How I Write My Fitrep

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O5 fitreps are due soon, so it is time for me to write my fitrep. How do I do it? Here are the steps I go through:

  1. I get the Surgeon General’s priorities and the convening order for last year’s O6 board. (If you were an O4, you’d want the O5 convening order. If you are an O3, you’d want the O4 convening order.)
  2. I read through them, highlighting the important language (similar to what I did in this very popular post). I do this because I use this exact language to take my accomplishments and frame them in the setting of strategic Navy initiatives. This allows me to demonstrate Navy-wide impact, which is the goal when you are trying to prove to people that you deserve to promote.
  3. I take my CV, which is the document I use to track my accomplishments, and I edit it so that it only includes what I did during the time period covered by the fitrep. Here’s what was left, which is what I use to build my blocks 29 and 41.
  4. I print out a copy of my last fitrep.
  5. I download the Word template you use when drafting a block 41. This template eliminates some of the spacing issues you run into when printing your fitrep only to find that the last line of your block 41 narrative isn’t there anymore.
  6. I boot up NAVFIT98A and I start writing the fitrep, as outlined in Joel Schofer’s Fitrep Prep.
  7. Once I have a draft ready, I put it aside for 24 hours and/or have someone else who I trust read over it. Having a mentor or two take a look is always a good idea.
  8. I read it one more time, ensuring that I spell checked it.
  9. I submit it up the chain of command.

That’s it!

Do You Still Need to Send the Above Zone Letter?

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The standard advice has always gone something like this:

“If you are above zone, you need to send a letter to the promotion board so that they know you are still trying to promote. Otherwise they won’t pick you.”

Now that they no longer stamp officer records with “AZ” (above zone) and they look exactly the same as those records that are in zone, do you still need to write a letter to the board? Has the standard advice changed?

Reasons to Send a Letter to a Promotion Board

I addressed this in a post from a few years ago entitled “Should You Send a Letter to the Promotion Board?” I still agree with just about everything in that post, except for this:

“…you should always send a letter to demonstrate interest in getting promoted when you are above zone.”

In my opinion, you no longer need to send a letter just because you are above zone. If you have another reason to send a letter, then please do. If you are just sending one because you think you have to, I think that is no longer necessary.

The FY18 O6 board convening order states on page 2:

“…in determining which officers are best and fully qualified for promotion, you are required to equally consider both above-zone and in-zone officers.”

What if You’re Not Sure?

As you might imagine, I get asked a lot whether someone should send a letter to the promotion board. This is my standard response…

Pretend that you did not send a letter to the board, the board is over, and you were not selected for promotion. Are you going to be kicking yourself for not sending the letter? If the answer is yes or maybe, then send the letter. As long as you keep it short and sweet, there is no real downside.

Frankly, I think that when officers send letters to promotion boards they are often just making themselves feel better, and there is nothing wrong with that. You want to make sure that when the promotion board results come out, no matter what happened, you feel like you did everything you could to get promoted.

The Bottom Line

If you are above zone and want to send the letter just so there is no regret, feel free, but it is definitely not required to be considered for promotion.

New Addition to the Promo Prep – Check Your Security Clearance

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During the last Specialty Leader Business Meeting, the Detailing Update mentioned that there were about 10 cases of officers who lost their promotion due to a security clearance issue. As a result, I added a new section to the Promo Prep document. In it you can find out how to check your security clearance. Here’s what I added:

Step 8 – Check Your Security Clearance

If your security clearance is expired, you won’t promote. To check on its status, go to blocks 92 and 93 of your Officer Data Card (ODC). Here is what mine says:

Block 92 – VV1015

Block 93 – 1115

What does this mean? The letters and dates in order are the level of clearance you are eligible for, the level of clearance you have, the date your investigation was initiated (MMYY format), and in block 93 the date your clearance was granted (MMYY format).

