Unfortunately, there is no MSAR for residency. If you are gearing up for residency applications or simply want to get a lay of the landscape ahead of the ERAS storm, look no further than the Med School Insiders three-step method to systematically generate your program list.
Thank you to Austin Niklas Johnson, Stanford University School of Medicine MD Candidate, for being our Insider contributor for this guide.
This is finally it! You have successfully navigated the intricacies and challenges of medical school and are ready to become a full-fledged doctor, complete with an actual paycheck. You may vividly remember what it was like to apply to medical school and are hopeful that your ERAS experience will feel familiar. It is also likely you relied on both official and unofficial resources to identify the schools that aligned with your values and aspirations, with the low-cost MSAR at the core of it all.
Unfortunately, there is no such gold standard for applicants to lean on for residency applications. Much like the plethora of intersecting specialties, resources to systematically explore and select programs are fragmented across various organizations and forums.
The lack of a unifying tool notwithstanding, you don’t need to fall through the cracks of the current Swiss cheese model of applying to residency. While my journey was rife with the trial and error of resources that purportedly provide all-encompassing blueprints to develop one’s program list, I have found there is no such yellow-brick road. Instead, it took a couple of unique sites along with some good ol’ Excel formatting to distill the formula I want to share with you today.
Before we get to the nitty-gritty of the tools and methods I used to successfully navigate dermatology residency applications through what was (and still is) a major ERAS guinea pig year, I want to briefly contextualize my experience for you.
First, I had the privilege of embarking on a research year before applying to residency, which meant I had ample time to discover the forthcoming method. Secondly, and arguably most important of all, I am an aspiring academic dermatologist, which means that by September, I had scoured nearly 200 preliminary, transitional year, and advanced residency program websites and their associated ratings and statistics before ultimately applying to well over half of them.
Given this experience and the overwhelmingly positive results from my application, I am confident that, combined with the blood, sweat, and tears of your nearly half-decade or more of hard work, the system below will lead to a program list that proudly fits you. Best of all, everything I mention is free!
The Fellowship and Residency Electronic Interactive Database, better known as FREIDA, is the official American Medical Association (AMA) residency and fellowship program database, boasting over 13,000 accredited programs across every specialty and subspecialty.
It is most well-known for its basic overview of the nationwide programs available to applicants each year, though it also has other perks, such as an Explore Specialties tab for those still finding their fit in medicine, as well as a Road to Residency financial calculator that can help you budget for residency applications.
However, the latter is a members’ only benefit ($20/year for medical students). Since you are likely reading this post because you are on the cusp of application year, we are going to zero in on the features most pertinent to creating your program list, beginning with the program search function.
Given the comprehensive nature of this resource, I fully trusted FREIDA to paint a broad stroke of everything out there in dermatology land. You can do the same for your specialty by simply searching what you are looking to apply into, including dual programs, such as emergency + family medicine (really, it has every combo out there). It can even search multiple specialties at once, though that gets complicated quickly.
Before we take a deeper dive into leveraging FREIDA, I want to ensure you are ready to systematically capture the data in a manner that best suits you. I strongly suggest you begin thinking about what is important to you when selecting and eventually ranking residencies. If you aren’t sure where to begin, think about the big ones that have the most potential to affect your next stage of training positively or negatively:
- Program location/region
- Program size (oftentimes, bigger programs = less call)
- Reputation (we will explore this factor further in resource #2)
- Program type (university vs. community-based; patient population, etc.)
We have another guide that outlines what to consider when choosing residency programs. Learn more: 5 Factors to Consider When Choosing Where to Spend Residency.
The reason I paused here for this thought experiment is because it makes what comes next that much less overwhelming. That’s not to say the year-long+ process of applying to residency won’t be one of the most stressful times of your life, but when you identify what is most important to you, you retain a sliver of autonomy in the process. With that in mind, let’s continue.
