The road to Cardiology fellowship can be a confusing one. Residency, with its breakneck pace and punishingly long hours, is already a Herculean challenge in and of itself. Simply completing residency is its own feat. Attempting to set yourself up for the next stage in your career in a hyper-competitive specialty adds an entirely new layer of complexity. Trainees on this path towards post-residency training in Cardiology often find themselves asking critical questions: How can I figure out if Cardiology is truly the right field for me? How can I prepare myself for fellowship? What can I do to make myself a competitive applicant?
As you can imagine, the real answer here is that there is no one right way to approach the journey of becoming a cardiologist. Everyone must forge their own path. Still, I would like to share some lessons I have learned from my experiences as a Cardiology-bound resident.
Trade into Cardiology rotations
The only way to find out if you like Cardiology is to ensure that you actually have exposure to it. Sometimes, this means trading into additional Cardiology rotations and increasing your exposure to both cardiologists and potential Cardiology mentors who can talk to you about this career. Only by rotating in Cardiology rotations can you decide if this is a field that you would like to pursue further!
Seek out outpatient Cardiology experiences
Much of the exposure that Internal Medicine residents have to Cardiology during residency comes in the form of inpatient Cardiology rotations (Cardiology wards, Cardiac ICUs). While these are wonderful entry points into the field, they represent only a fraction of the breadth and depth of Cardiology. They may even erroneously lead you to think that most Cardiology happens inside of the hospital (surprise: much of it happens in the outpatient setting). I did not realize this myself until I participated in an ambulatory Cardiology elective. I strongly encourage you to explore the world beyond the CCU or Cardiology wards, so that you can develop a more realistic view of how you will spend the majority of your clinical time later in your career.
But don’t do too much Cardiology!
A common misconception among residents, regardless of their intended career, is that they should only pursue experiences in their field of interest. While this is admirable and might make you feel more prepared for fellowship, you must remember that nothing can truly prepare you for a career in a subspecialty except for fellowship itself. You will have entire years of your academic life set aside to learn how to be a cardiologist. However, after residency, you will no longer have the opportunity to improve upon your weaknesses in other areas of Internal Medicine. One of my mentors once told me that I should use my spare elective time to learn about other subspecialties so that I can become a better and more well-rounded internist. You will have plenty of time to learn about Cardiology during the fellowship. Use this precious extra time to learn about other things that will make you a better doctor, and ultimately, a better cardiologist.
Seek mentors out early
One common mistake that I see people make is that they wait too long connect with potential mentors. Applying to Cardiology fellowship applications is an extremely competitive process. Thus, it can only help to have mentors in your corner who help you think about your career goals, give you feedback about your fellowship application, help you plan research projects, connect you with other mentors, write letters of recommendation on your behalf, and go to bat for you when the time comes. However, mentor-mentee relationships are not born overnight. You need to dedicate time to building a relationship with mentors that understand you and advocate for you. Allow time to see if you and a mentor hit it off and give your mentor a chance to get to know the real you. The only way to accomplish this is to start early.
Find projects that excite you
It can be really tempting to fall into the trap of taking on as many research projects as possible with the sole purpose of “fluffing” your resume, without regard to a project’s value or quality. Remember that everything you put out into the world is a reflection on you; you should be willing to stand proudly by any work that you produce. Be judicious. Select only those projects in which you are genuinely invested. Don’t just pad your resume with countless meaningless abstracts or manuscripts. Quality will always triumph over quantity.
Set realistic research goals
At the end of the day, your primary job in residency is to be a resident. Sometimes you will be too busy to do research. Sometimes you will be too drained to do research. Sometimes you need to recharge instead of doing yet more work. That’s OK. You cannot do it all. During my first meeting with one of my mentors, we talked about pursuing smaller projects that I could realistically complete during residency rather than trying to take on huge untenable projects. In retrospect, it was incredibly thoughtful and kind of my mentor to be so deliberate. It helped me set more realistic goals about what I could accomplish during residency and it made my research experience more fulfilling. You are a very busy resident. You should accordingly select realistic, sustainable and completable projects.
Join the online Cardiology community!
There is a very active Cardiology community on social networks such as Twitter, talking about the latest high-profile articles, debating new guidelines, and sharing amazing tweetorials or interesting clinical experiences. Social media offers a great opportunity to get to know and make connections with people in the field. I “met” some people on Twitter before I formally met them on the interview trail. It was nice to already have that connection with others in Cardiology. It made me feel from the very beginning that I belonged to a larger Cardiology community. Moreover, it has enhanced both my learning and my excitement about becoming a cardiologist!
Integrity is everything
No matter what you do, put your best foot forward every time. Your reputation really does matter. Though it seems large, Cardiology is also a tightly knit community and people do talk. You will want to develop a reputation as a hardworking, honest, conscientious and reliable person. Actions always speak louder than words. Remember that everything you do will be a reflection on you and your character. When in doubt, ask yourself, can I proudly stand by this decision a month or a year from now? Do the right thing every time. Don’t cut corners. Work hard and be kind. Whether you do good or bad things, people will take notice, and they won’t forget.
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