My first “V” means I am eligible for a “Top Secret – SCI Eligible” clearance. The second “V” means I actually have one. Here is a list of the various codes you might see:

The second date in block 93, “1115” in my case, is the important one. A Top Secret clearance is good for 6 years, so I should be good until NOV 2021. A Secret clearance, which is what most of you will have, is good for 10 years.

If your security clearance will expire within the next year or you have any questions about this, you should go to your security manager to renew it. Don’t let a promotion slip by because you had an expired clearance. It happens more than you would think.

How to Prepare for Important Navy Interviews

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A reader recently asked me for help preparing for a big interview that I had done in the past (the interview to become a Specialty Leader). We both thought that interview prep would be a good blog post, so here is my advice after 10+ interviews for significant leadership positions:

  • Be prepared for an in-depth and long interview. My interview for Specialty Leader was with VADM Bono when she was a two star and the Navy Medical Corps Chief. It thought that it was going to be 15-20 minutes with a max of 30 minutes because she was (is) so busy. She talked to me for an hour and 15 minutes and it was a very, very thorough and in-depth interview. Although I got the position, I probably should have been more mentally prepared for the possibility that it could have lasted over an hour.
  • Always have a reasonable understanding about the current state of the position you are interviewing for. I ensure this by talking with the incumbent for at least 15 minutes about the position. Ask how it is going, what they liked or didn’t like about it, what has gone well and what hasn’t, etc. In addition, try to meet with their immediate supervisor to ask them a few questions about the position. I try to find out what they would like out of the position in the future, what they need more of, and what their strategic priorities are.
  • Make sure you’ve read all of the core strategic documents. To me, these include the Navy Medicine Commander’s Guidance (Short Version and Long Version), the DHA Director’s Priorities and Vision, and your command’s mission/vision statements. There may be others, depending on what you’re interviewing for. For example, I like this article on Value Based Healthcare.
  • If given the position, always have a plan for what you want to do in the future. Ideally, your plan needs to support the strategic documents in #3 above.
  • Tell the truth and be honest to yourself. In other words, don’t try to be who you think they want. Be who you are. If you’re not what they want, it is probably better if you don’t get the job anyway.
  • As soon as you are done with the interview, write down the questions they asked. Then you can use these questions to prepare for future interviews. The list of questions I’ve been asked in the last few years include:
    1. What do you see as the role of (insert whatever position you’re interviewing for)?
    2. What has prepared you for this position?
    3. How do you see yourself in this position supporting the Surgeon General’s strategic initiatives?
    4. What do you see as the role of the senior enlisted leader?
    5. Describe your leadership style.
    6. How would you handle a disagreement between you and the CO?
    7. How do you handle it when you make a decision and someone who works for you disagrees with you?
    8. How would you handle the multiple priorities associated with being a director, especially as it relates to GME?
    9. How do you see your role on the Executive Steering Committee/Command Evaluation Board?
    10. What are your top 3 priorities?
    11. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced and how have they impacted you as a leader?
    12. How do you think you and your direct boss/supervisor will work together?
    13. What part of the directorate is most interesting to you?
    14. Why did you apply for this job?
    15. What are your biggest leadership challenges?
    16. How do you handle disagreement or conflict?
    17. Tell me about your leadership style.
  • As soon as the results of the interview are released, no matter whether you got the position or not, always ask a few of your interviewers for feedback so you can grow professionally. They’re usually happy to give both positive and negative feedback.

Quick Review of How to Update Your Record

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While you need to go to the promo prep for a full record review, here is a video podcast that should give you an idea of how much work you need to do. Download your OSR, PSR, and ODC from BOL. Then watch this video:

What Should You Do If You Didn’t Promote?

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If you are particularly interested in this post, I’m sorry. You or someone you care about probably failed to promote. In reality, nowadays it is normal and expected to fail to promote to O5 and O6, so you have company. Here are my suggestions for those that fail to promote.

