In my experience, Networking has been neither familiar nor comfortable to most medical students. In my second year I attended a lunch lecture on Leadership, and when the topic of networking arose a first year asked, “isn’t networking kind of like using people?” That question perfectly demonstrated the skewed perception that most medical students have about what it means to network, and how little they appreciate the potential impact it can have on their career.
Where do we get this skewed perception? I believe it has two sources. First, most medical students would tell you that they didn’t use networking to get into medical school in the first place. The high grades, MCAT scores, extracurricular and volunteering opportunities needed to gain entry into medical schools nowadays aren’t a product of who you know, but rather how hard you’re willing to work. And for the most part, that is correct. Second, networking is often viewed as a tool best applied in business, marketing or other professions. Medicine is a meritocracy, and rightly so, therefore the only way to succeed is to personally perform at a high enough level to earn the prestige and opportunities that reflect your personal accomplishments. Again, there is truth to this belief, but it is ultimately short-sighted.
Let’s address the first argument. While it may seem that you applied to medical school on your own, the truth is that getting you into medical school required a whole team of people fighting on your behalf. The teachers, employers and researchers who wrote you letters of recommendation, the advisors that helped you choose which schools to apply to and guided your undergraduate course selection; this group of people was, and still is, your pre-medical network. The relationships you formed with these individuals ultimately created a level of trust and collegiality that resulted in them offering help in a productive way for your long-term success. That is precisely how networking can and should be used to benefit you.
The way in which you network changes when you begin medical school, yet the principle remains. This gets to the second argument. Medical students often lose sight of the fact that they are in a “pre-professional” program. It’s incredibly easy to lose sight of the “professional” aspect of what we are training to do because the journey itself is so fraught with detailed information and seemingly endless examinations. We oftentimes get lost in what kind of doctor we want to be, while disregarding the type of professional we want to be. This is a major pitfall of most physicians, and can be easily remedied by creating a strong network of professionals to help shape your own professional identity. Networking as a medical student should begin on your first day. It can consist of simply shadowing physicians in your specialty of interest, reaching out for research opportunities, or even simply sitting down with your instructors to discuss the intricacies of medicine.
As a current third year preparing to apply for away rotations and eventually residency, I can see that those students who invested time and energy into their network early on are at a tremendous advantage over their colleagues who have not. The reason is that the proactive students have formed strong relationships with the right professionals, and know that when they need their network to fight for them as they apply for residency, their call will be answered. These students’ networks can make the phone calls, put them in contact with the right people and advise them on career decisions that will more likely land them in the residency they desire. Those opportunities don’t come from being complacent in medical school. Your network, just like your academic and personal achievements, is the product of your hard work and dedication.
For more detailed instructions on how to build and maintain your professional network from the first day of medical school, please read our Networking Primer.