The Pathway from Medical School to a Practicing Dermatologist: Q&A

April 10, 2020

Nearly everyone who is considering dermatology as a career, has been on the interview trail (or preparing for it) has heard of or voraciously listened to Topical: The Dermatology Podcast. Cosmetic Surgery Forum (CSF) and Joel Schlessinger, MD were extremely happy to start a relationship with Drs. Kristina Liu and Arash Mostaghimi of Harvard University, who started Topical: The Dermatology Podcast. This invaluable podcast makes dermatology mentorship accessible to anyone, regardless of their school’s location or their prior interest in dermatology. Their podcast is summed up by the tagline, “Where we apply our thoughts to your burning questions.”

Like the team at CSF, Drs. Liu and Mostaghimi are always looking for opportunities to support trainees’ education and career development, so this was a natural affinity for all of us!

In this exclusive Q&A, CSF sits down with the Topical Team, Kristina and Arash, to ask ‘our’ burning questions about becoming a dermatologist and how their partnership with CSF aims to support residents. The basic premise for Topical:

Even though their focus is dermatology, Topical’s first season covers a wide array of topics. They discuss careers in academic medicine, medical school rotations, research, letters of recommendation, the application process and much more. In season two, the focus shifted to highlighting innovators and experts in dermatology. Listeners will hear about careers in dermatology and medicine from experienced physicians. Mostaghimi hopes listeners feel like they are hanging out with friends.

How did Topical: The Dermatology Podcast begin?

Kristina: “We spend a lot of time talking together and to our trainees about dermatology, education and mentorship. Then one day, we thought to ourselves, ‘Why not record our conversations so that these thoughts can be easily shared with listeners beyond the walls of our institution?’ Our first few episodes literally consisted of the two of us huddled around a laptop chatting with each other. And even as our recording quality improved and our audience became global, we hope we still have that intimate, conversational vibe that our listeners have come to love.”

Arash: “Kristina told me the only way I could spend more time with her was if we recorded a podcast together, so I said yes.”

Why did you start Topical and what do you hope the podcast accomplishes? 

Kristina: “We started Topical because we wanted a way to make dermatology mentorship accessible to anyone, at any school.  It has evolved and taken on many more facets since then, but our hope is that our listeners will hear us and our guests and be inspired to consider dermatology as a specialty, or think more boldly and critically about advancing our field.”

Arash: “The longer we go, the more excited I get about reaching a broad and diverse audience. Going through the application process can feel lonely and there’s a lot of misinformation, especially for people who don’t have home programs. I hope we can help connect people.”

How did/does your own path into dermatology impact the show?

Topical: “Our paths have some similarities but also a lot of interesting differences, so we often have different opinions. Arash is trained in med-derm and spends a significant portion of his time on in-patient consults. Kristina does a variety of medical and cosmetic dermatology. Our academic and research interests are also quite different. Our different experiences and opinions keep our dialogues dynamic and fun, rather than being an echo chamber for each other.”

How do you think a resident could benefit from attending a forum like CSF?

Kristina:  “We often look back on residency and think, ‘We should have definitely taken advantage of more opportunities.’” Attending CSF is a great example of such an opportunity to learn, mingle with experts and explore areas of potential interest, especially in the cosmetic and laser surgery realm.”

We asked Dr. Joel Schlessinger why he chose Topical as a partner and he replied,

“To date, CSF has sponsored over 800 residents specializing in the core specialties: dermatology, oculoplastics, ENT, plastics/facial plastics. Grant applicants receive a level of professional aesthetic education and a chance to present their case work to acclaimed physicians. The top 10 applicants are awarded the opportunity to present their research in an intimate setting to industry leaders and key opinion leaders and published in an indexed journal. This seemed like a great opportunity for us to spread the word about CSF and promote another great way to bring new dermatologists into the fold. Additionally, my son, Daniel Schlessinger MD, (who is starting his dermatology residency at Washington University of St. Louis in July), is a huge devotee of Topical and Drs. Liu and Mostaghimi!”