First, try to figure out why you didn’t promote. Because the promotion board members are not allowed to speak about your board, you’ll never actually find out why you failed to promote, but you can usually take a pretty educated guess if you talk to the right people (like me).

If any of these things happened to you, they are likely a main reason you didn’t promote:

  • Any PFA/BCA failures.
  • Legal issues, such as a DUI or any other legal trouble.
  • Failure to become board certified.

There are other things that could happen to you that make it difficult but not impossible to promote. They include:

  • Coming into zone while in you were in GME.
  • Having non-observed (NOB) fitreps before the board, such as those in full-time outservice training.
  • Spending too much time in the fleet as a GMO, Flight Surgeon, or UMO. This is mostly because it causes you to come into zone for O5 while you are still in GME, and is more of a problem if your residency is long.
  • Never getting a competitive early promote (EP) fitrep. Many officers who fail to select have never had a competitive EP fitrep in their current rank. This can be because they were stationed places without competitive groups and they get 1/1 fitreps, or it can be because they were in a competitive group and did not break out and get an EP. To me this is the #1 ingredient to promote…competitive EP fitreps. If you don’t have them, you are really up against it.
  • Receiving potentially adverse fitreps. This most commonly happens when you are at an operational command and your reporting senior is not someone who is used to ranking Medical Corps officers, although it could happen for other reasons (like your reporting senior felt you deserved this type of fitrep). The most common situation would be if there is a competitive group of 2 officers but both are given must promote (MP) fitreps instead of 1 getting an EP and the other the MP. When both get an MP, it reflects poorly on both officers unless the reason for this is CLEARLY explained in the fitrep narrative, which it often is not. The other thing that happens is that a reporting senior gives you a 1/1 MP instead of a 1/1 EP. If you are ever getting a 1/1 fitrep, make sure you get an EP. You should consider getting a 1/1 MP an adverse fitrep. If there is no way around this, often because the reporting senior has a policy that they don’t give newly promoted officers an EP, make sure that this policy is clear in the fitrep narrative.
  • Having a declining fitrep. Mostly this happens when you go from getting an EP to an MP on your fitrep under the same reporting senior. If it is because you changed competitive groups, like you went from being a resident to a staff physician, that is understandable and not a negative. If you didn’t change competitive groups, though, make sure the reason you declined is explained.
  • Making it obvious to the promotion board that you didn’t update your record. The most obvious ways a promotion board will know you didn’t update your record is if your Officer Summary Record (OSR) is missing degrees that you obviously have (like your MD or DO) or if many of the sections of your OSR are either completely blank or required updating by the board recorders. Remember that although promotion board recorders will correct your record for you, anything they do and any corrections they make are annotated to the board. While a few corrections are OK, you don’t want a blank record that the recorders had to fill in. It demonstrates that you didn’t update your record.

So who actually promotes to O5 and O6? In general, the officer who promotes is:

  • Board certified.
  • Has a demonstrated history of excellence as an officer. In other words, whenever they are in a competitive group, they successfully break out and get an EP fitrep. Being average is just not good enough anymore.
  • They have no PFA failures, legal problems, declining fitreps, or potentially adverse fitreps.
  • They have updated their record, and if they previously failed to select they reviewed their record with their Detailer and actively worked to improve it.

So what do you do if you were passed over and failed to promote?

Realize that it is not the end of the world. Based on the recent promotion board statistics, most officers were passed over for O5 or O6, but a large number of the officers selected were from the above zone group.

If you do nothing, you will continue to get looked at by promotion boards until you retire, resign, or are forced out of the Navy. There is no limit to the number of chances you get to promote and your record will be evaluated for promotion every year. That said…

You need to try to promote. Consider sending a letter to the promotion board. What do you say in this letter? First, briefly state that you want to be promoted and to continue your career in the Navy. Second, explain what a promotion would allow you to do that you can’t do at your current rank. Answer the question, “Why should they promote you?”

