I usually participate as a faculty interviewer during one or two of these sessions each year. Usually it's kind of fun (and, even after a few years, still more than a bit weird to finally be on the other side of the desk after all those previous years being in the interviewee's shoes). This year, it was different.
You see, most of these applicants are in their mid- to late 20's, although I noted that one of the applicants I interviewed was 34 (medical schools and residency programs these days tend to like applicants who have done other things with their lives besides going straight to college and then straight to medical school). I, on the other hand, am in my early 40's. Now, for medicine, that isn't really that old at all, given the length of medical (and particularly surgical) training. In fact, I've only been out of my full training and in a "real" job for a little more than five years now and am still the youngest surgeon in my division. But I look at these applicants now and realize that, this year, I might not have gotten into my own program with the qualifications and experiences I had when I was their age and applying for residencies back in 1988. For example, of the candidates had started his own charity that had grown to a foundation with several full-time employees--all while still in graduate school and doing a variety of major research projects. Another had majored in economics, studied abroad, done ecological research on bird populations on certain beaches, in addition to having several volunteer experiences listed and being able to write a killer essay for a personal statement. Only one out of the six I interviewed looked like he had roughly the same level of qualifications I did when I was his age. All the others looked better.
I should be gratified by this. It means our program is attracting some top-notch candidates to at least check us out. These are the same people who are interviewing at Harvard, Duke, and Johns Hopkins. Although I realize that we probably represent the second or third (or even lesser) choices of these candidates, if we play our cards right, we should still be able to attract a few of them. Certainly, five years ago, when I first arrived, we couldn't attract these types of candidates to interview with us even for a "fallback" residency slot, in case they didn't match at a top-tier programs. The fact that they now interview here means our reputation has increased signficantly. The upward trend in candidate quality and the reputation of our program can only be good for the program (not to mention my prospects for attracting highly motivated residents to do research in my laboratory). It can only be good for the profession as a whole, which until recently was suffering a severe dropoff in the number of medical students applying for surgery residency slots, leading to a concern that the quality of surgeons in this country would decrease, just as the population was aging and would need surgical services more than ever.
Perhaps it's just the reminder that perhaps I haven't accomplished as much as I had wanted to at this stage in my career (and life), even though by most measures I would appear to be pretty accomplished. (Unfortunately, I don't have that Nature, Science, or Cell article yet, but I haven't given up yet.) Perhaps it's the realization that I'm no longer "new" faculty (in fact, I hope to go up for promotion to Associate Professor this fall). Perhaps it's due to a severe disappointment I've recently had. Or, maybe it's just time marching by, and these eager, highly accomplished, highly motivated kids remind me that we never have as much time as we think we have to accomplish what we want to accomplish. If I'm smart, maybe I can harness that realization to my benefit. After all, hard as it is to believe, some of them may end up looking to me for training and guidance. Perhaps that is the scariest thought of all.