Picture of John Liu

John Liu is a research fellow at the University of Toronto awaiting match results at the time of writing

Dear Residency Program Admissions Committee,

“If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.”

I started out medical school with no specific idea of what to pursue. This continued into clerkship as I rotated through different disciplines. It wasn’t until halfway through my 3rd year when I first discovered ophthalmology. With its exciting mix of technology, medicine, surgery, and rewarding patient outcomes, I finally felt that I had discovered a field to which I could dedicate my life. I decided that – regardless of what barriers lay ahead – I wanted to do everything I could to pursue ophthalmology.

Unfortunately, as I made this decision late, I did not have as much time as I would have hoped to complete meaningful research or establish strong connections in ophthalmology before the CaRMS deadline. Given the competitiveness of applying to ophthalmology residency, I worried about how I would be perceived compared to other candidates who had decided so much earlier. “What’s the point if I’m just going to fail?” I thought to myself.

As I reflected more, I came to embrace the position I was in. I was proud that I discovered ophthalmology late; in fact, I made a genuine decision to pursue ophthalmology because I decided late – not in spite of it. Being more than halfway done medical school, I had understood a bit more about medicine as a whole profession and which specialty best suited my strengths. My hope going into CaRMS was that this genuine, well-informed desire for ophthalmology would shine through.

Unfortunately, opportunity didn’t knock for me. When I applied last year, I went unmatched.

Although this was difficult for me to come to terms with, I was determined to improve my application for the following year. As illustrated by one of my favourite quotes: “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.” So, that’s what I started doing.

I had heard of ophthalmology “research fellowships” that unmatched candidates could complete after medical school. I felt this had to be my next step. The day that match results came out, I got to work and submitted applications across the country. A week later, after three phone interviews, I was offered a spot to work with a well-renowned ophthalmologist in Toronto. I jumped at the opportunity. This was my chance. A chance to build my door.

I moved across the country to continue my pursuit of ophthalmology. Of course, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many things were changing. Research projects were cancelled, ethics boards weren’t meeting, and I was prohibited from spending clinical time in certain hospitals. Most challenging, however, was that travelling restrictions made it difficult for me to visit my significant other in Vancouver, which ultimately ended a relationship for me – something that still affects me today.

But I knew I had to keep pushing. I stayed up late working on projects. I woke up early to spend time in the operating room. I volunteered to take on extra projects. I proposed ideas for research articles whenever I could. I continued building my door.

I feel proud of what I’ve accomplished this past year. I’ve learned a great deal – not just about ophthalmology, but about the process of research and the generation of evidence-based medicine. From presenting at research conferences to giving talks on statistical methods, I’ve been privileged with the ability to expand my network, receive candid advice from residents, and scrub in to watch ocular surgery that only a handful of people in the world can perform. Despite how busy it’s been, despite how uncertain this year has felt, all of this has indeed confirmed how much I love ophthalmology.

But most of all, I’ve grown. I’ve matured and learned – not just about the latest technology in glaucoma surgery – but about myself. The importance of hard work and perseverance. The value of commitment and taking initiative. The aptitude to adapt to new scenarios with little information. This research fellowship has been overwhelming at times, with projects thrown at me in all directions during one of the most uncertain times of my life. But ultimately, I always found a way to prioritize tasks and follow through. As I reflect on this, I now more than ever feel prepared to face the demands of an ophthalmology residency program – and if given the chance, I’ll be giving it my 110%.

I hope more than anything that one day I can look back and say that I made the right decision – that the sacrifices were all worth it, because things turned out the way I wanted them to. But truth be told, uncertainty still looms over me. Will opportunity knock this time around?

I’ve spent a year building my door. It’s polished and ready, with a shiny doorknocker glistening to be used. Now, I just need somebody to knock.

Please knock.