Unorthodox Connections in a COVID-19 World
Ah, the bright-eyed medical student. It’s 6:00 AM. The eager student has her fresh crisp whitecoat on embellished with her stethoscope, clipboard, and neatly arranged pens. However, there’s just one problem — it’s COVID-19 season. Many medical students have been stripped of access to clinical rotations and have been forced to enroll in online coursework. Let’s face it – nowadays, students can learn just as well outside the classroom setting, in an era of online question banks, flashcards, and of course Physeo. While students can maximize their strengths by studying on their own with due diligence… how can they maximize key vital relationships from residents, faculty, and beyond? As a rising intern and former student mentor, I realized that there are some pearls from my time with COVID.
Here’s an overview of what we’re discussing:
- Tip #1: Don’t be shy
- Tip #2: Start within your circle
- Tip #3: Leveraging connections in your medical school
- Tip #4: Who’s who in your city
- Tip #5: Online networking
Tip #1: Don’t be shy
While we all may not be extreme extraverts, this is the time to get out of our comfort zones and start to mingle with departments that we are interested in. Are you interested in forensic pathology? Or is it perhaps pediatric neurosurgery, but you don’t have exposure to it? Well, I’ve got some news for you. Even before COVID-19, you would have to start meeting some people at your school early on. But the question is — how? In a time of limited clinical opportunities for students and cancellations of away rotations, some of the best mentors are at your fingertips. If your school is still closed due to unprecedented times, it’s time to channel your inner telemarketer. Start reaching out to the chiefs, residents, and even faculty! While it may be intimidating to do some cold calling, you may be pleased with your results. More often than not, people love meeting those who are genuinely interested in their craft. It’s a great way to break the ice, get familiar with them, and leave a strong impression.
For instance, before switching over to internal medicine, I was interested in pursuing a career in clinical pathology. I started early by reaching out to residents and faculty who helped organize and present lectures in my preclinical years. While it is cold calling, my calls were received warmly. I was able to meet with the chairman and other big whigs. In fact, I was able to work on a few research projects that were submitted to a few conferences. This opened the doors to many faculty across the nation. Even with a change in specialties, the pathology faculty were quite helpful in providing their insight into the internal medicine faculty.
Tip #2: Start within your circle
As students are concerned with the USMLE Step exams, virtual clerkships, and limited facetime with faculty, many are worried about how they can earn a strong letter of recommendation. It’s not a surprise, but it takes a whole village to raise a child. Likewise, a successful student who will apply for the MATCH requires the strong connections of peers, residents, and faculty.
An amicus curiae, or friend of the court, can be useful to obtain new relationships. From upperclassmen to that one intern, an introduction can provide a good impression and everlasting connections. For instance, one of my best friends to this day is an upperclassman (and now anesthesia resident) who I have met early on during my first year as a medical student. We grew close, and eventually, our circle of friends merged. By having the wisdom of those that came before me, I had my very own personal oracle. This special friend of mine made sure to keep an eye out for me during both pre-clinical and clinical years – from study tips to even “pimp” questions during rounds to surviving the not-so-glamorous night shift. Beyond the classroom and wards, I also gained invaluable advice on how to crush the residency interview trail.
So, if you’re a fan of Game of Thrones, you’ll realize it is often who you know and not what you know. Our cunning friend, Petyr Baelish was ever-resourceful and able to make critical partnerships to advance his power. Like in medical school and residency applications, it is critical to elevate yourself with who you know.
Figure 1: Spoiler alert: The despicable, but quite capable, Petyr Baelish “gunning” for the throne aka that letter of recommendation. Don’t be like him exactly, but you get the point.
Source: Promotional photo of Aidan Gillen as Petyr Baelish on Game of Thrones. Courtesy of HBO.
Tip #3: Leveraging connections as a medical student
Now that we have channeled our inner Petyr Baelish, we understand the importance of making vital connections with faculty and residents. However, how do we utilize our connections? Since we do not want to come off as a nuisance, it is important that we understand how to be tactful about it. First, and foremost, do your job well. If you’re in a school that has just started opening up their rotations, it’s a good idea to understand how to become a good medical student first. Show up on time. Prechart. Help with orders or any “scut work” if necessary. By understanding the workflow, students can be integrated more seamlessly. Once this occurs, residents and faculty will notice. As you gain their respect and trust, it is easier for all parties to open up and help each other. With more trust, you gain more responsibilities. Perhaps now you have the privilege of gaining authorship on a case report or just a simple strong evaluation and letter of recommendation.
Tip #4: Who’s who in your city
Maybe connecting with your faculty and residents at your school are not panning out. Maybe it’s time for you to look at your neighbors — literally. If your city has other institutions with academic affiliations and residency programs, it may be strategic to set up early relationships with them. If you are able to reach out to the program, often through a coordinator or secretary, they are usually more than happy to help facilitate a meeting for you to meet with the program director, chairman or -woman, or another faculty member that could help. However, in a time of social distancing, reaching out to these entities may be more difficult to meet in person. Online correspondence may be a potential method, but your email may be lost in a sea of other messages that plague the doctor with more bureaucratic shenanigans to deal with. So before that email is sent, make sure to proofread it and send it right in the morning – from 6 AM to 8 AM.
Tip #5: Online networking
Ah, the Internet. Today, everything has become more digitized, it has become more important to use online communication platforms. Specifically, the modern age of social media. In a world where everyone and everything is profiled, so is our professional and academic careers. With platforms such as LinkedIn and Doximity, finding connections in other medical students and institutions has become much easier. It’s as easy as 1-2-3. Use a professional photo that you would for ERAS and fill out the sections that include your education, work experience, volunteering, research, etc. You want the reader to get to know you and see how you are as a professional and future physician. First impressions go a long way, so make sure you proofread your LinkedIn and Doximity profiles!
You can literally find a mentor within seconds while you’re in your PJs at home watching reruns of The Office. By advertising your attributes and goals online, you will end up matching with people with similar backgrounds and goals. This is a great initial step in your search to meet and network with your future colleagues and other medical students. Don’t pester them with incessant emailing, but a brief genuine message can go a long way. And if that person can’t help you, they often have people in their network that can.
From short research gigs to potentially meeting your future PD, the sky’s the limit. While you’re maintaining social distancing, remember the world is still closer than ever.