“We are proud to partner with CSF to help connect our listeners to CSF’s resident program,” says Mostaghimi.

What is your favorite part of doing the podcast?

Topical: “Hearing from our listeners, either in person or electronically. It makes our day when we get mail from listeners telling us how our episodes made a difference in their career path or just that we made their commute more enjoyable.”

What is your favorite episode?

Kristina: “Hands down, Mansplaining with Arash. You guys will have to listen to understand.”

Arash: “How to Ace Your Interviews! [It] felt like I was in a contest with Kristina, which, even though I lost, was fun to participate in.”

What is the most rewarding aspect of dermatology for you?

Kristina: “Being able to treat such a wide variety of patients and utilize many skill sets. My weeks are divided into vitiligo clinics, general dermatology clinics, excisions clinics and laser and cosmetic clinics. The variety keeps me excited and pushes me to keep honing my analytical and procedural skills.”

Arash: “There’s a very pragmatic component to it. People come with specific complaints that you can see, and you make them feel better. I also enjoy the flexibility to work in and out of the hospital (I do inpatient dermatology consults) and do research as well as clinical care.”

What tips would you give residents for doing interviews? 

Kristina: “Preparation is key. By that, I don’t mean rehearsing interview answers ad nauseum (although I will admit I did that before my interviews). Preparation includes researching a program, seeing if the program’s strengths match what you’re looking for, searching out faculty or current residents you may want to connect with, learning more about the city, etc. This preparation will make you more confident on the interview day so that you can go in with directed and thoughtful questions. And, most importantly, that preparation will allow you to be relaxed so that you can be yourself! Season 1, Episodes 23, 24, 26 and 27 are all about acing the interviews!”

Arash: “You want to be confident and capable but relaxed. Or, as we put it in the podcast, “Be calm; act like yourself. Unless yourself is weird. Then, act like somebody else.”

When a resident is choosing a program, what factors should they consider? How big is finding the right culture fit?

Kristina: “There are many factors to consider, both personal and professional. Location, such as proximity to family or size of the city, is often very important. The breadth and depth of clinical training available, especially if an applicant is coming in with a strong, special interest, [is important]. If the resident has a strong research interest, whether there are resources or funding available to support that interest [—that’s important too]. Culture fit is huge. In fact, we are big proponents of really getting a sense of what a program is like—the personality of the people, the work culture, the size of the program, the core values—and making sure that it aligns with what is important to you.”

Arash: “It’s important to remember your family. We overstate the quality of programs—there are very few medical students who have to go to a specific program to be successful. If given the chance to be close to loved ones and make life easier for you and your family, go for it!”

What advice would you give residents in choosing a mentor?

Arash: “Mentorship is a two-way street. You don’t have to be friends with your mentor, but somebody who you can connect with on multiple levels is preferable to somebody that you have difficulty communicating with. And—sometimes clichés are true for a reason—mentorship by committee, where you have a group of people of whom each helps you in a different way, is the best way to go.”

What would you say to a medical student who is on the fence about becoming a dermatologist?

Kristina: “As much as we try to encourage medical students to explore dermatology, it’s not the right specialty for everyone. If you are on the fence, then getting more exposure to dermatology is key. That means getting more clinical exposure, either through shadowing or rotations, to make sure that you are passionate about the clinical work involved.”

Arash: “If you don’t know what you want to do, come hang out with us!  See if it’s a good fit. I get it; it took me a long time to decide as well.”

Kristina (Addendum): “Despite hanging out with Arash, I still chose to go into dermatology!”

Is there anything you know now that you wish you knew when you were a resident?

Arash: “Residency is a tough time, but although it can be stressful, I wish I had a greater appreciation for a time of life where I could immerse myself wholly into learning medicine and becoming a better doctor. Hang in there. Learn as much as you can. You’ll have plenty of time to be an attending.”

Want to hear more from Drs. Kristina and Arash? Catch up with the latest from Topical Podcast.

To learn more about CSF’s unique opportunity for residents and fellows, visit


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