language.
  • If you do not have a great website, now is a great time to update it! With applicants having limited social interactions with your residents, they are more likely to resort to your website, Doximity, SDN, Reddit – you name it! Consider having resident testimonials and resident bios on your website.
  1. Be prepared

Carefully read the applicants’ resumes and personal statements beforehand. As an applicant, I appreciated interviewers who have made the time to discuss the finer nuances of my personal statement. This also adds a nice personal touch to the interview, which is especially important now.

And the Virtual Recruitment Season Starts … Now!

In conclusion, we are learning new ways of leading our daily lives in this era. Being flexible yet professional is key to combating the stress of virtual interviews. I cannot wait to see how the virtual recruitment season will turn out for applicants and programs alike.

Feel free to shoot me a tweet @prarthnavb for more comments and thoughts. 

NEJM Resident 360

2 Responses to “Virtual Residency Recruitment in the Time of COVID”

  1. Frances Ue, MD, MPH says:

    Thanks Prarthna for writing about this important issue! There was recently a Harvard webinar that our program director was part of which tried to tackle many of these questions: https://dicp.hms.harvard.edu/events/2020/Applying-to-Residency-in-the-COVID-Era.

    One thing that we’re thinking about is, how will this affect those that are underrepresented in medicine (URiM)? Our program (like many others) has made diversity an institutional priority. Limiting recruitment to this virtual sphere places limitations on not only the recruitment process but also the ability for individuals to do away electives, in-person visits etc. depending on how the pandemic evolves. How do we capture the culture of a residency program within the constraints of a 2D virtual tool?

    Cheers,
    Frances

  2. Sam Kini, MD (Professor) says:

    Excellent! simple, clear and to the point.

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