Jessica R. Caruso '23 | October 8, 2020
I sought out the five MU-COM alumni who matched into dermatology to learn more about how and why they chose to pursue this field. All five alumni agreed to answer my questions in hopes of helping students. Dr. Ben Farthing '17 and Dr. Sonya Zarkhin '17, both part of the first MU-COM graduating class, discussed the diverse nature of dermatology. From the class of 2018, Dr. Joseph Aleshaki and Dr. Robert Dazé highlighted the need for passion. Finally, Dr. Samantha Pfeifer '19 gave insight on the humanity of the profession.
What attributes should students interested in dermatology possess?
Interested in learning more about how dermatology can suit certain people, I explored which attributes students should have if interested in pursuing dermatology. Every medical profession requires intellect and drive, but I wondered if the dermatology residents might emphasize something else that sets students apart from others.
Dr. Dazé '18: I would say the most valuable attribute for a student aspiring to become a dermatologist to have his perseverance. It is a very competitive specialty, and not all students are accepted into the specialty. However, it is my firm belief that if you truly want to be a dermatologist it is only a matter of time before you match the specialty. I have known people to take upwards of three years between their intern year and matching into dermatology. They worked hard doing research or other fellowships to increase their competitiveness. I remember a distinct moment when I was shadowing my plastic surgeon mentor, Dr. Sheikh, at Marian during my first year in medical school. He told me if I wanted dermatology and thought I needed a backup specialty, then dermatology was not meant for me. He told me to give everything I had into dermatology and do not consider backup specialties. So keep pushing towards your goal and never give up!
Dr. Zarkhin '17: It is very important to be a self-starter. This is in my opinion the most valuable attribute, one that program directors look for and one that will help you land a residency in dermatology. As a medical student, all of my vacations were spent rotating in local dermatology offices. I graduated on a Sunday, and the following Monday I was on a rotation I set up myself down in Ohio. This type of commitment shows and is rewarded. Make sure you are respectful but also don't require too much "hand holding" on rotations. Figuring out what you can do to be helpful and starting new projects and endeavors by yourself without someone walking you through step by step is in my opinion the most important attribute.
Dr. Farthing '17: Commitment – programs want to know that you really do like dermatology – just make sure not to come off as the annoying "'Have I told you how much I love dermatology' every five seconds way" though. It needs to be clear that you sincerely want dermatology and that you'd even consider doing family medicine or internal medicine first and then reapplying if necessary because dermatology is what you really want. However, make sure not to be seen as cutthroat versus other students wanting dermatology, as most programs find that to be an attribute they don't want within the program.
Dr. Aleshaki '18: I think you have to be a go-getter to go far and match. That doesn’t mean being a “gunner” in the medical school sense but being proactive and taking initiative is highly valued. In practice, there is so much going on during a typical day that you need to be constantly following up on tasks and patients. Having this attribute ensures you’re getting things done.
Dr. Pfeifer '19: I would say the ability to connect with others. Everyone trying to become a dermatologist is smart, so it is important to find a way to stand out and connect with your future coworkers and attendings. It’s important to just be yourself and show that you are more than just a test score.
What abilities and talents are important in dermatology?
As a medical student, I find myself wondering what capacities I would need for various specialties. For example, I’ve heard people say surgeons benefit from being ambidextrous or radiologists need extensive attention to detail. Therefore, I wondered, what abilities and talents are important in dermatology?
Dr. Dazé '18: Drive, perseverance, intelligence, and compassion are all necessary for the field. But I would not consider any of those aforementioned virtues as talents. I’m not sure if surgical finesse would be considered one either, but having good surgical technique is an important skill set. I would say bring whatever you have to the table and ensure that they make you unique. I know at Largo Med we look for candidates who are not necessarily cookie cutter, but bring a sense of diversity and uniqueness to the program. In that regard, I would say whatever talents you do have, make sure you embrace them and let them be a defining component of your application.
Dr. Zarkhin '17: Pattern recognition and trusting your gut is very important in dermatology. If something "feels" like a cancer, despite the patient's history, being able to rely on your pattern recognition and gut to catch a melanoma or Merkel cell carcinoma is very important.
Dr. Farthing '17: This is a tough one, because my co-residents are quite a varied bunch of individuals. I wouldn't say there is a specific list of abilities/talents that really fit the best with dermatology that I can think of. Instead, I think using whatever abilities and talents you have to focus down on an area or two in the field can really help set you apart.
Dr. Aleshaki '18: Having great test-taking abilities and finesse with surgical skills is important. There are a few exams taken during residency (reflecting new changes). There is so much to learn in dermatology that being able to digest it all quickly and efficiently will make learning more successful. Oftentimes, patients wait a long time before seeing a dermatologist, so learning how to convey your management plan and ensure the patient feels cared for (even if you’re in a time crunch) becomes their first impression of you and affects potential future referrals to your practice.
Dr. Pfeifer '19: I think you need to be a good communicator to be able to connect with the large number of patients you will see in a day. In addition, surgery is important to this specialty, so I would say some good hand eye coordination. A lot of the specialty is visual as well so an ability to learn well visually. Other than that, I would say problem solving skills are also crucial, especially when it comes to things like rashes.
All the alumni stressed determination and ambition as qualities to have to enter such a competitive specialty. Dr. Dazé and Dr. Farthing both give concrete tips on how to stay committed to the profession if it truly is the path for you. Dermatologists should also be able to embrace their differences, trust their guts, and work efficiently. Dr. Aleshaki highlights the importance of fostering a client-patient relationship, using empathy and time-management to create a feeling of commitment.
Thank you to the alumni for their time!
These former MU-COM students provided me with a great deal of insight into the intricacies and challenges that accompany dermatology. I am grateful for the time they spent to respond to me and answer my questions. What do MU-COM alumni have to say about dermatology residency? Be passionate. Do research. Persevere. Commit. Be unique. Take initiative.
About the author
Jessica Caruso is a second-year medical student at Marian University College of Osteopathic Medicine (MU-COM). Prior to Marian, Jessica graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a minor in Spanish Language and Literature. As the Mental Wellness Chair at MU-COM, she promotes activities and events to help students unwind and fights to end the stigma against mental illness. Additionally, she serves as the treasurer for the Pediatric Student Interest Group, promoting adolescent and pediatric outreach and education. During the summer, she worked in the 3D-Visualization Laboratory to develop models, videos, and other projects that allow better education of anatomy to students, physicians, and patients. She volunteers as a Crisis Counselor at Crisis Text Line, helping people in crisis through active listening, collaborative problem solving, and safety planning. When she isn’t busy studying or volunteering, Jessica enjoys reading, kayaking, and playing games with friends.