As members of a social species, we all want to fit in, but sometimes it’s standing out that gets you where you want to be. Interventional radiology (IR) has become its own primary medical specialty, and a competitive one at that. No matter your own area of medicine, it’s a competitive world, full of bright people. With that in mind, consider your edge. Learn how to stand out in a good way.
Over the past year and change, I’ve been mentoring a medical student over the phone, from across the country. He’s studying at the University of Pennsylvania, and I’m in Palm Springs, California, working in private practice. Because of the time difference and his busy third year clerkships, we speak sporadically, but we have built a good rapport. We even got to meet in person at last year’s SIR meeting in Austin. Being a tall dude, you could say he fits right into the IR mold. But even Rick is a little nervous about matching into interventional radiology, and wonders how he’ll get a training position in a field recently dubbed one of the most competitive specialties to get into.
I have all the confidence in Rick in the world, and it’s not because he’s tall, male, and of a majority race. It’s because he’s engaged and doing all the right things. And maybe because he sticks out *just enough*.
As much as we want to fit the mold of our desired specialty, standing out can give you a competitive edge. When I met him, I was struck by what differentiates Rick from the pack, and how it makes him unforgettable. First of all, his height is more than the average tall guy, he’s really tall. When he showed up to a resident event I was leading, naturally, I thought he must be one of them (since residency makes you tall). Either I was letting unconscious bias creep in, or I’d momentarily forgotten I invited him to show up. Whoops!
Aside from his striking height, Rick has a crown of red hair. And he laughs at everything. As he updated me on his transition to the clinical years of med school, and how he was finding his first IR conference, he was quick to laugh. Maybe I was the funniest person around. Or maybe, he was nervous to have an attending’s full, undivided attention aimed at him and his goals. His frequent laughter was surprising at first. But overall, it conveyed an openness and a good sense of humor, great assets, in my opinion.
I told him, some people could take his laughter the wrong way. Not everyone in medicine has such an open, ready laugh. Some people are very serious, or at worst, could misinterpret his attitude for disrespect. I warned him, but also told him to embrace this part of his personality. Here’s why.
This sense of humor will help carry him through his training. It will elevate the vibe for those around him. Even when his laughter wanes through grueling nights or challenging weeks, it is a part of his constitution, which deserves to be appreciated. There is no reason that should change. A good sense of humor will support his and his teams’ resilience. He may laugh more than the average student, and standing out can be a good thing.
Did I mention I never got to an IR conference as a medical student, let alone two. Recently, Rick presented a project on gallbladder procedures at the European IR society, CIRSE, a few weeks ago. Strapped for time, he spent a mere two days in Barcelona before heading home. He enjoyed what he could, and went for the opportunity. This will serve him well.
Another way Rick doesn’t seem afraid to stand out is his involvement with the Women in IR Section, which I Chair. As we started our mentoring relationship, I mentioned he could get involved in a project we were working on, the Pregnancy Toolkit. The site is live online now, and will continue to be built over time, as a resource to students, trainees, and attendings: both those with uteri, and those without. The idea is, men also benefit from education on radiation protection, parental leave, and the like. Some men in IR are approached for advice by their techs, nurses and other staff, who may wish to become pregnant and need this kind of information.
It’s a great project to work on, but not knowing Rick at the time, I wasn’t sure he’d be interested. Since he’s an eager learner, and saw the value in the project, he signed on to the working group as the sole male member, and I’m proud of that!
In our conversations, we talk about where he should do away rotations, traditionally a way to get one’s foot in the door at a place you’d like to do residency or fellowship. Once people know you from a rotation, you stand out when application time arrives. For them to remember you warmly, you need to do a good job, show up on time, not complain, and be engaged. But at some institutions, you can be forgotten if you’re just another smart person diligently learning and doing their job. Sticking out a little can be a big asset, and increase your memorability factor. With his personality, I’m sure Rick will make a good impression on his away rotations.
On interviews, there are plenty of ways to stand out, for better or worse. My fellowship interview experience was inherently colored by my being a woman applying in a male dominated field. I presented myself that season, over and over again, as the woman, in a sea of men. On the interview trail, I chatted with the other applicants about the programs they were training at, and what their other interviews had been like. We compared notes on places in common that we’d seen. Those were formative, exciting, and stressful months. During that time, it was common for me to be the only female around, aside from the Program Coordinator.
On interviews, I felt memorable, if for nothing else, for being the only woman interviewing on a given day. Once my interviewers and I got talking, I had other things that made me unique. I had stories demonstrating intrigue and grit, like the time I ran the Paris marathon during residency, only to be stranded in Europe by a natural disaster. My future program director lit up as we talked about my Ironman training during my transitional year. Despite the unconscious bias that still exists in the world, I felt standing out was an asset on interviews. I had an easier time getting on the highlight reel, when my competition looked like an ocean of black and navy suits: another brilliant guy, another socially awkward guy, another New Yorker, another crew cut. I got to stand out just for being me.
Now that I’m an attending, I have learned to love standing out. I’ve built a reputation for providing good care, and am constantly stopped in the hallways for consults and patient updates. I’m recognizable from down the hall, or on the floors. Doctors in other specialties comment that they saw mostly- or all- males performing IR during their training and formative years in medicine. They express their admiration and appreciation for what my department accomplishes for their patients. Every day, I feel the pride of being a woman in IR.
I remember how it felt to be the only woman in the room: “Wow, I must be special!” as Dr. Sasha Shilcutt raved of a similar experience, at her keynote at the Brave Enough Conference in Scottsdale. She recalled sitting on leadership boards at her hospital, often the only woman in the room. Studies show that when another woman is added to the forum, that first woman is more likely to speak up, and more likely to be heard. We need more than one woman at all tables. It’s bound to make the world a better place for us all.
So the million dollar question: how do we let people be themselves in medicine while training in a historic, weighty, revered, sometimes conservative leaning profession? It’s a work in progress. I’ve walked a fine line. Did I do it in spike heels? No. But other people may choose to. The co-resident I’m thinking of had more publications as a resident than I’ll ever have. She was a role model in standing out. Everyone must find their own comfort level, as we figure this out as a profession and as a society. I felt I stood out just enough, in sensible wedges and skirt suit. But I look forward to the day when women can bring their whole selves to their work, and feel like they belong.
What can you do to capitalize on the uniqueness you bring? Do you see your differences as a liability? Is there a way you can flip that script, and use what differentiates you to your advantage? Considering these questions will give you a taste of what it takes to be a woman in IR. Your presence and leadership will flip the script for people sometimes. It’ll throw them off, and sometimes, you might both need to catch your balance.
But being who you are is a huge asset. It’s worth learning to stand out… in a good way. If you don’t feel that way, maybe you haven’t found your location or your people just yet. It took me some time to find my niche, and where I belong. Now I’m running with it. And I can hold your hand, so you can do the same. Sound good?
The path can be riddled with failures, even if you're doing it right. In this recording, I share some of my gaffes with you.