5 Questions to Ask the Chief Resident & Program Leadership During Residency

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August 12, 2022
Starting residency can be daunting. It’s a transformative experience that will transition you from a medical student to a practicing physician. It will be busy, and at times tiring, but you’ll learn so much and should view this as your opportunity to learn how to be a stellar doctor. Your program leadership—the faculty you work with, your chief residents, and the program director—are there to support you along this journey. Read on to learn five important questions to ask these mentors as you navigate your time in training.

1. Should I consider a fellowship or subspecialty training?

It’s absolutely fine and even expected to enter residency without a clear direction of what the future will hold. However, as you advance through the early parts of your residency, you might gravitate toward certain areas within your specialty. As you get a better sense of what you want to do with your career, ask the chief resident or program leadership questions and use this information to develop a plan.

One of the first questions you should consider is whether to pursue a fellowship or subspecialty training. Fellowships vary depending on your residency (e.g., an infectious disease fellowship for a pediatrics resident, a gastroenterology fellowship for an internal medicine resident, or a hand surgery fellowship for an orthopedic surgery resident). This will extend the duration of your training, but it will give you further expertise in your chosen niche. Pursuing a fellowship is ultimately a personal decision, but it’s still a good idea to seek guidance from your mentors.

2. How do I find a research mentor?

Residency can be busy, and you shouldn’t feel pressured to take on more than you can handle. However, if you have the time, you should consider getting involved in research. This can be a great complement to your clinical experience, especially if you aspire to a career in academic medicine. Becoming a research assistant could be a great way to make extra income during residency as well.

You can build up your CV and, in the process, learn how to collect and analyze data, gain skills in reading and writing scientific literature, and contribute to the body of knowledge within your field. You might not know who’s doing research that interests you, so you should ask your program director or chief residents for help finding a good mentor.

3. How should I spend my elective time?

You should also ask about what to do with elective time if you have any built into your residency curriculum. These are usually two-week or four-week blocks where you can choose what your rotation will be.

Most electives involve rotating through a certain subspecialty in your field, so if you’re interested in doing a fellowship, you can tailor your electives to what would make sense for your fellowship application and future career. When talking through elective options with advisers, ask about which electives would be useful and when you should pursue them.

4. What should I do to prepare for in-training and board exams?

As a heads up, you will continue to take exams during and after residency. The USMLE Step 3 exam is, of course, a test that you take during residency. In addition, nearly every specialty requires you to pass a board exam in order to become board certified to practice.

For some specialties, this may be immediately after you graduate from residency, while for others it may be months or years later. Similarly, during your residency, you will have so-called in-training exams that are checkpoints to make sure you’re on track with your learning. What you gain from your clinical experiences alone will go a long way toward preparing you for these exams, but you will probably have to supplement this with some independent studying.

Because your faculty and chief residents have likely taken these exams already, you should ask how they recommend you study. Some exams may require more preparation than others, and some ways of studying might be more efficient. Ask about when you’re expected to take these exams, which resources are high-yield, and the importance of doing well on these tests for fellowship applications or other career aspirations.

5. How do I ask for help if I need it?

This might be the most crucial question of all and is an important one to ask early on in your training. It’s okay if you have moments where you find residency really challenging—everyone does, even if it might not seem like it.

If you feel overwhelmed by your clinical responsibilities or work-life balance, you’re allowed to ask for help. Your program wants you to succeed and often has structures in place if residents need support. To that end, it’s worthwhile to ask up front what resources exist and how to access them. You don’t have to unnecessarily struggle through burnout when your program has so many supports in place for you.

The bottom line: don’t be afraid to ask

Ultimately, your residency leadership is committed to fostering your growth and transformation into the outstanding physician you will become. You can (and should) lean on these individuals for help and guidance when you need it.

Whether it’s related to planning your career, creating your schedule, or seeking support for the challenges of being in training, you have many people who want to help you succeed—all you need to do is ask.


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By Michael Stephens, MD


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