Applying to Residency? Here Are 4 Traits of All-Star Residents

Stephen Estime, MD, and Kyle Tingling
Stephen Estime, MD, and Kyle Tingling
7 Min Read

Estime is an assistant professor of anesthesia and critical care. Tingling is a medical student.

Residents should know the skills and attributes required to be successful during their residency training. Success is much more than scoring well on a test. While the definition of success means different things to different people, in general the most successful residents are not necessarily the ones who have all the answers or are the best at procedures. Success is often captured by more subtle, soft traits such as emotional intelligence, selflessness, and ownership. These are the traits that tend to be more impressive and make for an all-star resident and leader.

The four attributes of all-star residents:

Selflessness

Residents who are selfless will often put their immediate personal wants aside to help someone else in need. That someone else can fall both above and below the chain of command — the resident will not just help attendings, but also junior residents, students, nurses, techs, and janitorial support services. This may mean staying an extra 30 minutes past your relief time to assist a colleague with a difficult patient transport. It may include having an unexpected surgical case cancellation, and instead of hiding until the next assignment, offering breaks to your colleagues who are still in patient rooms.

Selflessness often requires a good amount of emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence requires perspective taking, which is the ability to understand a situation from another person’s point of view. Those with high emotional intelligence can decipher another person’s emotions and adjust their own behavior to best suit the needs of the other person and their situation. This skill can be used to de-escalate problems before they even begin — such as helping a colleague when you know they are struggling, thus averting a subsequent issue. Selflessness, perspective taking, and emotional intelligence are not skills formally taught or tested in our existing training paradigm. While they may be innate to some, they can also be learned, honed, and mastered throughout one’s life.

It’s important to note that high degrees of selflessness and emotional intelligence can come at a cost and must be balanced with one’s own personal well-being. Personal well-being must be prioritized — we all know the rule of putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others do so. Thus, when you have the capacity, do your best to default to selflessness.

Optimism

Medicine can be dark, residency is hard, and caring for people during the worst day of their lives is difficult. Negativity and cynicism are often the paths of least resistance, which can make for a challenging environment to thrive. Negativity and cynicism can turn challenging work into nearly impossible work. Optimism is a choice. Developing a growth mindset makes optimism easier. A growth mindset helps us to view challenges as opportunities to learn and get better clinically, personally, and professionally. Take for example an anesthesia resident who is on call and receives a page at 3 a.m. that a trauma emergency is coming to their OR. The reality is this resident will not be getting sleep, and the case will be medically challenging and stressful. Defaulting to negativity is the easy path. But viewing this case as an opportunity to develop one’s clinical skillset, lead the team, and potentially save a life is a choice that we believe differentiates an all-star resident.

Residents who have a growth mindset are committed to self-improvement and learning, and are naturally curious. All of these traits can make the resident more teachable and cultivate a fun and engaging environment to work. Reframing your thoughts and defaulting to optimism is an excellent way to improve yourself while building resiliency.

Personal Responsibility & Ownership

Take ownership over all the patient results, both good and bad. Medicine, and in particular anesthesiology, is an easy specialty to ascribe blame because of the many factors outside your control. However, when ascribing blame becomes the default, it prevents personal growth as you lose understanding of how you may have influenced a particular outcome and how you could do it differently in the future. Taking ownership, by holding yourself accountable for the outcome of your actions, builds intrinsic value and meaning in your work. This will keep you prepared and vigilant in the future.

Ownership requires humility and maturity. Checking your ego at the door and practicing with humility is a difficult prospect in medicine, especially when trainees’ egos are under constant bombardment from attendings’ evaluations and patient outcomes. But humility allows residents to be responsive to feedback and to use that as a stepping stone to move forward.

Personal Meaning

Doctors are incentivized to “go, go, go,” but you must stop and reflect on the why. Are you doing the work for a greater purpose or is this just a paycheck? Being a physician isn’t just a 9-to-5 job. It’s a lifestyle and an identity. The individuals, not just trainees, who are able survive and thrive in the everyday grind are often the same individuals who have a why. Those who have a true why often have personal reasons for why they practice medicine, typically reasons that extend beyond themselves. When the grinding gets tough, a larger purpose can help to ground and motivate you. It helps cultivate the resiliency critical to combating burnout and cynicism, and allows you to bring your best self to work every day.

Stephen Estime, MD, is an assistant professor of anesthesia and critical care at the University of Chicago. You can follow him on X @EstimeMD. Kyle Tingling is a medical student in the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago.

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