Washington People: Kathy Ryan

A beacon at the medical school guides students through the residency process

Kathy Ryan, program coordinator of the Career Counseling Office, talks to third-year medical student Ariel Lyons-Warren, also an MD/PhD student. Ryan has helped medical students choose their residencies for 20 years. Photo credit: Robert Boston.

For many summers, Kathy Ryan has hiked the untamed, rocky shorelines along the northeast coast of Maine. She and friends rent an old beach house and explore the charming shops and architecture of nearby towns Jonesport, Camden and Campobello Island.

Ryan, program coordinator of the Career Counseling Office at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, has helped medical students choose residencies since 1993, about the same number of years she has been vacationing in Maine.

The high-stakes process is long and arduous, culminating in the decision of where students will train next and how they will spend their careers as physicians.

Colleagues and students who have worked with Ryan might describe her as an island of calm in a sea of chaos. She also is known for her warmth, professionalism and wonderful sense of humor.

Katherine Santosa, MD, who graduated from the medical school in 2012, said Ryan truly made a difference in her fourth-year experience. “She was someone I knew I could always turn to during some of the more stressful moments of the match process,” Santosa says.

“Kathy Ryan is very genuine and devoted to seeing each and all of us succeed.”

Ryan sits on top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park in Maine, where she frequently spends summer vacations.

The national resident matching process begins during the first year of medical school, with students attending panel discussions for different specialties.

Ryan coordinates the first-year panels — as well as student meetings with Kathryn Diemer, MD, assistant dean for career counseling — throughout medical school.

In the summer before the fourth year, Diemer has an extensive meeting with each student to discuss specialty choices and locations. Afterward, Ryan compiles the “Medical Student Performance Evaluation,” (formerly known as the Dean’s Letter), a three-page medical school evaluation that Diemer writes about each student. Ryan then electronically submits this letter, transcripts, recommendation letters and photographs to the residency programs to which each student is applying. Some students apply to as many as 60 programs.

Next, students are chosen for interviews at residency programs and rank the programs by preference. The residency programs, conversely, rank the students they’ve interviewed. Finally, on a single date in mid-March, students nationwide find out whether or not they’ve found a match.

“I still like talking to the students,” Ryan says. “A lot of my job is helping them navigate the logistics of the process.”

Each year, about 16,000 U.S. medical students participate in the residency match. More than 95 percent of medical school seniors match.

Students who don’t match can do a preliminary internship for a year in general medicine, pediatrics or surgery; or conduct a year of research to strengthen their applications.

Diemer says that one would think that she had a staff of 12 when she lists all of Ryan’s responsibilities. “But it’s just the two of us,” Diemer says. “Kathy is extremely efficient and diligent and is the true backbone of the office. And she really gets to know the students and reassures them constantly during this stressful process.”

Ryan says she feels as if she’s earned an honorary degree in counseling over the years. She consoles students who don’t match and students who didn’t get the match they most wanted.

“I try to tell them that if life throws you a curve ball, it’s a test of your mettle,” she says.

“You just have to jump over that hurdle and go down a different road instead.”

The quintessential team player

Ryan grew up with three sisters in the small town of Washington, Mo. Her father practiced family medicine and her mother was a nurse. Ryan always wanted to play outside and declined most of her mother’s offers to teach her to sew or sign her up for music lessons.

After graduating from Southwest Missouri State (now Missouri State University) in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, Ryan moved to St. Louis and worked for a life insurance broker and an accounting firm. She joined the School of Medicine in 1984 as an administrative assistant in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences.

Ryan was working for ophthalmologist Morton E. Smith, MD, when Dean William Peck, MD, appointed Smith associate dean. One of Smith’s responsibilities was to write the so-called Dean’s Letter for all the graduating seniors, as part of their application for residency positions. Ryan played a crucial role in preparing the letters.

Smith, now professor emeritus of ophthalmology and visual sciences and associate dean emeritus, says Ryan deserves praise and recognition.

“She is the quintessential ‘team player,’” Smith says. “She does everything well and does it with aplomb.”

Getting to know students

Since 1993, Ryan has put together 2,447 Dean’s Letters. When she first started compiling them, all of the registration paperwork had to be mailed. If a student applied to 25 programs, Ryan had to mail 25 of each: transcript, recommendation letter and Dean’s Letter. One year, Ryan mailed 7,000 envelopes.

Dorothy Andriole, MD, who replaced Smith and became assistant dean for career counseling, says Ryan brings a tremendous wealth of knowledge, experience and insight to her work with the medical students.

“Equally important to her success is her uniformly friendly and professional approach to her interactions with all of our students,” says Andriole, associate professor of surgery.

In addition to her role in the residency matching process, Ryan coordinates international rotations, including first-year summer research experiences and fourth-year clinical or research experiences. This coordination involves monitoring travel-related sites for any warnings and ensuring that students have the necessary travel insurance.

She also oversees the Washington University chapter of Alpha Omega Alpha, the medical honor society, and is involved in the third-year orientation program.

After almost 30 years, Ryan still relishes coming to work every day. “I like the medical setting,” she says. “Kathy Diemer is wonderful to work with and work for, and over the years I’ve had great bosses and co-workers. Plus, it’s always fun for me to get to know the students.”

Santosa, who is now training in plastic surgery at the University of Michigan, says that the medical school is a better place because of Ryan and her invaluable guidance.

“I truly feel indebted to her for all of the support she provided me during my time as a student,” Santosa says.​