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Match Day: Out of the Comfort Zone and Into the Crucible

match day

Each year, soon-to-be graduating medical students count down to the third Friday in March, also known as “Match Day,” when they find out where they will continue their medical training. Jonathan Wood, a fifth-year MD/MBA candidate in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, shares his thoughts as he prepares for the next step in his career.

Match Day is the climax of medical school. It's one of the most visible and dramatic outcome of four years of hard work. For many, it will be a day of pure joy. But because the Match process is not unlike being picked sequentially in gym class, the day is also a source of anxiety and uncertainty. Imagine opening an envelope, hands trembling, with family anxiously assembled around you – and having to explain to grandma that you're not headed home to Connecticut after all, but rather to ta hospital across the country.

The Match Day drama belies an important reality: the particulars of which residency accepts you may matter very little in determining the kinds of physicians we become. By virtue of acceptance at any residency, med students can be sure of two things: they will soon be working very hard, and they will ultimately earn the privilege of practicing medicine independently.

That’s the mantra I repeat to myself as my wife and I nervously await our own envelope. By now we have formed clear preferences for our own next assignment, and specific hopes have taken root (she, a commercial pilot, hopes also to start a small flower farm). We have reasons to be confident, but also reasons for self-doubt. In the end, the Match is one of many life events over which we have little control, and toward which we must show humility.

That’s appropriate, because it's not just about us. The nation badly needs more physicians, and the whole purpose of Match Day is to maximize the number of U.S. physician trainees (the algorithm which pairs med students with training programs is designed to find a program for every candidate and candidates for every program). After the celebrations, we'll start our jobs with serious work to do. Thus, as this milestone approaches, my feelings are mixed, even paradoxical: sobriety and pride; relief and anxious anticipation; confidence and humility toward the challenges ahead.

Transitions like this aren't altogether new to me. Before medical school I was an Air Force officer for more than seven years. I had little say over where the military posted or deployed me, but invariably found relationships and meaning wherever I was sent. Like residency, military deployments entailed challenges and responsibilities that initially felt well beyond my abilities, but forced me to adapt and grow rapidly. That's one upside of the residency match, pulling us out of our comfort zones and into a crucible experience meant to fortify us for careers in the healthcare trenches.

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