Many students entering medical school are unsure about which specialty they want to pursue. Med school is a great time to explore specialties and decide on a field. The third and fourth years of med school are particularly important, as this is when students rotate through different specialties and get first-hand exposure to fields like internal medicine, surgery, psychiatry or obstetrics and gynecology.
While the clinical years of med school are when most students choose a specialty, some students come into med school already knowing what field interests them. This is perhaps most true of surgery. Many students decide in high school or early in college that they want to be surgeons.
If you have your sights set on a career in surgery, be happy that you have identified your area of passion. In preparing for med school and a surgical career, remember that there are things you can do to increase your chances of success.
Practice Manual Dexterity Skills
It is never too early to start honing your manual dexterity skills in preparation for a career in surgery. Surgical residency programs like candidates who have demonstrated a strong ability to work with their hands.
An eye surgeon once told me that in the early stages of his training, he used his less-dominant left hand for everyday manual tasks such as buttoning his shirt or using utensils for eating. In doing so, he aimed to further develop dexterity in that hand.
There are many ways to develop dexterity skills and hand-eye coordination, such as playing a musical instrument, painting or doing ceramics. Studies have shown that even playing video games can improve surgical skills!
If you have the time, pick up a hobby that involves working with your hands. You may also take advantage of labs or workshops where you can practice basic surgical tasks like suturing on animal skin or surgical models. Learning how to tie surgical knots can also be a useful way of developing manual skills that you can apply in your future work. Try to get a hold of suture material and use online video tutorials to practice tying knots.
By practicing these skills early on, you will get a better sense of whether the work of a surgeon interests you. You will also be better prepared for your surgical rotations in medical school.
When you are on your third-year surgery rotation in med school, there is a good chance you will be prompted by the attending surgeon to assist by cauterizing small blood vessels or closing a wound. Having some practice in these areas will enable you to do a better job and impress your professors and the residents who are teaching you.
Get a Foundation in Anatomy
Anatomy is the basis for surgery, and any good surgeon needs to know anatomy well.
If you are interested in a surgical career, you must have a good understanding of different anatomic landmarks. These landmarks tell you where different vital structures lie and help you avoid damaging important nerves or blood vessels.
To prepare for a career as a surgeon, getting a good foundation in anatomy is quite helpful. If you have the opportunity, take advantage of your premed career by taking a course in anatomy. Ideally, consider a gross anatomy course with a lab, where you can visualize different structures in three dimensions.
Do Not Make Your Med School Application All About Surgery
If you have set your sights on surgery early on, that is positive. However, do not make your entire premed journey and med school application about surgery.
While medical schools will appreciate your interest in a certain chosen field, they want to see that you are more broadly interested in a career in medicine. After all, before you become a surgeon, you will need to become a physician and learn the fundamental aspects of patient care. Most of your time in med school will be devoted to this and you need to show that you are prepared and eager to learn medicine more broadly.
You can take advantage of your premed years to learn more about surgery by shadowing surgeons or participating in surgical research. But make sure you also spend time in other areas of medicine. For example, you can work in a primary care clinic or volunteer in an emergency department. In doing so, you will come across as well-rounded and knowledgeable about medicine more holistically.
When it is time to apply to med school, show this well-roundedness in your application. Do not just focus your personal statement and other essays on why you want to be a surgeon or why you find surgery rewarding. Instead, show more broadly what aspects of medical care and medical science appeal to you.
You may use certain parts of your application to highlight your interest in surgery, but this should not predominate.
Keep an Open Mind
Committing to any specialty in medicine is a serious decision, as you will spend the majority of your life working in that field. This is particularly true of surgery, which can be a demanding field that requires you to immerse yourself in it fully.
While your impressions of surgery may be positive from your undergraduate career, the best way to know whether you will like this career is to fully immerse yourself in it during your med school rotations. Take advantage of these rotations to thoroughly explore the field.
Also, do not dismiss other fields. Delve into them with an open mind. Some students are afraid that by doing so, they may change their minds. But the only way to know if a field is truly your passion is to put it to the test, explore alternatives and see if you still like it as much.
If, in the end, you emerge convinced that surgery remains your passion, then you can be more certain that you have made the right choice. If, on the other hand, you find another field of medicine drawing you in, you can rest assured knowing that you do not have to spend an entire career in a field that is not the best match for you.
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