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"What are you looking for in a Resident?"

On a recent Saturday morning our Department held its second and final session of interviews for the Laboratory Medicine and Pathology Residency program. The format is a change for us; we used to bring in applicants throughout the interview season (Fall-early new year) and each of us would meet with 2-3 of them on the interview days. Now we take 2 Saturday mornings when we bring in about 20 applicants and the faculty members individually meet with about 6. This format has some definite advantages for both the candidates and the faculty. For candidates, they get the benefit of a reduced airfare commonly associated with a Saturday night stay-over. They don't have to miss a full day of class. They get to meet their future colleagues in Pathology. We cover their Friday night stay in the hotel if they are from out of town, and provide breakfast and lunch on Saturday. For the faculty, it's a less hectic interview without the usual workday interruptions (phone calls, urgent lab issues etc.).

One of the questions I'm often asked by residency candidates is "what are you looking for in a resident?" It's a good question, and one that I thought I'd share here with this class of Medical Students.

The former head football coach for the Gophers, Lou Holtz, was looking for three characteristics in his players: ability, motivation, and attitude. This is similar to what I tell our resident applicants: I am looking for enthusiasm. Using Holtz's terminology, and thinking of the challenges that medical students have faced from kindergarten to getting into medical school, I take it as a given that you have learning ability, that is, the ability to study, acquire knowledge, and regurgitate it for exams. This ability is probably one of your fortes. I know less about your motivation although I assume it's also excellent, but I know practically nothing about your attitude, yet in the long run all three are critical to success. Of course, they overlap to one degree or another. A motivated student can improve his or her ability with intensive and focused effort. A good attitude is important for motivating oneself and one's teammates (and trust me, modern Medicine is a team activity). What I mean by enthusiasm encompasses something of all the characteristics that Holtz was looking for, but I am particularly interested in attitude.

Every resident applicant is required to write a personal statement. One that I will always remember from years ago was from a student who described how she, as a child, performed the autopsies on her neighborhood's dead pets! Her friends would come over with a dead guinea-pig, hamster, bird or whatever animal the Grim Reaper had visited, and her job was to figure out the cause of death. As I read her essay I thought she must be either really weird or had found her life's calling at an early age, but what came across very clearly was her enthusiasm. It's usually immediately obvious when I meet with a residency applicant that he or she is someone who is really interested and eager to learn.

Enthusiasm has a positive effect on most interviewers when they see it because it's such a differentiator in a group that already has proven academic ability and motivation. And beyond just interviews, enthusiasm is what most of us hope to find in the people we work with. At least it's what I'm looking for.

[First posted Dec 31, 2007]