Transferring from the Caribbean: Why?

June 29, 2007

I wrote a guide about attending a Caribbean medical school, singing the praises of St. George University. I kept a blog for two years at the Rumors Were True shedding light on some of the uniqueness of the island experience. SGU was a place that invited me to test my mettle and gave me the space to realize my potential in medicine. I love the school, the Caribbean, and still count it as the first great decision that I made in a new life of great decisions.

Then I transferred to Drexel University College of Medicine. Why?

When I applied to SGU, I knew that I wanted to be a physician in the United States, that medicine was the only thing that I felt could fulfill me as a profession, and that no matter what obstacles I faced I was going to make this happen. I was not sure what I wanted to do in medicine and it was important to me that as many doors remain open as possible. Going to the Caribbean (you will be told) can close many doors, and you will hear people tell you that you cannot do such-and-such if you come from the Caribbean.

SGU has an earned reputation for producing strong students and their residency placement list each year boasts this, showing students in fields such as Anesthesiology, Diagnostic Rad, ER, Ophthalmology, Orthopaedics, and Urology. The list of residency placements between 1997 and 2002 impressed me particularly when I decided on SGU. That said, my understanding of the residency application process has matured to reveal things previously missed.

The first is that Foreign Medical Graduates (FMGs) are able to accept residency placements outside of the match. This can be to the advantage of FMG applicants that might be able to secure a spot now that they would not get if they waited for the match (plenty of stories of this happening). The list available through SGU does not draw a distinction between how their students’ placements were secured, so looking at the list alone does not tell you how you can expect to fare when it is your turn to open the letter on Match Day. The second thing I have come to appreciate is that while there is a bell curve for desirable fields, there are bell curves within those fields for desirable residency programs. For example, while Orthopaedic surgery is a desirable field and incredibly competitive on the whole, there are Orthopaedic residency programs that are incredibly desirable and those that are less so. If your goal is to become an Orthopaedic surgeon coming from the Caribbean, this is certainly possible. If you want to do Orthopaedics at the Mayo Clinic, this truly approaches the impossible. It is also important to keep perspective on how many students are able to place into these fields. If only three students from your school made it into the specialty that you want and your class size is somewhere near 600, you need to honestly asses where you stand in your class and if it is likely that you will be one of the three in the coming years.

The process of “auditioning” for certain programs is also at issue. SGU has many hospitals for its students in the New York and New Jersey area and you are more or less free to complete your rotations and electives at any of them. When it comes time to apply for residencies, it is sometimes a good idea to complete an “away” elective at the desired hospital. In this way, the program gets to see your stuff and give you a much better look when it comes time to invite people into their program. This process of completing “away” rotations is open for US medical students but is much more difficult for FMGs, and this is because of reciprocity. Reciprocity is the agreement that schools like Mayo will accept and train a Harvard student during an elective “away” rotation with the understanding that Mayo students can be accepted and trained at Harvard should they so choose (an example from NYMC). These agreements are often non-existent between Caribbean schools and their US counterparts. If you plan on staying in the New York/New Jersey area and completing your residency training at one of the hospitals already associated with SGU, then this is not an issue. For those looking to enter competitive programs spread across the US, this is an issue that puts you at a disadvantage.

Finally, insomuch as residency program directors and medical school administrators represent an Old Boy’s Club (I have no idea if this is true or its possible extent) where a well-placed phone call can mean your application at the top or bottom of the stack, I wanted that resource available to me. I wanted to make sure that the clinicians that were teaching me were also faculty with my university and that their professional connections could be opened up to me should I impress them. Moving from the islands to the US left me with the feeling that my mentor, advisers and teachers were largely unavailable to me and that any influence they could have offered stopped in the tropics.

It is good to be aware of these concerns, but they are not unique to anyone. As an FMG, when it comes time for you to answer the “why transfer?” question at your interview, you are not setting yourself apart by regurgitating this. This may be fine since the interviewer is looking for someone that knows why he is doing something as opposed to being just another guy that heard he should apply for transfer since he has good grades, but it does not help the interviewer remember your answer.