American College Of Surgeons - Inspiring Quality: Highest Standards, Better Outcomes

Section I: Surgical Traits

Reflect on your clinical experiences and how you felt while caring for patients. Do you:

  • Appreciate working as a member of a team?
  • Enjoy watching your patients improve daily after major injuries or surgical procedures?
  • Embrace responsibility and the opportunity to make a positive impact?
  • Excel at problem solving and have the ability to “think on your feet”?
  • Feel intrigued by the challenge of managing multiple physiological and psychological problems in your critically ill surgical patients?
  • Share the excitement of a surgical team anticipating a "great case"?
  • Enjoy the challenges of acquiring new technical skills and understanding new technologies?

If the answer to some of these questions is "Yes!", a surgical career may be right for you.

First and foremost, surgeons are trained, not born. Facility with knot-tying and sewing is handy, but some of the most wise and revered surgeons in practice today were not known for their dexterity when they were medical students or junior surgery residents. Intelligence, professionalism, conscientiousness, creativity, courage, and perseverance on behalf of your patients are the critical factors, and they outweigh the small differences in dexterity among most medical students. Becoming a good surgeon is a lifelong process. Thoughtful reflection on the outcomes of your decisions and those of others will gradually give you the most important quality, "good surgical judgment."  Being "nice" is as helpful as it would be for any physician; your patients, colleagues, and other health care workers will all deserve your respect and compassion.

So does that mean that any medical student can become a surgeon?

Well, no. Not all students would be happy with a surgical career. You must thrive on being part of the surgical enterprise and you must absolutely look forward to opportunities to go to the operating room. Additionally, you must be flexible. A surgeon's day is seldom predictable, and surgeons must view this unpredictability as an enjoyable challenge. Use of both hands and reasonably good mental and physical health are also necessities.

Why is it that some of my fellow medical students just hate being in the operating room while some find it exhilarating?

If you are a medical student reading these words, chances are you're not one of the students who hates being in the operating room. Medical students who love being in the operating room tend to be people who are comfortable with three-dimensional imagery; they often overlap with medical students who enjoyed learning anatomy. Students who love being in the operating room find doing concrete physical work for their patients truly satisfying. The reward for a surgeon’s efforts is often an immediate improvement in the health of the patient. Being comfortable as a surgeon also means being comfortable accepting the responsibility of the role as leader of a team. Motivating the team and facilitating their best efforts are skills you can learn in your surgery training program, but at the core, surgeons must be able to accept responsibility. The surgical culture is one of continuous improvement, for example, using the public forum of morbidity and mortality conferences to tell the stories of bad outcomes in hopes that they may be avoided in the future. Students who are uncomfortable making quick decisions, occupying positions of leadership, or discussing errors in a public forum may be uncomfortable in surgical roles.

I'm still not sure if surgery is right for me. I loved my surgical rotations, but I don't want to sacrifice my family or personal life.

Surgeons are people who find it extremely rewarding to act and then see the impact of their actions on their patients’ well-being. If that resonates for you and you find yourself having the time of your life on surgical rotations, a surgical career probably is right for you. Because all training programs have adopted mandatory work-hour limits such as an 80 hour per week average duty hours, limited work hours for interns and at least one day per week completely free from clinical responsibilities, surgical training should not be appreciably harder on families than training in a non-surgical discipline. After residency, many options exist for limiting practice hours and playing an integral role in your family or community. Chances are the satisfaction you derive from your surgical career will be an energizing force that will not only carry you through the training process, but will also benefit those who are important in your personal life as well.

Is there a reason for the surgical mystique? What makes being a surgeon special?

There are some rewards to being a surgeon that are powerful and unique to surgical fields. As surgeons, we are able to test our hypotheses and see rapid, graphic results from our work. It is immensely satisfying to completely excise a cancer, convert a cold, bluish ischemic limb to one that is warm and pink, relieve the pain of an intraabdominal catastrophe or help a scarred patient gain better appearance and function.

The field of surgery needs a rich variety of motivated medical students to enter surgery training to continue this good work, as well as innovate and explore new directions. The American College of Surgeons is made up of individuals who were all once medical students like you wondering whether to pursue a surgical career. Now, the American College of Surgeons would like to support you on that challenging and exciting path.