Gareth (not his real name) writes
I came across your blog a few days ago and I have been reading it since. I am a third year medical student studying in the UK. I am writing to you because I would be grateful if I could get some advice. I have always wanted to become a doctor, since I was veryyyyy young, but I never ever considered a career in surgery. Before medical school, I believed that surgeons were like butchers, not capable of any human attachment for the patient etc etc. I believed I would not be able to bear the responsibility to cut someone open given the fact that I am a very emotional person. However, my perspective changed when I was in the OR and saw my first surgery. It was a coronary bypass surgery and I loved it, I loved the idea of making the patient better in such short time and the fact that the surgeon was the one responsible for it, I suppose it must be very satisfying. Therefore, I have started to consider a career in surgery, however, I am still very unsure of whether I have the right personality type and skills to become a surgeon. I still tend to get very attached and moved by patients' stories and experiences and I don't know whether that would help me detach myself from the patient whilst operating. Also, most surgeons seem to be extremely confident and outgoing whereas I tend to be shy and not confident, even though I'm quite good academically. So I am really confused right now. Also, I have never had great hand skills, even though I took some introductory surgical skills courses and they went quite well. I seem to get a bit of tremor when I do practical stuff though, I guess that's because I get nervous.
I'd like to ask you one more thing. If I do decide to go for a career in surgery, is there any point for me to try and take the USMLE and apply for a US residency after graduation? I heard surgery it's really competitive, I guess many schools don't even accept international applicants?
Thank you very much for your time and dedication. I admire the passion that you show.
First let's talk about the "surgical personality." There was a time when most surgeons could have been categorized into a couple of personality types. Those days are gone. Now that 40% of all surgical residents are women it is no longer necessary to be a certain type of individual. I know many surgeons who are quiet, thoughtful and introspective. You need to dismiss any thoughts about your personality type being incompatible with a career in surgery. Also it is not a bad thing for a surgeon to identify with and become attached to his patients.
The next myth is that one must have great dexterity to become a surgeon. In the old days some residency programs use to screen applicants by making them build model airplanes. I don't believe anyone still does that. Now it seems that video game skills are much more important since so many procedures are done laparoscopically. I believe that anyone can become a more than decent technical surgeon through practice. We all get nervous. This is a real person you are operating on. I have written that there is more to surgery than manual skills. It is very important to know who to operate on and when to operate on them as well as who not to operate on.
I have written before about the decreasing chances of graduates from non-US medical schools obtaining residencies in the United States. US medical schools are expanding their class sizes and a new schools are opening. It is not even clear that all us graduates will be able to obtain residency positions in the future. The most recent statistics from the match show that only about 5% of non-US citizen graduates of foreign schools matched into categorical general surgery positions. However, I do not believe you have anything to lose by trying. You will need to get an excellent score on the USMLE and of course, have good grades and recommendations. Although it is difficult, some trainees from the UK have been able to find fellowships in the US. I do not know how easy that will be in the next few years.