Now that you’ve selected the specialty you wish to explore on FREIDA, the next step is to pick your view and filters. By default, programs are sorted alphabetically by state in list format, with 25 being shown at any one time. The same goes if you switch to map view, which highlights the locations of the 25 programs listed.
The latter view leaves something to be desired, as you cannot display more than 25 programs at a time. However, it can be useful to get a sense of the distribution of programs across a given state.
Now, if you have the time, you can painstakingly click on each program listed in your desired specialty, but I strongly recommend against this. Rather, this is where you gauge your strength as an applicant alongside the typical number of programs your peers would apply to. For dermatology, that can be upwards of 70+, which is why we need a personalized system.
An easy way to reduce program overload is to filter by location, which FREIDA provides in the way of checkboxes to select regions and/or states. Employing this filter allows for a more manageable list, as does selecting specific application types (for example, only the programs that participate in ERAS).
For those applying to advanced programs, another powerful filter hidden within “Application Type” is a checkbox that selects only those that also offer preliminary positions, which essentially generates a list of pseudo-categorical programs and thus an enhanced possibility of not needing to move twice.
Now, there are tons of other filters and sliders on FREIDA, from those that select programs with or without discrete testing requirements to ones that are more useful for specific applicant types, such as IMGs and DOs. (Disclaimer: I do not think of these groups of applicants as the “others;” rather, I wanted to point out specific sub-tools that will be helpful for people seeking programs with specific compositions and/or benefits).
From the US MD perspective, I found the “Locations” and “Application Type” filter categories the most useful, as I was open to applying to any program type, but only within specific regions.
Once you have generated a filtered list, the next step is to save your work. Thankfully, you do not have to pay the AMA to save your search, but you do need to create a free account. If you want to go one step further within the AMA architecture and build a program dashboard, that’s when you would need to cough up the $20/year.
The reason I felt the $20 was worth it, in the end, was the ability to quickly bookmark programs from a filtered search for further analysis (including retaining filters to further organize your search), which leads us to the final aspect of FREIDA: individual program information.
Depending on your level of membership, each program will be represented by a virtual card that denotes its location, official website, and program highlights. Upon clicking on the card, you can learn about additional details of the program, such as leadership and/or coordinator contact information.
In hindsight, the coolest aspects from the cards were the information regarding the number of interviews offered and whether there were STEP/COMLEX cutoffs. If you have Program Dashboard capabilities, you could also take notes directly on each card and compare programs, but I eventually abandoned these features for a more flexible personal spreadsheet.
To summarize, FREIDA should be your jump-off point into the world of residency programs. It provides an efficient means to create a list that reflects your desired location, practice setting, and more, depending on whether you choose to become a full-fledged AMA member, and should whet your appetite regarding the factors you consider the most important for this next (and possibly last) stage of training.
However, you won’t get much out of FREIDA beyond official statistics, which is why we need a second resource to contextualize your findings. Cue, Doximity!
2. The Doximity Residency Navigator
Despite lacking a cool acronym, this resource is chock full of unique features unfettered by paywalls, including STEP/COMLEX score comparisons of matched and unmatched applicants for the major specialties, as well as a one-of-a-kind Couples Match tool. Since my wife is a PA, I can’t share my experience on couples matching, but the Doximity Couples Match resource seems to be unparalleled. While I highly suggest exploring these features as you find applicable, let’s get back to the main course: the Programs tab.
Like FREIDA, the Doximity Residency Navigator (DRN) is composed of a variety of filters. However, it is arguably more limited in that you cannot multiselect specialties or filter by state and region at the same time. Additionally, you are limited to searching within ~30 of the most popular specialties.
Unique to the DRN, however, is an extremely useful sorting function, in which you can choose to sort by reputation based on resident reviews, research output, program size, and percentage who subspecialize.
Regarding the latter, if you have your entire life journey mapped out, you can even indicate your intended fellowship, and the DRN will select those programs that have strong affiliations with or a track record for matching residents into that fellowship. I also particularly like the simpler filters, such as toggling between urban vs. rural training environments and determining which programs have affiliations with VAs and pediatric hospitals in addition to large adult hospitals.
