On May 11, 2020 the Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) released a statement encouraging medical schools, hospitals and other institutions to perform virtual interviews, and provided guidance for program directors and applicants on how to prepare and conduct them. Nearly all Preventive Medicine Residency program directors who responded to an informal survey posted on the pmrdirectors Google Group stated that they plan to perform virtual interviews.
However, program directors may have doubts about their ability to evaluate applicants with limited interactions. They also may question the logistics necessary to showcase their programs and successfully recruit outside applicants. Applicants may worry about their ability to assess the general environment of a program, including the resources available in the institution and/or city to support their families and future career opportunities.
We have been using both in-person and virtual interviews at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Preventive Medicine Residency Program over the past four years. During this time period, four applicants matched to our program after participating in a virtual interview--half of our total matched residents. The virtual interviews provided our program with an opportunity to interview applicants who could not travel because of their training schedules.
The process starts when the program director has a 30-minute screening video call with qualified candidates found after an initial review of applications. Based on this conversation, the program director decides if the candidate should be invited for a full interview. One alumnus, Dr. Diego Tamez, describes the advantages of this screening process, “It helped me decide whether it was worth the program’s and my time to have me go there in person. It sure did help as you can gather information and get a sense of how you would fit in before spending money/time in travel arrangements.”
For applicants who cannot attend an in-person interview, our program coordinator then sets up one-hour interview slots using a service such as Slottr.com or Sign Up Genius, and asks the candidate to choose two interview time blocks: one to interview with a panel of three faculty and one to meet with current residents. We have found that a maximum of 3-4 people is optimal in a web interview setting and that the program coordinator should attend the faculty interviews to keep them running on time, and troubleshoot in case of connection issues. Most importantly, all interviewers are asked to fill out an evaluation of the candidate immediately after completing the interview, while the conversation and impression is fresh. Residents meet virtually with the applicant, without the program coordinator or director present, in order to answer questions in more detail or openly discuss the residency culture.
After the interviews, the program director and coordinator follow up with applicants to assess if there are additional questions, sometimes resulting in another video call. In addition, the residents might send additional information about the city/program (e.g., an email about housing). Finally, we update our website regularly with information about our curriculum, training sites, and bios for faculty and alumni.
From the applicants’ perspective
Margaret Nolan, MD, MPH: I was incredibly grateful when the program director switched my planned in-person interview to a phone interview, after a blizzard hit Minnesota. I lived only about 4 hours away from Madison, but I had two small children and a husband in fellowship training. Without the stress of labeling and freezing all the family meals beforehand, I found much more time to research the program beforehand. I had separate phone calls with several faculty and then one with both of the current residents together. The faculty were inspiring and gave me new ideas about career paths I had not considered. The residents were the most helpful, because they were living what would be my reality. They talked about the program leadership and structure in a way that assured me that whatever the nitty gritty details of the program content, the foundation was solid and priorities were sound. By the end, it was clear to me that these were my people, and Wisconsin was my first choice program.
Odilichi Ezenwanne, MD, MPH: I was interviewing as a foreign medical graduate with only a few weeks to spare for interviews before I returned home. There was a forecast of an impending storm on the day of the interview with a strong possibility of flight delays, which would have presented quite an economic challenge for me. I contacted the program and expressed my concerns. The program director offered me the option of a virtual interview which was the first indication of the culture of positive support within the program. While convenient, I understood that a virtual interview may not allow me to fully assess the program to my satisfaction, especially “the intangibles” - the little cues you pick up in unguarded moments that really clue you in as to how the residents relate to each other and with the faculty. So I really had to put more work into researching the program, the alumni, the faculty and the city. The interviews went very well; I had an instant connection with the program director and he was very forthright with the answers to my myriad of questions prior. The other faculty were very engaged in the interviews and made it a very pleasant experience.
Richard Crawford, MD, MPH: I found the opportunity to interview virtually exceedingly helpful, without compromising my ability to make a decision. I was in residency training elsewhere and my ability to travel was limited due to clinical obligations. While I hope I would have found a way to travel to Wisconsin for an in-person interview, it just may not have been possible and I would have missed out on the program I ranked as my first choice. This benefit is reciprocal-- I have been involved in the recruitment and interviewing process of candidates to our program over the past two years and believe we benefit from a broader pool of applicants. In addition to video-conference interviews with the program director, faculty, and residents, I found it valuable to augment the process by speaking with recent graduates of the program. After the interview, open communication with existing residents and the program director was key to providing clarification on the program and insight on living in the area. I felt I was able to gain sufficient perspective on the training and those I would be working alongside, and now, having nearly completed my training here, I can say that my expectations were exceeded.
We acknowledge that our program does not handle the volume of applicants and interviews that other programs manage. However, in our experience, bidirectional communication across the process allows candidates and program directors to explore mutual fit, and get to know the program even if an in-person visit is not possible.
About the authors
Margaret Nolan and Richard Crawford are the chief residents for the Preventive Medicine Program at the University of Wisconsin - Madison (UW-Madison). Maria Mora Pinzon is a Preventive Medicine Program faculty and a scientist at UW-Madison. Diego Tamez is a board certified preventive medicine physician currently working for Indian Health Services. Odilichi Ezenwanne is a board certified preventive medicine physician currently working at Aaron E. Henry Community Health Services Center, Inc. Patrick Remington is a professor emeritus and program director of the Preventive Medicine Residency program at UW-Madison.