Chris Woleben standing in front of a group of students.
In this February 2020 file photo, Chris Woleben stands in front of a group of VCU School of Medicine students. Woleben helps students identify their strengths and choose the residency match that most suits them. (Thomas Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Match Day matchmaker: Chris Woleben helps VCU medical students find the perfect fit for their first jobs as doctors

Medical schools nationally are looking to Woleben’s model to help graduating students find their ideal residency match.

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The anticipation of finding out where you’re about to spend the next few years after four years of medical school. The excitement of tearing open an envelope that spells out whether you’re moving to New York, Minnesota, California or Texas. The emotion of sharing that moment with your family and friends, professors and fellow graduating classmates — in person or virtually. All of this is what makes medical students’ residency Match Day special in medical schools across the country.

But a lot of work goes into making that special moment happen, making sure students are getting the match that’s right for them.

At Virginia Commonwealth University, Chris Woleben, M.D., is one of many behind the scenes, working with faculty across the medical school to help students open that envelope to find their perfect match.

Finding the proper fit

Woleben knows the importance of the right match. The Suffolk, Virginia, native, born in West Hospital at VCU Medical Center, came to VCU School of Medicine as a medical student nearly 30 years ago and has been a fixture of the MCV Campus ever since. He matched into the Pediatric Residency Program at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU.

Now, as interim senior associate dean for medical education and student affairs, Woleben handles all kinds of student matters, but one of his chief responsibilities is helping medical students determine where they’ll spend their next few years in their first job, as determined through residency match.

“I feel like the school gave so much to me and helped me get to where I am in my personal career — both clinically and administratively — that it’s my responsibility to do the same for all of our students and make sure that they get to figure out what it is they want to do and have the support to help them get there,” said Woleben, an associate professor in the Departments of Emergency Medicine and Pediatrics.

In residency match, medical students nationally rank their top choices among residency programs they’ve interviewed with during their final year of school, and the residency programs that train students in different specialties, such as obstetrics and gynecology, family medicine or surgery, do the same. On average, this results in a residency match for about 94% of U.S. allopathic medical students who apply for a match annually, according to the National Resident Matching Program.

Thanks in part to the work of Woleben and his colleagues, VCU students frequently match at a higher rate than the national average. In 2020, 95.3% of graduating VCU students matched into the main national residency match. Of these students, 35% matched into primary care specialties, helping address the nation’s anticipated primary-care shortage, 25% stayed in Virginia and 16% remained at VCU Health to complete their residency training.

Match Day 2020 was the first in history to take place online rather than in person, and Match Day 2021 will follow that model this Friday.

“Despite all the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to bear, we are excited about Match Day 2021 and the future for our students, who will take all that they have learned from attending medical school during these unprecedented times into their residencies and into their practice as physicians,” Woleben said.

Addressing national challenges

Nationally, graduating students have a higher chance of matching than students who are one year out of medical school, whose match percentage is between 60 and 70%, Woleben said. The Association of American Medical Colleges has sought ways to address the reasons students nationally can go unmatched, which can include low exam scores, a lack of competitiveness in a specialty or a lack of a backup plan.

Seeking solutions for schools with below-average match rates, the AAMC turned to Woleben to help other medical schools emulate VCU’s success.

“A couple years ago, the survey that we do for our fourth-year students as they go through residency application season got released as part of a toolkit by the AAMC,” Woleben said. “Med schools can now use that process to track and monitor their students’ progress with interviews so that theory of career advising and match advising is out there on a national level now.”

Three people pose for a portrait.
Sirisha Dukkipati, M.D., (left) and Tyler Connine, M.D., (right) take a photo with Chris Woleben, M.D., while holding their match letters on Match Day 2019 last March at the Hippodrome Theater. The couple — who will be married later this year — matched together, with guidance from Woleben. (Courtesy of Sirisha Dukkipati)

The key to VCU’s matching success is taking a longitudinal approach to helping students find the right career within medicine, Woleben said.

“It starts during orientation first year,” he said. “Getting them starting to think a little bit about their professional identity within the field, learning how they work together in teams, how their personality type might play into different specialties that they choose, providing them with lots of information on how the match process works.”

As students progress in their studies, Student Affairs leads workshops on planning clinical or research activities during summer breaks and sprinkles career development sessions into the curriculum all four years.

Once students reach their fourth year, Woleben and other faculty are checking in with them throughout the residency application process to ensure they’re getting a good number of interviews and applying to other programs when necessary.

As chair of the AAMC’s national advisory committee for Electronic Residency Application Service, the system through which nearly all medical students apply for a residency match, Woleben is also working to make the interview process smoother for both students and programs. Some programs will offer 100 interview slots via email to 150 applicants first-come, first-served. If students are busy scrubbing into the operating room or seeing patients on a clinical rotation, they might miss an opportunity. Woleben’s committee is working to change this practice.

Going virtual

The virus forced the residency match application process for fourth-year medical students to go remote this year.

“The 2021 match is different from any other that I’ve ever worked with,” Woleben said.

Across the country, all interviews for students planning to graduate in 2021 moved to a virtual format. Students no doubt saved money because they didn’t travel to residency programs for in-person interviews, but Woleben expects there could be a downside.

“Since they were not able to physically visit other programs, I am concerned that many students across the country will have applied to way too many programs, and programs are going to have a hard time sorting through all of the applications.”

To remedy that, the School of Medicine encouraged its fourth-year students to think about staying on the MCV Campus for their residencies and has provided additional support through this year’s match process. “Our programs will know them better and they will know the faculty that they’d be working with better,” Woleben said.

Three people in conversation.
Woleben in February 2020 with students from the VCU School of Medicine. (Thomas Kojcsich, University Marketing)

‘He genuinely cared about us’

In his 12 years in Student Affairs, Woleben has helped thousands of VCU students match, including 2019 graduates Sirisha Dukkipati, M.D., and Tyler Connine, M.D., who matched together into the emergency medicine residency at the University of Buffalo through a process called the couples match. Shortly after matching in 2019, the two started their wedding planning process and have invited Woleben to attend the ceremony.

Dukkipati said the individual attention Woleben gave each student during the match process stood out to her and made her feel more confident going into matching.

“I know he has 200-plus students he’s responsible for every year going through this match process, but it felt like he was always personally invested in us,” Dukkipati said. “The amount of time that he put into giving us advice and following up on us frequently, I felt like he genuinely cared about us. And that was just one of the things that made me feel he was a great role model as an educator and also made us realize that he was going to be a lifelong friend to us.”

Dukkipati said her and Connine’s match has been “exactly what we wanted out of residency.”

Not only does a great match make a difference for students, but it can make a difference to the patients they serve in their residencies — their first jobs as doctors — and throughout their careers.

“If you enjoy what you’re doing and you are passionate about the field that you’re in, you’re going to put more energy into it and be happier in your work, and I think that’s going to improve patient safety and outcomes,” Woleben said.

That enthusiasm all starts with finding the match that’s right for each medical student, something Woleben says he cares deeply about.

“I really found a passion for helping people develop their professional identity,” Woleben said. “It’s just something that’s personally interesting to me and rewarding when I see a student who maybe struggled at some point, and they’re able to match into a great program and they’re happy with the outcome. Those are the things that make this job really rewarding.”

Erin Lucero contributed to this piece.