The COVID-19 public health crisis upended many norms in medical education. Most of medical school is built around significant in-person contact. During COVID-19, educators and students have had to adapt to the changing times to protect public health. Perhaps the most strongly affected individuals are those who applied for the 2021 match. Students and program directors alike were in an unprecedented time — trying to find the right resident “fit” without away rotations and in-person interviews. As an applicant to neurosurgery, I was looking forward to learning how different programs operate compared to my home institution while also furthering my education in my field of interest. While COVID-19 significantly affected this plan, the pandemic also allowed for changes and innovations to the neurosurgery match — some of which may persist beyond the 2021 match cycle.
Home neurosurgery rotations were extended to eight weeks due to the limitations of away rotations. I was fortunate enough to rotate at a high-volume academic program, and I felt that I had excellent exposure to the field. I also became more familiar with the residents, faculty and program at my institution. To accommodate canceled away rotations, I attended virtual sub-internships and Zoom happy hours for programs that I had previously applied to for away rotations. Additionally, I scheduled phone calls with individual residents at these programs, which proved incredibly helpful and insightful. Finally, I built a Twitter profile, which was a great avenue to virtually connect with other applicants and faculty.
The most significant impacts of this cycle may be felt by those in states with few neurosurgery programs in their area. Obtaining letters of recommendation — considered “make or break” during the match — is undoubtedly a challenge for applicants without home programs. Standing out as an applicant — even with a home program and stellar letters — was also a challenge during this cycle. There is certainly a unique pressure to beef up “on-paper” qualifications such as the United States Medical Licensing Examination and publications. For applicants — particularly those without home programs — focusing on getting to know your programs of interest virtually was helpful. The residents I interacted with were more than willing to share their stories and highlight as much of their program as they could over a phone call. It was also helpful to hear more about their surrounding area. These conversations were a great way to get to know new people in an era of limited in-person contact.
The COVID-19 era has ushered in a disruption of the neurosurgical match. Finding meaningful connections during this time was a logistical hurdle for every applicant — particularly those without home programs. I focused on building as many connections virtually as possible — and fortunately, there were plenty of opportunities. I think that some of these resources, such as the virtual sub-internship or neurosurgical education webinars, are great resources that should continue in post-COVID-19 match cycles. While we live in a unique time, I find that the sense that “we’re all in this together” has persisted through my virtual and in-person interactions with others in the field. We are, after all, made to be resilient to the many trials of medicine — both the expected and unexpected ones.
Editor’s Note: We hope that you will share what you learn from our posts. We invite you to join the conversation on Twitter by following @Neurosurgery and using the hashtags #Match2021 and #NeurosurgeryMatch.
Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University