How to Become a Surgeon
Many people dream of saving or improving lives as a surgeon. To achieve this dream, you must attend school for a number of years progressing through your initial education and into more specialized training. You should also seek out mentors in other surgeons and your professors. Choose a surgical specialty and publish in that area if you choose. Also, make sure to meet all licensing requirements for your area prior to practicing and keep your work paperwork up to date.
1. Beginning Your Education
Decide if you possess the right attributes. As you enter into high school, begin to consider whether or not you have the right personality to enter into a medical profession. You will need to thrive under pressure and to enjoy managing crises. You will need the ability to concentrate for long periods of time and to master great amounts of information.
If you are curious about becoming a surgeon, you can also look at various texts that discuss a surgeons’ personality and profile. For example, the American College of Surgeons sells a variety of guidance texts online.
Talk to experienced surgeons. Even at the high school level, try to see if your school offers a mentorship program that could pair you up with a surgeon for a day or longer. Shadowing a surgeon in their work environment may help you to understand the benefits and negatives of their unique position. Some high schools also offer summer camps tailored to specific professional goals.
Graduate from high school. Make sure to sign up for classes that demonstrate your interest in math and science, such as biology, chemistry, and calculus. You may also want to take communication courses so that you’ll be able to communicate clearly with your patients, peers, and superiors.
Taking extra classes at the AP or advanced level is always a good idea, as it will leave you with more flexibility in college.
Try to do your best in all of your classes as your final scores will help to determine which college program you can enroll in. It may also impact the degree of financial aid that you receive.
If you are unable to complete high school on the traditional schedule, you may be able to take the GED (General Education Development) exam instead.
Get a bachelor’s degree. Medical schools generally don’t require a particular college major in order to apply. However, you will want to cover the basic prerequisites while in college. At minimum, you will need a year of biology, physics, English, and two years of chemistry. This goes for most international programs, too.
Try to space out your difficult math and science courses over a period of four years to avoid getting burned out early on. However, you will want to have your major requirements completed by your senior year, to fully prep you for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) or other admissions test.
Be aware that the expectations facing undergraduate students can vary according to location. In the United Kingdom, a student receives a medical degree upon completing their undergraduate education.
Take the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test). During your senior year of college in the U.S., you will need to take and do well on the MCAT. Your test scores will then be sent out to your various application schools and this, combined with your overall academic profile, will determine whether or not you are admitted.
Be aware that you may also need to provide letters of reference from your college professors as part of your medical school application package.
Go to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) website to find out U.S. medical school admissions requirements. If you are applying outside of the U.S., you will want to contact the school and ask for their requirements.
Many locations have equivalent testing to the MCAT. For example, in the UK, students are expected to take the UK Clinical Aptitude Test (UKCAT).
2. Gaining Professional Experience
Find a mentor. From high school onward, keep an eye out for individuals who can provide with you some guidance and advice from a professional standpoint. Try to stay in touch with those surgeons that you meet and keep them updated regarding what is happening with you. These mentors can provide unique insight into the school process and what your life will be like afterwards.
It is a great idea to identify one or more of your professors as potential mentors. Your relationship with them can continue after you complete school. And, they can provide you with much needed letters of reference and connections.
Complete medical school. Medical school usually takes at least four years to complete. You will spend the first few years primarily in the classroom and lab, learning procedures and surgical practices. Then, you will transition to working on your skills under the supervision of an experienced surgeon. You will rotate from specialty to specialty in order to expose you to a full array of options.
Obstetrics, pediatrics, and cardiology are just a few of the specialties that you may encounter on your rotation.
Once you graduate, you will be awarded with a degree. In the U.S., you will receive either a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.).
Complete a residency program. While you are in medical school, you will begin evaluating certain residency programs that have an emphasis on your desired area of specialty. You will then apply for this program and spend somewhere between three to seven years completing it. You will essentially serve as a surgeon under supervision.
Residency programs usually focus on a particular area of medicine, such as urology or critical care. This is the time where you will truly hone your skills in a more specific way.
As another example, in the United Kingdom you move into a phase called “Foundation Training” after receiving your initial medical degree. During this two-year period, you work with patients and begin to explore a field of specialty.
Add a fellowship. When you’ve finished your residency, you will have the option to continue training for up to three years as part of a fellowship. This fellowship provides you with the time to focus even more closely on a surgical subspecialty, like cardiothoracic measures. Many fellowships will also provide with financial and academic support for publishing.
It is always a good idea to talk with a fellowship program about where their graduates are working now. This will give you a better idea of your career options post-fellowship.
Get licensed. Licensing very much varies depending on your particular location. You will want to follow the guidance of your residency or fellowship program regarding the licenses that you will need to apply for. In most scenarios, you will need to pass certain exams in front of a medical board. For example, in the U.S. states, it is necessary to take an exam, such as the US Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE).
Try to publish. As you move through the education process, try to find ways to publish your unique insights in trade journals or hospital publications. Every piece that you publish provides another valuable line on your resume and it also reflects your transition from student to surgeon.
3. Choosing a Field and Specialty
Gain experience in a general practice. Before you decide to move into a specialty, or even pursue a fellowship, some people would recommend taking a few years out to serve as a general practitioner. This will allow you to hone your practical skills. It will also give you more time to determine an exact specialty, if you remain uncertain.
After you’ve built up a practice, you can often take a leave of absence to pursue additional fellowships or to develop your skills as needed.
In some locations, general practice exposure is not optional, such is the case in the United Kingdom. In the UK, each doctor is required to spend at least three years working in general practice, culminating with a Specialty Certificate Examination (SCE).
Decide your specialty field. There are a wide array of fields that you can choose from within a surgical area. If you are a cardiac surgeon, then you work on the heart and the cardiovascular system. If you are an orthopedic surgeon, then you work on musculoskeletal issues. As you move through your residency, try to explore as many options before narrowing down a focus field.
This process also takes place in the United Kingdom and is called Core Medical Training or Acute Care Common Stem and lasts for approximately two years. During this time, you will also need to pass the Membership of the Royal College of Physicians (MRCP) exam. You then move into four to six years of additional specialty training.
Decide to focus on a type of surgery. Within your surgical field, you will want to become proficient in a certain type of surgery. This could be open surgery, where you make an incision and work through that opening. Or, you could become proficient in using an ultrasonic scalpel or electrosurgery. Many of these skill sets require additional training on particular machines.
Be aware of new developments. After you’ve completed your education and settled into work life, make sure to stay abreast regarding any advances in your surgical field and type. Read the medical journals in your area. Attend conferences as often as you can. Talk with other surgeons about what interests them.
Some areas regulate this process more closely than others. In the UK, a doctor is required to a certain number of continuing development hours per year in order to stay licensed.
Pursue additional advancement opportunities. If you’ve decided to move away from a solo surgical practice, be aware that there are other job opportunities available to you. For example, you could take on a position at a university as a professor. You could become a full-time researcher. You could head into politics as a lobbyist or policymaker.