For example, if you want to be a Department Head at a large military treatment facility (MTF) or a Residency Director (or whatever you want to do), tell them that you need to be promoted to be competitive for these jobs. The Navy wants to promote leaders. Make it clear to them that you are a motivated future leader.

Try and get letters of support to attach to your letter. These letters should be from the most senior officers who can personally attest to your value to the Navy. In other words, it is probably better to get a letter from an O6 who knows you well than a 3 star who doesn’t. If you are not sure who to ask for letters, ask those more senior to you or your Detailer for advice. Your Specialty Leader is always someone to consider if he/she knows you well and can speak to your contributions to the specialty and Navy.

Have your record reviewed by your Detailer, Specialty Leader, other trusted senior advisor, or by me. Because of promotion board confidentiality, you will never know the reason(s) you did not promote, but most of the time experienced reviewers can come up with an educated guess. They’ll often find things that you were not even aware of, like potentially adverse fitreps, or information missing from your record. My promo prep document will help you as well.

Do everything you can to get “early promote” or “EP” fitreps. This is largely accomplished by continually striving for positions of increased leadership. You need to get a job that has historically led to a promotion.

As a LCDR who got passed over for CDR, try to get one of these jobs and excel at it (this list is not exhaustive and these positions are not the only path to CDR, but they are a good start):

  • Assistant/Associate Residency Director
  • Department Head at a small/medium sized MTF
  • Senior Medical Officer or Medical Director
  • Chair of a hospital committee
  • MEC member

If you are a CDR who got passed over for CAPT, try to get one of these jobs and excel at it:

  • Residency Director
  • Department Head in a large MTF
  • Associate Director or Director
  • Officer-in-Charge (OIC)
  • MEC President
  • Division, Group, or Wing Surgeon
  • CATF Surgeon
  • Specialty Leader

Meet with your chain-of-command. After you’ve been passed over is not the time to be passive. You need to sit down with your leadership and get an honest assessment from them of how you’re doing and what they would recommend continuing to advance your career. You may not like what you hear, but it is better to find out early if they don’t think you’re doing a good job or that you are unlikely to break out on your fitreps. That way you can try and put yourself in a better situation by changing commands.

In addition to the above list of things you should do, there are a few things you should not do:

  • Do not lie in your letter to the board. In other words, don’t tell them you want to do Executive Medicine if you don’t really want to. Your record reads like a book, and if it tells a story that is contrary to what your letter says, this is unlikely to help you and may hurt you.
  • Do not send long correspondence. Promotion boards have to read everything sent to them, and a long letter may not be appreciated. Keep it brief and to the point.
  • Do not ask your current CO to write you a letter to the board if they’ve done an observed fitrep on you. His or her opinion about you should be reflected on that fitrep, so they don’t need to write you a letter. If they’ve never given you an observed fitrep or there is some new information not reflected on prior fitreps, they could either write you a letter or give you a special fitrep. Ultimately it is up to them whether they do either of these or none.
  • Do not discuss anything adverse unless you want the board to notice and discuss it. This issue comes up frequently and people will ask me for advice, but ultimately it is up to the individual officer. The one thing I can guarantee is that if you send a letter to the board and discuss something adverse, they will notice it because they will read your letter! If you think there is a chance the adverse matter will get overlooked, it is probably better not to mention it and keep your fingers crossed.

Those are my tips for those who find themselves above zone. Most importantly, if you want to promote, NEVER STOP TRYING. You can stay in as a LCDR for 20 years, and I personally know of people who got promoted their 9th look!

3 Financial Tips Every Young Doctor Needs to Know

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1. You can’t control the investment markets, so focus on the two things you can control – investment costs and your asset allocation.

No one, and I mean no one, knows what is going to happen in the investment markets. Study after study have shown that the overwhelming majority of people who try to beat the markets fail. Because of this, you should forget about trying to predict the markets, and focus on things you can control – investment costs and your asset allocation.

