Some people simply do better work when their job involves action. Many doctors would probably say practicing medicine as a whole satisfies this desire, but there’s some variance among fields. Surgery, for example, is about as hands-on as a specialty can get.
If you’re interested in pursuing a career in medicine, perhaps you’ve thought the active nature of surgery might be a good fit for you. But there’s obviously more to the job than incisions and sutures. How do you know whether becoming a surgeon is the right path?
Though surgeons pursue countless subspecialties, they all tend to have a number of characteristics in common. Take a look at what these physicians have to say about the hallmark traits of a good surgeon. You might even find this field is a better fit for you than you previously thought.
Becoming a surgeon might be a good choice if …
1. You’re great at working with your hands
It’s not enough to enjoy working with your hands. To be a successful surgeon, your fine-motor skills need to be impeccable. Dr. Inna Husain, laryngologist and assistant residency program director for simulation education at Rush University Medical Center, quickly realized this during an anatomy lab in medical school.
“It was surprising to see how intricate we are inside,” she recalls. “All the muscles and vessels, it was more complicated than I had imagined.”
"It was surprising to see how intricate we are inside"
This makes sense. Even when using equipment to perform operations, your movements need to be minute and controlled. But while hand-eye coordination and manual dexterity really come down to natural ability, practicing can also help you improve those skills. Activities outside the medical realm can help as well.
“I have found recreational activities like tai chi and learning to play an instrument have helped me become a better surgeon,” says orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Lucas Bader.
2. Having to adapt doesn’t intimidate you
Procedures don’t always go according to plan. Surgeons must maintain composure when something unexpected happens. You also need to be able to adjust on the fly, and that doesn’t just go for completing your duties in the operating room.
“There are a lot of unpredictable things that can happen in surgery and, often, this will set your plans astray,” Dr. Husain says. “One of the hardest things is not having a predictable schedule.”
3. You have stamina
Given the unpredictable nature of surgery, you could be on your feet for an operation much longer than you initially planned. You might even have to miss a meal. This is why, as Dr. Husain points out, physical stamina is important.
Mental endurance is equally important. You can’t let your mind wander during surgery, no matter how long the procedure. Dr. Bader thinks concentration is as important for surgeons as it is for athletes. He compares performing an operation to competing in a sporting event.
"You’re in this incredibly intense and focused state."
“You’re in this incredibly intense and focused state, where your primary goal is to perform at a high level for the betterment of the patient,” Dr. Bader explains.
4. You enjoy working with other people
While surgery might seem like a solitary field, you actually need to interact with others quite frequently. You’ll communicate with other physicians and members of the medical team before, during, and after surgery.
Physicians who go into a surgical field also need to be comfortable speaking with patients. You must be able to communicate effectively with someone who recently underwent surgery.
“You can do the best technical surgery, but if they don’t receive proper follow-up care, patients may not have a good outcome,” Dr. Husain offers.
5. Leadership comes naturally to you
Surgery often involves a robust care team. Major operations can require a lineup that includes surgeons, anesthesiologists, physician assistants, nurses, and more. There needs to be one clear captain taking charge in order to make sure everyone is on the same page.
"As a surgeon, you are the leader in the operating room."
“As a surgeon, you are the leader in the operating room,” Dr. Husain says.
Dr. Gary Linkov, medical director at City Facial Plastics, agrees that surgeons need to provide direction. He thinks a key part of effectively leading is being able to accurately evaluate your coworkers.
“Being able to assess the strengths and weaknesses of one’s peers allows surgeons to tailor a team-specific plan to achieve the most desired result for the patient,” he offers.
6. You enjoy learning new things
Good doctors recognize they don’t know everything, which is particularly important for surgeons. The field is constantly evolving. It’s essential to continue educating yourself on new techniques, technologies, and research, even if you’re not actively participating in research yourself.
“It sharpens vital skills, like critical analysis and creativity, and keeps a surgeon on his or her toes,” Dr. Linkov says.
7. You enjoy seeing concrete results
Not many physicians get to see noticeable improvements in their patients. In fact, a lot of doctors work to prevent health issues from arising in the first place. Surgery is quite different. Every phase of a procedure, from making the first incision to seeing a patient in the recovery room, is visibly different. That’s part of what initially drew Dr. Husain to a surgical specialty.
"Going into surgery was solidified for me when I did my otolaryngology rotation."
“Going into surgery was solidified for me when I did my otolaryngology rotation,” she shares. “Participating in surgeries, watching us remove cancerous growths from the head and neck, and then putting patients back together was awe-inspiring.”
8. You’re willing to make sacrifices
While being a surgeon can be incredibly rewarding, it’s also a difficult profession. It’s unpredictable and demanding. Many surgeons find themselves making lifestyle sacrifices others would never consider—missing holidays, being on-call, showing up to events far later than expected.
“Surgery is a time-consuming profession, so you have to be willing to dedicate a significant chunk of your life to it if you want to do a good job,” Dr. Bader says.
See yourself as a surgeon?
Becoming a surgeon isn’t for everyone. The profession can be demanding, not to mention exhausting. But many surgeons also find it interesting and rewarding. Ultimately, you have to decide whether the pros outweigh the cons.
If you’re feeling inspired to continue steering yourself toward surgery, you might want to start thinking more seriously about how to proceed. Before you can pursue a surgical field, you first need to obtain a medical degree.
Maybe you’ve already started looking into applying to medical schools. The process can be a bit intimidating, particularly if you aren’t sure which schools you should target. Find out how to determine your final list of programs by checking out our infographic “What Medical Schools Should I Apply To? How to Create Your List.”
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