Opinions: Renaissance residents: Dermatology residency program directors discuss winning qualities

March 1, 2009

Every year, hundreds of medical students line up to try their chances at becoming a dermatology resident.

Key Points

Last year, more than 700 candidates signed up for the 327 dermatology residency slots available through the National Residency Matching Program (NRMP). This year, there are three more programs and 10 more slots allotted for dermatology specialization.

Despite the odds against being accepted, many students are applying to a dozen or more training programs.

The program directors all used strikingly similar words to describe this year's candidates.

Christopher J. Arpey, M.D., F.A.A.D., from the University of Iowa, says, "The people trying to pursue a residency in dermatology are very bright, motivated young people. A lot of them are very altruistic, very high-achieving folks who have done well in medical school.

"A lot have done volunteer work in their schools and taken leadership roles in school and out in their community. It's a very personable group."

Well-rounded applicants

Dr. Arpey thinks it's beneficial for students to be well-rounded.

"There's such a need for physicians to do things in their community - beyond just showing up and taking good care of their patients.

"That's primary, of course, but it's nice to see people who are willing to do things for their schools or their fellow persons," he says.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Dean Morrell, M.D., F.A.A.D., says the applicant pool gets better every year.

"They're incredibly smart individuals, who are full of experiences in their life and professional career.

"Everybody's coming with really high board scores, excellent grades and comments on their clerkship rotations. They have a lot of research experience, which makes for a very well-rounded applicant."

"A lot of us currently on faculties are glad we're not applying to dermatology programs at this point, because it has gotten so competitive," Dr. Morrell adds.

"When you get a lot of applications - and we get about 500 to 600 each year- setting a floor of what board scores will be considered is one way to automatically eliminate a large group of applicants. Some programs rely strongly on that score, because it's one way to compare students from different schools. It doesn't necessarily pick out who's going to be the best dermatologist, but it is one way to start."

When selecting applicants, Dr. Morrell says, "We involve a committee to look at a combination of factors, including board scores, the students' third-year clerkship grades and letters of recommendation from their medical schools.

"We divide the country into five areas, and then invite the top students from each section, so we get a diverse group for interviews. Then, they all start over with a score of zero."

Kristen M. Kelly, M.D., F.A.A.D, associate professor at the University of California, Irvine, describes the dermatology applicants as "accomplished."

"There are different ways people are accomplished - some in research, some academically, some philanthropically. Overall, the candidates are of high quality and have done a lot to develop themselves in their career so far," she says.

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