Sometimes life throws you a curveball that is invisible and hits you in the head knocking you out onto a red ant hill as a buffalo stampede roars in and tramples you into a crippled shell of the excited person you were moments before. This is how I felt on Match Day when I did not match, which, as you can tell, has been a huge surprise and disappointment.
Match Day or Doomsday?
The National Residency Match Program (NRMP or The Match) is a program medical students use to be placed into residency at the end of their 4 years of medical school. Students apply to many, often 40-80, programs hoping to get around 15 interviews. At the end of their interview process, they make a ranked list of their top choice program down to their last choice program. If you would rather not match than attend a program, you can choose to not put that program on your list. Each program also makes a ranked list of the students they interviewed with. It is said programs put a heavy emphasis on regionally close applicants as students are more likely to stay local, but this process is largely concealed.
Upon entering The Match, you are bound by the contract to attend whichever residency program you are matched with. An algorithm favoring student choices then takes the two lists and attempts to fill every program. Then, on a Monday of mid-March, emails are sent out from the NRMP stating either “Congratulations, you have matched!” or “We are sorry, you did not match into any position.” The latter was the email I received on March 16th, 2020, sending me into a meltdown.
Life After Not Matching- The SOAP
Ironically though, you don’t actually have any time to “meltdown.” Within 3 hours of this email, I had to drive an hour to school, and enter the supplemental offer and acceptance program (SOAP), still stuck in the nightmare I couldn’t wake up from. This involved getting a list of all unfilled OBGYN programs (2), available preliminary OBGYN positions (6), and available general surgery preliminary positions (tons). My school required that everyone who “SOAP’ed” apply to the maximum number of programs, 40. I applied to both available categorical OBGYN programs, all 6 prelim OBGYN programs, and 32 general surgery preliminary positions all over the country. After applying, you are not allowed to reach out to any program personally, or you may be banned from Matching in the future.
When I hit submit, I looked at the room around me. Every student was 3 computers distanced away from the next, adhering to the social distancing rules in place at that point in time. Many downward turned eyes were red and puffy, just like mine. Others were better at concealing their pain. Failing to match into their dream specialty after four (eight if you count undergraduate education) years of hard work and dedication was now their reality.
On the ride back home I opened Instagram, big mistake. All of my friends posted screenshots of their “Congratulations, you have matched!” emails. Of course I was so proud and excited for my friends, but the pain was too fresh to feel happiness at that moment. I had to focus on the next steps. I couldn’t tell you what I did for the rest of the day, until 9pm when I got a phone call.
The Cold Calls Begin
The person on the line said their name and asked how my day was going. I believed that they were my primary care physician, so I let out an exasperated sigh and said, “Oh, I’ve had WAY better days,” expecting him to have no idea what I was talking about, as I haven’t been to my doctor in months. Instead, he laughed and said that was very understandable. I realized this was probably not my doctor right as he said he was the program director of a local general surgery position and that he would like to talk to me about his program. I apologized profusely at my unfiltered greeting stating that he had the same name as my PCP, and was put at ease by his appreciation for my authentic response.
This phone call was the first of seven that came over the next day and a half from various general surgery program directors. I tried to keep myself busy playing board games and watching my favorite movies, but my level of anxiety never truly went down. There was still the possibility of being an OBGYN next year if I got the right call, but I never got that call. Each of the surgical program directors who called me during this process opened the conversation by expressing their confusion as to how I didn’t match, which became more and more frustrating.
I still have not gotten a clear answer as to how this happened. According to my counselor, I had one of the strongest applications for OBGYN this year. My board scores were well above the national average. I had a ton of volunteering and ample research. I did everything I was told to do, but it didn’t work and no one could tell me why. I think that is still the hardest part to wrap my mind around.
Accepting an Offer
On Wednesday at 11 am, the first set of offers for the SOAP was sent. I logged in and was relieved to see two local offers. I accepted one quickly, having decided which I program I would prefer if offered ahead of time. You are given two hours to decide. It was then I could finally relax a tiny bit, as I at least knew what the next year of my life would look like. Matchday proceeded to happen digitally on the following Friday, where the rest of my friends opened their emails at noon to see where they would be spending the next 3-5 years training in their various fields.
This was another day I felt extreme happiness and jealousy looking through my Facebook page. Proud family members and partners were boasting about their hard-working loved ones. I couldn’t help but imagine what I “should have been” posting right then. Imagining how much better life would have been if I had just matched at my number one program. Or two, or three…
Alas, I did not match and had to accept that fact. It was definitely a challenge to readjust the way I viewed my future, and I couldn’t have done it without my partner, my friends, and my family. My partner drove me to school that day, entered new schools into ERAS as I rewrote my personal statement geared toward general surgery, and reassured me that no matter what happened, we would get through it. My friends were always there to give me words of encouragement even after I felt hopeless. I am so glad to have so many friends in my life who build each other up in good times and bad (truly horrible).
At the time, I did not want to initiate conversations about not matching but appreciated when my friends sent encouraging messages reminding me of my great qualities. I would recommend this for anyone who hears that a friend has not matched. A few words can go a long way during this extremely stressful time. For those of you who do not match, please try to keep hope. I know it is easy to feel like a failure and hopeless, but just because you didn’t match does not mean you cannot have a successful and rewarding career as a physician. You just aren’t going to be taking the path you originally planned.
I will still be an OBGYN; I’m just taking a year to hone my surgical skills first! I am trying to stay positive. To say that week was the worst week of my life would be an understatement (I also hit a bunny with my car). I have now reflected on how that statement means I have not faced worse hardships or much adversity at all. For that, I am grateful. I guess I also have an answer to that question (What adversity have you faced and how did you overcome it?) the next time I interview this November! I am now excited to apply again. I don’t know what the future holds for me, but I am going to try to enjoy every day and learn as much as I can along the way.