Last month, I dedicated my blog post to tips for prospective Cardiology fellowship applicants. In this companion piece, I would like to share my experience on the Cardiology fellowship virtual interview trail. Part of my motivation is to provide additional information for Cardiology fellowship applicants, but also to shed light on various approaches – both successful and unsuccessful – to the virtual interviews. There was much hand-wringing this past year about the diminishment of the fellowship interview experience, which by necessity became all-virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In some ways, it was better – the lack of travel made it more affordable and increased flexibility. In other ways, it was worse – being on camera for seemingly endless hours and feeling as if programs were invading your private space at home. Here are some takeaways from the 2020 Cardiology fellowship virtual interview season.
Virtual interviews are convenient
Say what you want about virtual interviews, but there is no denying that they are more affordable, convenient and flexible. Residents working 60-80 hours a week suddenly did not have to spend thousands of dollars traveling around the country. Applicants did not have to leave the comfort of their own home or office to interview around the country and as a result did not have to work as hard to find extra coverage. These decreased barriers democratized the interview process. However, virtual interviews also encouraged applicants to apply to more programs, clogging up the application pile and making it harder for fellowship program directors select among many highly qualified applicants.
Virtual interviews are surprisingly exhausting
Although Zoom interviews were convenient, many applicants found them to be mentally and emotionally draining. No matter how hard you try, Zoom cannot replace a real-life social interaction that is influenced not just by the things that you say or your facial expressions, but by the environment around you and the participants’ body language. Much of this context is lost during a video interview. Instead you are left with the feeling that you must be “on” all the time, lest the person on the other side of the camera misperceive you as being uninterested. That is not to say that you are not being closely observed at an in-person interview, but that this feeling of being under the eye is heightened when you are staring at a blinking green camera dot on your laptop for hours on end. As a result, the overall experience ended up being more tiring than I anticipated.
We could all stand to spend less time on camera
Although I have always thought of myself as an extroverted person, I found it difficult to be on camera for more than a couple of hours at a time. In fact, I greatly appreciated when program directors or coordinators took care to encourage us to take a break and turn off our cameras during gaps in between interviews. During these breaks, I would get up, stretch, and in a few cases even left my apartment to go for a short walk around my neighborhood.
A virtual interview does not need to last an entire day
I grew to appreciate efficiency and brevity in a virtual interview day. One interview day lasted for nine hours. By the eighth hour, I felt exhausted and unable to retain any further information. I had heard what I needed to hear about the program; those last few hours did not augment my experience. The most memorable part of the day ended up being the relief I felt when I logged off as the sun was setting. That overall experience would have been more pleasant, and the same amount of information would still have been conveyed, if the day had ended a few hours earlier. Therefore, I would argue that the ideal interview day length is four to five hours: a program should be able to conduct interviews and transmit all key information to applicants in, at most, six hours.
It’s hard to get the “pre-interview dinner” right on Zoom
Some programs chose to host a pre-interview Zoom “dinner” the night(s) before the interview, while others did not. Looking back on it, this decision did not affect how I viewed individual programs. I found one-on-one conversations in which I could talk with current fellows, especially fellows with whom I had some kind of personal connection, to be much more helpful than stilted virtual “dinners.” The experience with these Zoom “dinners” was variable. Some were well-run, leaving little ambiguity about what we were supposed to do at any given time and controlling the pace of conversations in a way that avoided awkward pauses. Others were disorganized to the point of being uncomfortable to sit through. These sessions are challenging because while some people prefer to be very active participants, others wish to more passively observe and take in information. It is difficult to cater to both of these types of people in a way that feels natural.
My recommendation: if you are going to host a Zoom, the session should be heavily structured so that 1) participants know exactly what to do at any given time, 2) applicants are given the space to ask questions without having to compete with others (short, timed breakout room sessions help with this), 3) providing discussion topics to fellows in case a group of applicants is unusually quiet and 4) ending sessions in a timely fashion so that participants do not have to sit in excruciating silence when everyone has run out of things to discuss. Efficiency is your friend here, as well.
You CAN still get a “feel” for a place without physically being there
Program directors and applicants were concerned that we would not get a good “feel” for individual programs without physically being there. I found conversations with fellows and attendings at various programs to be incredibly helpful in filling this gap. To my own surprise, by the end of most interview days, I logged off feeling as though I had a pretty good sense of what each program valued and ways and whether it might be a good fit for me.
Virtual interviews should be an opportunity to re-think how we do interviews
Instead of perceiving it as a crutch, program directors should view the virtual aspect as a chance to revitalize the interview day and distill it to its essentials. In some interviews, it felt as though programs were trying to recreate the entire in-person interview day on Zoom. This is a flawed approach because not everything translates well to Zoom. For example, pre-produced videos about the program do not need to be played in real-time during the interview day – applicants can watch these on their own time. Likewise, some PowerPoint presentations could also be pre-recorded for applicants to view in advance. The end result would be a leaner, more efficient interview day in which the limited on-camera time is spent interacting with others, so that applicants come away with a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of each program without spending an entire business day on camera.
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Andi Shahu is a resident physician in the Osler Medical Residency in Internal Medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, and will begin General Cardiology fellowship at Yale-New Haven Hospital in July 2021. He is interested in the intersection between cardiovascular outcomes, health equity and health policy. He is a member of the Council On Quality of Care and Outcomes Research (QCOR). He also loves traveling, writing, music and running. You can follow him on Twitter @andishahu.