Match Day: A physician’s right of passage

MS4 and 2014 Class President Zheng (Ben) Ma describes waiting for Match Day 2014.

Zheng Ben Ma, MS4 and 2014 class president

Anxiety.

There’s only been a handful of times I’ve truly experienced this feeling of jittery uncertainty, fear mingled with hope, alternating moments of peace and restlessness. It’s the mark of truly life-altering milestones.

I remember those other times vividly: Receiving approval for my visa to immigrate to this country, the birth of my younger sister, my first triathlon, the moments before my wedding and now this – Match Day.

The process is a bit tricky to describe, but I’ll give it a shot. Every fall, fourth year medical students send applications to residency training programs according to their chosen specialty. After hours of compiling paperwork, hundreds of miles traveled around the country on interviews and thousands of dollars spent, students will rank their top programs, and residency programs will, in turn, rank the students they most prefer.

Then, in mid-March, every permutation of each rank list is entered into a computer which then spits out the “match” for medical students nationwide on a specified date – this year it’s March 21. This Nobel Prize-winning computer algorithm has been trusted to determine the futures of every graduating medical student in the country for many years, and undergoing this process is considered a rite of passage for anyone who trains to be a physician.

It’s a rite of passage because this match process epitomizes medical training. Groups of dedicated and brilliant individuals work endlessly to put forth their efforts, but in the end, all one can really do is wait and hope for the best. Such is the method of caring for extremely sick patients, and so is the process to enter into this rigorous profession of medicine.

What truly causes the anxiety is the uncertainty and unpredictability of what the future may hold. For my classmates and me, the quintessential type-A personality high achievers, uncertainty is just about the worst thing when considering the future. Realistically though, when facing the prospect that there’s an equal chance of receiving your first or fifth or 15th choice, anyone would be concerned.

Different people cope with this stress in various, creative ways. Some take to Facebook and broadcast their concerns and feelings on an almost daily basis, some use humor to take the edge off and still others intellectualize the whole experience and criticize every inefficient and unfair aspect of the process.

While I don’t presume to know how everyone else feels, I know from my own thoughts and interactions with numerous classmates during this period of waiting that we are all in the same boat. In the position of those with no control but who still crave it, what else is left to do but worry?

So we wait eagerly to find out what the future holds, all the while giving one another the best encouragements we can muster – “I’m sure you’ll do great” or “you’re a strong candidate” – yet holding reservations in our minds about our own future. And while we cling to the hope that past graduating classes from Baylor have traditionally done exceptionally well in the match, this is both a blessing and a burden. What if I am one of the handfuls of extremely qualified applicants who, by bad fortune, did not match into their desired specialty?

Match Day can’t get here quickly enough and in the meantime, we suffer. But suffering is not without purpose. It produces perseverance, character and hope, essential qualities which will enable us to care for our future patients that much better.

Enduring the match process is a humbling experience. Indeed, it has humbled even the most qualified and capable among us. Yet it is a welcomed challenge for us to reevaluate why we pursue these goals, a reminder that caring for the sick and vulnerable is a privilege that comes with its own tribulation. It’s another obstacle in the course designed to make resilient physicians who willingly undergo difficulty for the sake of changing people’s lives.

So we wait patiently, hoping and praying for the best.

By Zheng Ben Ma, MS4 and 2014 class president

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