All investments have costs, and the impact of these costs on your investment return compounds over time, taking a larger and larger bite out of your investment returns. If you invest $100K for 25 years and earn 6% per year, without costs you’d have $430K. With just a 2% annual cost you wind up with only $260K. That 2% annual cost consumed $170K, almost 40% of your potential investment! (Source: Vanguard.com)

In addition, because they have to overcome higher costs, investments with higher costs lag the performance of similar investments with lower costs. If you look at stock and bond mutual funds in the highest and lowest cost quartiles, you’ll see what I mean:

Type of Fund Highest Quartile of Cost Lowest Quartile of Cost
Stock 6.9% 7.8%
Bond 4.0% 4.4%

Average yearly return from 2004-2014. (Source: Vanguard.com)

If you want to take one step that will guarantee that your costs are among the lowest in the industry no matter what you invest it, you should invest with Vanguard or the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). Vanguard is actually owned by its own investors (you), and they leverage this corporate structure to provide the lowest investment costs across the board with the exception of the TSP, which has even lower expenses.

If you can’t invest with Vanguard outside of your TSP, perhaps because your have access to a retirement plan that doesn’t offer Vanguard investments, then you need to get into the weeds on your investment costs. While there are many different potential investment costs, the easiest one to look at is the expense ratio of your potential investments.

According to Morningstar.com, the expense ratio is “the annual fee that all funds or ETFs charge their shareholders. It expresses the percentage of assets deducted each fiscal year for fund expenses, including 12b-1 fees, management fees, administrative fees, operating costs, and all other asset-based costs incurred by the fund.”

Wow. That was a mouthful. Bottom line…high expense ratio bad, low expense ratio good.

You should be able to find your investments’ expense ratios on your investment website or Morningstar.com.

In addition to investment costs, the other things that you can control is your asset allocation. While there are many asset classes you can invest in, the two most basic are stocks and bonds. Here are some of the returns for stocks and bonds from 1926-2013 in commonly utilized portfolios:

Annual Return 50% Stocks & 50% Bonds 60% Stocks & 40% Bonds 80% Stocks & 20% Bonds 100% Stocks & 0% Bonds
Highest 32.3% 36.7% 45.4% 54.2%
Average 8.3% 8.8% 9.6% 10.2%
Lowest -22.5% -26.6% -34.9% -43.1%

(Source: Vanguard.com)

As you can see, the higher your allocation to stocks over bonds, the more risk you are taking and the bumpier the ride. Along the way, though, you have historically been rewarded for this bumpy ride with a higher average annual return. Just like the extra 2% cost that was previously discussed compounds to make a huge difference, so will a small difference in your returns. In other words, the more risk you can take, the more money you will probably end up with.

The application of these principles is that you should take as much risk as you can. In other words, you should invest as much of your portfolio in stocks as you can while still sleeping at night and not lying awake worrying about the stock market’s ups and downs. There will be another market downturn, and when that occurs you need to keep buying stocks because they are on sale, not sell out because you can’t handle seeing your net worth and portfolio value decrease.

Invest is as high a percentage of stocks as you can without making the critical mistake of selling stocks during the next market downturn. For me, that has been 100% stocks for the majority of my career, but for some people they’ll panic even at a much lower percentage of stocks. If a 50% stock and 50% bond portfolio is the only one that will keep you from selling during the next market downturn, then that is the right portfolio for you.

If you have been investing for long enough, look at your actual behavior during the 2007-2008 market downturn and what your asset allocation was at the time. Mine was 100% stocks and I kept on buying. Your allocation and actions will tell you a lot about your own risk tolerance.

2. Your savings rate is the most important factor determining your eventual net worth, and it should be at least 20-30% of your gross income.

