THIS IS WHERE YOU CAN CHANGE THE GAME FOR YOURSELF. Networking effectively is one of the only factors about your journey to residency that you can truly and completely control. Some of you may think you have been “networking” because you have a mentor that you speak to regularly in your field of choice, or you have gone to a few conferences and collected business cards, or because you have even contacted a program director or two in the past. Here’s the deal… NONE of this is enough. Don’t get me wrong, they are a great start, but ONLY a start.
This should be your networking goal: Developing lasting and meaningful relationships with mentors and advocates that are faculty members at every program you think you might want to go to. I firmly believe that doing this was the single most important thing that lead to a successful interview season and match for me. The next statement is not to brag, but simply an illustration: In addition to the other interviews I received, out of the top ten ranked Dermatology programs on Doximity the year that I applied, I got interviews at 8/10. The two I did not get interviews at were the ONLY two programs on that list that I didn’t have a personal relationship with a faculty member. Let that sink in.
Furthermore, when I went to my interviews, there were many occasions when faculty members singled me out to say hello or ask how I was doing to the point where other applicants would ask: “Did you attend this program for medical school?” “Did you do an away rotation here?” The answer was usually, “No.” I had never even met most of them in person prior to interviewing.
Effective networking CHANGED EVERYTHING for me. Besides developing lasting relationships with great mentors and getting valuable advice, I also improved my interview skills by talking to so many people, and significantly increased the number of interviews I was offered. I had faculty members at different programs who felt a responsibility to help me, make phone calls on my behalf, speak up for me in meetings, give me interview tips for their specific programs… and the list of benefits goes on and on. I STILL maintain regular relationships with many of them today.
So how did I create this network? And what’s the formula so you can do the same or better?
Identify potential mentors/contacts/advocates: Go to the websites of all the programs you may be interested in applying to in the future, all across the country, and identify faculty members that you want to contact. I usually looked for people that had something in common with me (minorities, women, people that were interested in research areas similar to mine). Make a list of these people and find their email addresses or their secretaries’ email addresses. I personally reached out to over 50 academic dermatologists across the country. I probably received responses from 25-30 of them, and used the following steps to build rapport. Pro-Tip: Another way to identify mentors/contacts is by going to conferences in your desired field and talking to speakers/presenters (these days it’s happening virtually, but still valuable). When you introduce yourself, always make sure to ask for a business card or their email address, and contact them as below.
Reach out: Send a BRIEF email to them introducing yourself, stating your interest in their specialty, and have an ASK (ie brief phone/zoom call or meeting in person -when the world opens up- to learn more about their journey to the specialty, opportunity to help with any research projects they are working on, etc). My go-to line was: “I am writing to you because I wanted to introduce myself, as well as learn more about your journey to the field of dermatology. Please let me know if you have any availability for a brief in-person or phone meeting in the near future.” You can attach your CV if it’s poppin. Make sure this email is SHORT and TO THE POINT with a lot of WHITE SPACE and not a lot of words!!! Faculty members are busy people, the longer your email is, the less likely they are to read and respond. Pro-Tip: put a small professional photo of yourself in the body of the email underneath your signature. Make sure you look friendly and confident in the photo. This allows them to become familiar with your face, which will eventually come in handy when you visit their program for interviews etc (maybe that’s why so many faculty members were able to recognize me on the interview trail).
Meet with them: Schedule BRIEF in person (pandemic permitting) or phone meetings based on the faculty member’s preference (usually somewhere between 15-30 min). BE EARLY. During the meeting try to ask the person questions about their journey more than you talk about yourself. This is how you will truly learn from them and get to know them. From a psychological standpoint, most people enjoy conversations in which they spend a lot of time talking about themselves, so make sure they enjoy the conversation. Of-course, personality types factor in here. Some people won’t have much to say and will want you to carry the conversation. Be prepared for this. Some of them will also ask you questions, which you should try to answer enthusiastically. Some will seem uninterested. Try to maintain your enthusiasm and don’t take anything personally!Pro-Tip #1: Make good eye contact, but don’t stare. Try to mirror the person’s tone and body language, which helps to build rapport. Pro-Tip #2: Keep a running spreadsheet of who you talked to and when, and any major advice they gave you or major personal details they gave about themselves (ie their dog Bingo or their newborn daughter Ashley, etc). This information will help you when you follow up. Pro-Tip #3: You may not get responses from many of the people you reach out to. Feel free to send a follow up email no sooner than 2 weeks later. If they still don’t respond, let it rest for now. DON’T TAKE THIS PERSONALLY.
FOLLOW UP: This is where most people go wrong with networking. One meeting is ONLY to initiate a relationship! You have to follow-up in order for it to grow! You can do this in a few ways: First, send a follow-up email the day after your meeting or conversation thanking the person for their time. Second, at 3-6 month intervals, send additional short follow up emails listing any major accomplishments since you last spoke (awards/honors, publications) and thanking them for their advice and ongoing role in your success. Wait another 3-6 months and repeat (or go with the flow, from this point one of them may take a personal interest in you and even initiate conversations more frequently). Pro-Tip #1: If you want to get fancy, tell them how you benefited from SPECIFIC advice they gave you during the last conversation. For example, if someone told you during that initial call “It’s important to learn how to say ‘No’ early-on in life so you don’t over-commit”, tell them about a time since you last spoke that saying “No” to someone allowed you to have time to study or spend time with family etc. This shows that not only did you pay attention to them, but they also had a positive impact on your life! Nothing feels better than knowing you changed someone’s life for the better. This is how you build rapport! Pro-Tip #2: If you want to get REALLY fancy here, throw in a “Hope Bingo is well!” towards the end of the email to show you paid attention to the personal things they told you as well.
Random networking Pro-tips:
- Master the art of being persistent without being annoying when contacting faculty members. Know that they are busy, and responding to you likely isn’t first on their priority list, so sometimes a follow up email/call is appropriate. On the other hand, it’s important to realize the times when someone doesn’t want to mentor you or keep talking to you (ie they respond to your email without giving you information to schedule a meeting even though you asked for it, they are rude and short in meetings, etc). Sometimes it’s ok to let one or two fall off gently.
- If you are an M1 – M3, your contact intervals can be on the wider side (ie every 6 months) so that you stay relevant in their minds but you aren’t harassing them. As an M4, you may want to talk to them more often (ie every 2-3 months) to stay fresh in their minds. There is NO exact formula here, some faculty members will get annoyed no matter WHAT you do, but that’s what worked for me.
- As an M4, avoid sending random emails to initiate relationships with Program Directors and Chairpersons as you get close to submitting your ERAS. They are VERY BUSY at this time. Also, it is OBVIOUS that you are only reaching out to them because you are about to apply. Reach out to other faculty instead. My suggestion is, if you want to develop relationships with PDs/Chairs, have a mentor make a call for you, or start earlier in medical school.
- Don’t take anything personally. Literally. Anything.
- It is also very helpful to meet and talk to residents in the field! They have valuable information on the day-to-day details about the programs, as well as tips for doing well in the Match. They are invaluable resources!!! Unfortunately, it is often hard to find their email addresses online, but you should try.
- These meetings are EXCELLENT interview practice.
- A brief word on away rotations: On every away rotation you do (if you do any), try to set up a meeting with the program director, the chairperson, and other faculty members while you’re there. During EACH away I went on, I set up around 8 in-person meetings, and was able to sell myself in real time to the people that would soon be making a decision on who to send interviews to. As SOON as you are confirmed for an away rotation, it is OK to send emails trying to schedule in person meetings during your rotation.