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A medical student’s thoughts on Match Day

Steven Zhang shares his insights on Match Day, when medical students across the country learn which residency program they've been matched with.

The residency interview trail quickly becomes a lonesome journey, so when I was on it this winter, I'd usually have the hotel room television turned on for some background noise and often find myself watching ESPN's SportsCenter. On my last interview in Philadelphia, the show was featuring the high flying phenom Zion Williamson, who's set to be drafted this year to the NBA. When I finally returned to home in Palo Alto, I asked my roommate Brian who he thought would be more nervous: Zion for the NBA draft or our graduating class of medical students awaiting Match Day. He said us, of course -- there's more uncertainty to our futures than his, since he's been anointed as the next superstar in professional basketball.

In either case, our basketball and medical careers come down to a single, fleeting moment with someone standing at a podium finally reveals our destinations. We signed up for this journey and we want to move ahead in our lives, but there's something unnatural about throwing the next handful of our life years to the whims of a computer algorithm -- suddenly you can be plucked from sunny Palo Alto and dropped anywhere in the continental United States. And though I've always believed in free will, the matching process can really test anyone's convictions.

No one can really understand what it's like to go through it from the outside and all the hoops that we've had to jump through to get here; Match Day is the microscopic tip on the top of a very large iceberg. So there's a lot of fanfare -- family and friends fly in from afar and alcohol is abundant, mostly imbibed for anxiolytic purposes. On the morning of Match Day, buildup is tense before you actually tear open the envelope: A giant screen displays a second by second countdown and you're surrounded by parents and friends waiting on their toes. There are speeches. Balloons rain down on the auditorium once the clock hits zero. It's miniature New Year's Eve in Times Square, only you're walking distance from bathrooms and instead of Ryan Seacrest, we have our wonderful Dr. Gesundheidt.

And then you open the envelope and you look at your residency program and you realize that actually nothing has changed. Maybe now you can sleep more soundly knowing that you're guaranteed a job for the next few years and a basic salary but you didn't get any smarter or gain any more surgical dexterity or suddenly blossom into competent physicians. If anything, your medical knowledge has slowly atrophied over these past few months and we're all further away from the peak of our medical knowledge than we've ever been.

The sigh of relief of Match Day was quickly changed into a sobering reality. I asked Brian when the inflection point at which the anxiety of starting our intern year should hit us, and he guessed that it'd arrive a few days before our first day as interns. But I reached my inflection point yesterday: I received an email from my residency program coordinator telling us our official start date is on June 20. That's less than three precious months away.

Post-match, there is one thing that has changed: that nagging uncertainty of whether we'll even match to a specialty is finally gone and caring for patients is no longer a hypothetical. But I know now that Match Day isn't as much a finish line as another mile marker in this marathon of medical training. Because in a few months, we'll be gearing up to do it all over again for residence, and medical school was clearly just the warm up.

Stanford Medicine Unplugged is a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week during the academic year; the entire blog series can be found in the Stanford Medicine Unplugged category

Steven Zhang is a fourth-year medical student. He will be starting his orthopedic surgery residency next year at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Photo by Julie Greicius

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