The most common recommendation you’ll find or hear when it comes to saving for retirement is to save 15% of your gross or pre-tax income for retirement. There is nothing wrong with this recommendation, but built into it is the standard mentality of working until age 65 and then retiring. If you want the freedom to retire early, work as much or as little as you want, and achieve financial freedom/independence, then you will need to save much more than 15%. I’ve saved 30% over most of my adult life, and that’s why I’m writing a personal finance blog post.

If you want to take a look at various saving rates and how they impact your financial life, you’ll want to check out the blog post “The Shockingly Simple Math Behind Early Retirement” at MrMoneyMustache.com. There you will find a chart that shows you how many years you will have to work until you can retire based on your savings rate. If you go with the standard 15% savings rate, you’ll have to work 43 years before you can retire. If you go with my 30% rate, you’ll work 28 years. If you manage to save 50%, you can retire in 17 years! The more you save, the earlier you reach financial independence and can work as much or as little as you want.

The other standard advice you’ll hear and read is that you’ll spend approximately 80% of your pre-retirement income during retirement. For a physician with a typical high income, that can be a lot of money!

You have to realize that 80% is probably high for a physician because after you retire you’ll have greatly reduced expenses. This is because:

  • You’ll be in a lower tax bracket.
  • You’re no longer saving for retirement.
  • You no longer need life or disability insurance.
  • You’ve hopefully paid off your mortgage.
  • Your kids are out of the house (if you had any).
  • You have no more job-related expenses.
  • You can give less to charity if you need to.

In the end, you can probably live off of 25-50% of your pre-retirement income, not the standard 80%. This fact can multiply the effect of a higher than normal savings rate.

3. You are your own financial worst enemy.

Unfortunately for us, we engage in self-defeating behaviors all the time, including:

  • Assuming too much debt.
  • Living above our means in order to keep up with the doctor lifestyle.
  • Purchasing too large and expensive a house.
  • Purchasing too expensive a car.
  • Not maxing out our tax-advantaged retirement account contributions.

Luckily there are some simple rules that, if followed, can keep young physicians and medical students out of trouble.

First, realize that anytime you assume debt you are simply borrowing from your future self for current gain. Sometimes that is a good idea, like when you borrow to pay for medical school, but pausing before you assume debt to purchase something can help you out greatly.

Getting down to brass tacks, no one really cares what medical school you went to, so you should probably go to the cheapest one you can get into.

In addition, no one really cares how large your house is or what kind of car you drive. You think they care, but they really don’t. Don’t try to impress other people.

If you have student debt, you need to get smart about ways to refinance it or get it forgiven with the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. Thanks to the HPSP program, I never had student debt, so I’m not going to pretend to be the expert on it. If you have student debt, go to WhiteCoatInvestor.com and learn about options to refinance or get your loans forgiven.

When it comes to houses and cars, if you can’t afford the house you are purchasing on a 15-year fixed mortgage then you are probably buying too expensive of a house. Rent until you can put down a larger down payment or look at less expensive houses.

When it comes to cars, you should realize that you can buy a very reasonable used car that is 5-10 years old, plenty nice, and very reliable for much less than a new car will cost. You should make it your goal to pay cash for cars. If you can’t pay cash, then you should purchase a cheaper car.

Low or no interest loans are tempting because people think they are getting “free money,” but using “free money” to pay for a depreciating asset (one that declines in value) is not a smart financial move. Your goal should be only to borrow money for appreciating assets (ones that increase in value), like businesses or real estate.

Finally, make sure you maximize your tax advantaged retirement contributions every year, like the TSP. It is one of the few legal ways to hide money from the IRS, and the compound growth year after year is an opportunity you don’t want to miss.

In summary, here are the three things every young physician or medical student needs to know:

  1. You can’t control the investment markets, so focus on the two things you can control – investment costs and your asset allocation.
  2. Your savings rate is the most important factor determining your eventual net worth, and it should be at least 20-30% of your gross income.
  3. You are your own financial worst enemy.

Somebody out there is going to take this advice to heart and get rich. Is it going to be you?