I've just completed traveling around the country for residency interviews, so I've been thinking a lot about what it means to ask and answer personal questions.
In my desired specialty of dermatology, a typical interview day consists of short, intense bursts of eight to 12 interviews lasting around 10 minutes each, akin to speed dating. Because dermatology is a small specialty, a large portion of the department tends to show up to assess applicants like me. I've been in interviews that include anywhere from one person (usually the chairperson or program director) to an entire panel of dermatologists, (usually around three, but numbering up to seven in one memorable instance).
Many interviewers asked me behavioral questions, designed to get me talking about a time I faced a challenge or learned from my mistakes, etc. They've prompted me to reveal my struggles and how I overcame them, so they can gauge my ability to work hard during busy clinic days and assess my potential to grow and to become a leader in the field. I answer these questions with examples of how I grew from an experience in the clinic, and then I segue into how I believe this lesson will prepare me for the work that I want to do as a physician.
With the constant time-zone shifts and the air travel, some of these interview days have been daunting. I've faced a litany of questions, from light to challenging. For example:
Question: "What sort of car would you be?"
My answer: "A Honda Civic, because I am dependable, compact and Asian."
Question: "Based on your experiences in writing, why did you decide to go into medicine, rather than being an author?"
My answer: "Because we need physicians who can interpret complex ideas in science and medicine into terms that the public can understand."
I know that I am being evaluated for every answer, but I remind myself that the interview goes both ways. I ask questions, too. I want to know if these programs can provide me with the resources to become the physician that I want to be -- including opportunities to take care of underserved patient populations and to conduct clinical research.
It's interesting to be on the other side of an interview. In other settings, I'm the one trying to draw out information to assess. For one, I interview college applicants -- many nervous but highly-accomplished high school seniors -- on behalf of my alma mater. At the beginning of each meeting, I tell the student that regardless of the results of this interview or the college application process, the most important aspect of a person's success is not where they go, but how they work to grow. This, I have found, helps them to relax, and we can delve deeper into their passions and their future potential.
I also interview patients -- in fact, the beginning of every clinic visit starts with a patient interview. I ask what brought them to the clinic and what they hope to get out of their visit. I also ask focused questions to help them explain their symptoms accurately and efficiently. I've put a lot of thought into how I word my questions so that the answers can help me narrow down a diagnosis and create the best treatment plan.
A tricky part of this is asking very personal questions -- including sexual and mental health history. I try to ease patients' discomfort by telling them that I won't judge: I say that I ask everyone these questions and the answers will help me provide them the best care. When they share some of their most intimate and private stories, I appreciate the trust they have in me as their care provider.
Ultimately, I've come to think of interviews as a way to help us to "see" someone else, and to understand their feelings and experiences in a limited amount of time.
As an interviewee, I appreciate the opportunity to share my story. As an interviewer, I remain ever grateful to others (both patients and college applicants) for sharing their hopes and their experiences.
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.
Yoo Jung Kim is a fourth-year Stanford medical student and the co-author of "What Every Science Student Should Know," a guidebook for aspiring college STEM students. Her pieces on medicine and society have appeared in The Washington Post, the Seattle Times, The Mercury News, The Korea Times, and Nature.
Photo by Sajjad Hussain M