Remember how I mentioned FREIDA can only display 25 programs at one time on its map view? The DRN has no such restrictions, allowing you to see everywhere across the country you could end up come Match Day. It also has a save program function like its AMA competitor, and while both allow you to download your saved list, FREIDA’s capabilities exist behind the aforementioned paywall.
When it came to downloading the data I collated, I chose to align with the DRN, but that was only after exploring each program I saved in depth using the resource, which takes us to additional highlights of the DRN.
Unlike FREIDA, in which you are relegated to rather bland statistics, the DRN illuminates each program through ratings and reviews from alumni, year-by-year breakdowns of where you will spend your time, and even charts reminiscent of the MSAR, such as alumni subspecialty percentage, gender balance, and top feeder med schools.
You also have the option to explore current resident and alumni platforms directly within Doximity. Before converting your program search into a LinkedIn-esque free-for-all, though, check out the bottom of each program page, where the DRN pulls Niche data regarding the program city’s living grades and median rent/home values.
While FREIDA and the DRN both have a place in our residency list algorithm, each has notable advantages and disadvantages.
From the perspective of overall filter capabilities, FREIDA shines with its multiselect options and comprehensive residency exploration list, while the DRN provides more applicant-friendly sorting. The latter is the clear winner in the realm of individual program details, though FREIDA is a nice starting point for learning distinguishing statistics, such as the number of interviews offered each year.
Utilized together, these two resources should be able to generate a basic program list, but there is one final step in the formula to complete before the September deadline.
3. Individual Program Websites
Obviously, painstakingly exploring 100+ program websites neither sounds fun nor efficient, and I will admit that step 3 of this process took up most of my time.
However, simply applying to the programs you identified through FREIDA and the DRN is likely to lead to wasted money and added stress, as not only are you undoubtedly going to apply to more programs than you should (what’s a few more clicks?), but you are also going to be flying blind when it comes to overall program fit and, if offered by your specialty, signaling.
Of course, you don’t need to go to a program website at the location filter stage, but only the deepest of site dives will reveal why certain programs stand out to you, whether that be unique academic tracks, service opportunities, or specialty clinics.
In other words, if you downloaded your saved program list from FREIDA or the DRN, you have a much-needed head start on organizing your spreadsheet columns, but it’s only until you click on each program hyperlink that you truly find what is most important for you.
This step is much like creating an annotated bibliography of your literature search, in which you highlight what sticks out in each program. For example, one may have an amazing amount of protected academic or elective time, while the other has unparalleled resident wellness opportunities.
At this point, you should begin developing your own columns to conditionally format and sort on, and from that, a preliminary rank order list (ROL) will arise. While you will need to secure interviews to truly create a ROL, by exploring individual program websites now, February (or even earlier for San Francisco matchers) ranking won’t seem so daunting. Moreover, you will have completed the foundational research necessary to sound informed during your residency interviews.
Now, I am not going to lie—program websites can be like rabbit holes with their videos, testimonies, research profiles, detailed curriculums, and the like, which makes maintaining our systematic approach difficult. However, after going through a handful of websites, you should naturally develop a search pattern suited to your interests and priorities.
Last but not least, do not make the mistake of assuming you will remember what you see. Even though it may take more time, take notes as you go along.
You made it! With our systematic three-step residency program search method, you can enter the program research phase acutely aware of the advantages and disadvantages of each resource.
This algorithm will allow you to avoid missteps like relegating yourself to too many or too few resources and provide the information that will ultimately save you time, money, and wellbeing.
All in all, as someone who is still going through the application process, I wish I had been more confident in deciding there isn’t a single best tool out there. Like in medicine, residency applications are a team sport, and while you, as the quarterback, will ultimately decide what the play looks like, you can only score with the right resources on your side.
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