In this episode of the Small Talk, Big Topics podcast, host Dr. Matthew Whitson is joined by three different GI fellowship program directors: Drs. Joan Culpepper-Morgan, chief of the division of gastroenterology at Harlem Hospital in New York; Millie Long, vice chief of education and director of the fellowship program at the University of North Carolina; and Justin Kupec, GI program director and associate professor at West Virginia University, to discuss what fellowship program directors look for from GI fellowship applicants.
To begin the episode, all three fellow program directors introduce themselves and discuss their programs. Joan is head of a smaller program which accepts one fellow per year and is primarily clinical. Millie accepts 15 fellows per year in Chapel Hill and has a clinician educator track, along with two separate T32 tracks. Justin accepts four fellows per year and has a goal of providing support to the academic system and the rest of the state. Next, they discuss what led them to be a program director. Joan said she was always interested in academia and teaching, and she became the associate program director at Northwell hospital. Millie always loved education and research, so she loves teaching research methodology. She has an interest in IBD but believes in the right mentorship and continuing to bond with fellows to optimize patient care. Justin was asked to be the new associate program director by a new chief, and says it is a fulfilling position.
Next, all three discuss how they balance their mission and goals within the program constraints. Millie states that she advocates for her trainees and that you have to have the right balance. Efficiency is needed, but training fellows takes time. She does use certain sites for first or senior fellows. Justin states that fellows are the backbone of the department in that all patients belong to them. Their program is here to serve the fellows, so they add great value to the program. Their key role is to make sure they learn and meet the ACVG requirements. He also says they need to ask fellows what they can do for them.
They talk about the characteristics, traits and behaviors that extremely successful fellows have. Joan says fellows that are problem solvers that can think on their feet are the most successful. Millie says the ability to be flexible and work on a team is extremely important. She also talks about the continued ability to take care of the patient and go the extra mile for them. Justin says successful fellows are the ones that are willing and open to take advice and learn from others. They next talk about pure academic aspects that successful fellows possess. Millie says she wants her fellows to have had a clinical question that was relevant and then have completed the program from beginning to end. Joan says fellows who’ve had a case report and can take it from top to bottom to get it published are successful. Justin says fellows that show depth and inquisitiveness are very successful.
All of the program directors discuss what they look for in fellow applicants. First, they all talk about how important it is to see that the applicant had owned an abstract and completed it. They also want applicants that can discuss it with enthusiasm to see that they were the ones to initiate the abstract. Justin gives preferential spots in the program for those that have trained or are from the area. He also relies on networking and has former fellows tell him of contacts or good applicants that fit the mold. Joan also relies on geographic ties but looks at applicants’ experiences to see if they have had similar patients and encounters previously. Millie looks for an interesting life story from their personal statement or if they clearly did research about UNC that shows that they put in the extra effort in their application. She says if they exhibit extra interest in UNC then that shows they are serious about the institution and program.
They also talk about red flags in fellowship applicants. Bad writing, including not proofreading, is a turn off, Joan says. Millie says a personal statement can go really well or really wrong. She doesn’t just want a regurgitation of their CV – she wants to know something about the applicant. Justin likes to ask applicants about their hobbies and says you can really learn more about the applicant by knowing what they do in their spare time. Letters of recommendation do not have to be GI, it just needs to be someone that knows them well that can comment on their various attributes like their work ethic. Joan likes ones that tell a story about the applicant. If fellow applicants are applying for certain tracks within the program, they do need a letter within that specific track. Justin is more concerned with someone who does not have a good letter of recommendation. Joan also says she reads so many statements about family stories and that’s why they are interested in GI, but they need to be consistent with the rest of the application. Millie says you need to explain why you failed something – don’t just try to gloss over that fact but own it and explain those gaps. Justin says they need to learn from the first time and explain what they will avoid doing in the future. Joan is also moving to behavioral interviews because she wants to make sure they get closer to finding the right applicants during the interview process, not just someone you find common ground with. Millie wants to continue to be involved with applicants throughout their careers because sometimes they come back and teach.
In their closing remarks, all three give a piece of advice for fellows and applicants for the upcoming season. Justin says the fellowship is a grind – “it’s a marathon, it’s very long” – but he encourages fellows to stick with it, enjoy this time and embrace the pain. He emphasizes that fellows make very strong friendships and bonds with the other fellows, and they should cherish it and not take it for granted. Millie advises fellows to be honest with themselves about what they want and the programs they are applying to. She says it is a disservice to be dishonest about true goals, and fellows should find a program that will support their goals. Lastly, Joan recommends new fellows really think about the hard days that will come in the future and if you don’t mind that, then full speed ahead.