Ten Tips for a Successful Retina Fellowship Match

It's Summer - which means outdoor barbeques, beach days, family vacation, and yes, the beginning of the vitreoretinal surgery fellowship match application process. I remember as an applicant feeling overwhelmed with the amount of information (much of it conflicting) thrown my way.

As Albert Einstein wrote, “Out of clutter, find simplicity”.

Here are ten principles to guide prospective applicants through the next 6 months. Significant credit go to the panelists from our Retina Fellowship Match podcast  for their contributions. Another great resource is this article from Retina Today.

1.      Be certain: Before committing yourself (and in many instances, your family) to two more years of post-graduate training at a non-attending level salary make sure this is what you actually want. As much as we all love vitreoretinal surgery we understand that comprehensive practice and other fellowship opportunities available are attractive in their own right. While there is wide variation in vitreoretinal surgery practices, in general it is a busy field with more emergencies than other ophthalmology subspecialties. Every attending guest who has shared their backstory on the podcast had a strong reason for taking the plunge. Make sure yours is a choice of love and rationality and not of ego or perceived prestige.

2.      Be involved: Once you clear the hurdle of principle #1, continue to throw yourself into the field. Do not lose hope if you have not done significant retina research to this point, but understand that the next few months are critical to buff your CV and impress your mentors with your dedication. Don’t have a mentor? Find one! Speak to previous successful matches and use their experiences to find suitable attendings at your institution who have a track record of supporting residents.

3.      Be organized: Start collecting electronic documents you will need to provide your letter of recommendation writers and submit for both SFMatch and individual program supplemental applications. These documents can include but are not limited to: undergraduate and medical school transcripts, medical school Dean’s letter, copy of passport, and OKAPS scores. Get your personal statement and CV done early, and plan that you will also likely need letters of recommendation from your department chair and residency program director (if these are not among your chosen 3 letters of recommendation). If possible try and schedule lighter rotations for the months of October and November which is the height of interview season. Make a spreadsheet of the programs you plan to apply to with columns for application due dates (which vary program to program), supplemental requirements, interview date, and contact information for the program coordinator.

4.      Be timely: Aim to have all applications items including letters of recommendation ready to go by mid-July if possible. Your goal should be to submit your application to SFMatch and all supplemental materials to each individual program well ahead of all deadlines. Remember, each program has a different deadline to receive your full application!

5.      Be honest with yourself: Obtaining a vitreoretinal surgical fellowship can be a competitive process given the high-quality of applicants and the relatively small number of spots nationally; thus, it makes sense to apply as broadly as possible and err on the side of applying to more programs. Still, some introspection can be helpful when choosing programs. If you (and family, if applicable) already know with 100% certainty certain geography will not work then do not waste time, energy, effort, and money. Remember, this only applies if you are 100% certain and more comfortable not matching than matching at a specific program.

6.      Be active: It’s early August, your application is in, and it’s time to relax, right? Not necessarily! The best fellowship applicants stay active in the interim period finishing outstanding projects, submitting manuscripts, and attending fall meetings if possible such as the American Society of Retina Specialists Annual Meeting or The Retina Society Annual Meeting. Not only does staying visible reinforce to your mentors your dedication, it may connect you with future interviewers ahead of the formal interview date. Heck, maybe even take time on your commute and listen to a retina-related podcast or two (shameless plug).

 7.      Be prepared: Interviewing may be easier for some people than others, but just like shooting a basketball or doing cataract surgery the more you practice the better you will be come crunch time. I still have a list on my desktop of my pre-interview notes for myself: stand straight, smile, shake hands firmly, lean slightly forward when talking, maintain eye contact and keep switching eyes to avoid staring, and KNOW YOUR APPLICATION and CV. Practice interviewing with co-residents, family, or faculty mentors. Do your homework and read all information about a program that may be available on their website including the names and training of faculty members, number of fellows per year, clinical sites, and where graduates are practicing. Dress sharply but not memorably, try to fly non-stop whenever possible to minimize delays, and try and pack at least two suits so as to always have a backup.

8.      Be enthusiastic: Again, this comes easier to some people than others. Some applicants are extroverts and thrive on the application process to connect, network, and be the life of the party at interviews. Some have a tendency to retreat inward and come across inaccurately as aloof, uninterested, and standoffish. Know your tendencies and find reasons to be enthusiastic for every program. After all the pain, sweat, tears, and financial investment, it is a shame when lack of energy sinks an interview. Try and be excited, this may be your home base for 2 years!

9.      Be proactive: Make a running rank list of the programs as you complete your interviews to avoid angst later. Keep your mentors updated as to your thoughts as you proceed through the trail. Utilize your mentors to make phone calls and communicate your interest to the programs highest on your list. Feel free to notify your top choice but avoid the fatal and unethical misstep of telling multiple women (or men) you love them the most.

10.  Be thankful: This is true both philosophically and practically. Upon matching celebrate yourself and your accomplishments. You are joining a wonderful field full of amazing people. But do not forget to thank your letter writers, mentors, and friends and family who supported you along the way. They are the unsung heroes behind your achievements.

Thanks for reading!