Just as any other career, surgery has its good and bad sides. While it is very rewarding, it can also be very challenging. Here is some advice from people working in surgery to those who might consider surgery as a career:
“I think surgery is a fantastic career if you love it. If you’ve done a bit of surgery or seen some of the ways that surgical patients are treated – it’s quite a quick process very often compared to medicine. If someone comes in and needs an emergency operation, everything happens very quickly. And I think if you love that, it’s a fantastic thing to do and worth spending the time, if that is something you love. If you were to do it because somebody else wanted you to, you’d be better of choosing something else because it takes a lot of effort. “
“Have a life plan. Where do you see yourself in 10-15 years? What kind of hours do you see yourself doing? Do you see yourself wanting to spend more time with friends and family? Are you willing to make the sacrifice, depending on specialty, when you just have to get up and go because you are on call, you can’t sit at home watching TV. You’ve got to have a clear idea of what you want in your life and how you would probably feel at that age. If still you are committed to performing surgery, wanting to be a surgeon and willing to make those sacrifices then absolutely do surgery. … for me, I think I made the right choice. … the fact that it makes such a difference in someone’s life fairly immediately is very satisfying.”
“Just think about the next step, what you need to do for that step to get forward, rather than being daunted by the whole long process, which actually, when you go through it, doesn’t seem all that daunting as long as you as long as you keep your horizon at a manageable scale.”
“I have no hesitation to say: If you love it, go for it. You have to keep your enthusiasm up. You have to be enthused about wanting to do this specialty and I think it’s probably the same with any career choice. You have to love it to continue because there are down times and great times and you have to take the down times, too. And it requires hard work – so you have to be motivated.”
Just like surgery, academia is a time consuming career to have and poses a challenge to a good work-life-balance. Radhika Nagpal, a professor for computer science at Harvard, is a woman who made it into a field that is – just like surgery – still very male dominated. In a recent guest blog post on Scientific American she talks about how she manages her life, her career, her family and her happiness. Although not all her points may apply to surgery, her article is certainly worth a read and contains some useful advice for managing a demanding career in general.
In her article she describes seven things she did to make sure to enjoy her life and her career despite its demands:
- Pretending that her position was a seven year post-doc to take the pressure off her and rather enjoy being able to work with some amazing people in her field
- Stopping to take advice and rather go her own way (such as focusing on her research instead of trying to network like crazy)
- Creating a “feelgood” e-mail folder that contained her successes such as job offers and which she could read when things weren’t going as well
- Working fixed hours in fixed amounts – both in her career and as a parent.
- Trying to be the best “whole” person that she can. Realising that it is impossible to be the best, most dedicated academic who spends all her time working as well as the best parent who dedicates her entire life to her kids and the best partner who is there for her other half in every moment, supporting him always and unconditionally, she decided that it was a much more attainable goal to be neither of those but rather the best “whole” person who combines a little bit of all of this.
- Finding real friends outside of her field who are not concerned with her career.
- Having fun “now” rather than constantly working towards a future in which the fun is hopefully going to happen.
To read the full article (do it! It’s really inspiring!), click here: The awesomest 7 year postdoc or how I learned to stop worrying and love the tenure track faculty life
We have alluded to a number of barriers that women still face in the workplace in general and in surgery in particular in a number of posts (e.g. here, here and here). Luckily, times are a-changing and many things are not as difficult as they used to be. Here is what some men and working in surgery have to say about that:
“I think things have changed quite a lot, partly because there are more women in all spheres of life whereas there weren’t 25 years ago. And that has had a bearing on what people expect women to do. They don’t expect you to stop working when you get married or stop working when you have children. And a lot of people are now married to men that earn less than they do. So again, you have a personal discussion around who is the one who collects the kid from school if the kid is ill and that sort of thing.”
“I think times will be changing. The NHS and the political climate change on a regular basis. The number of women coming through on a higher level of surgical training changes the gender ratio. There won’t be as many men to women as there have been and therefore female leaders will almost automatically be selected inevitably from the positions they’ve got to.”
“Things have changed over the last 20+ years that I’ve been a consultant, certainly. Prior to that, when I was a trainee, things were very different because we weren’t in the strange long hour culture that’s now being pretty much abolished, but it has changed. … I’ve seen more and more female graduates coming through and it is no longer unusual to see women in training in surgery – only today I’m interviewing for a consultant post in London and the two best candidates we have shortlisted are both women.”
“I think things are changing. I think these old style female surgeons have done a lot and maybe there is a new style female surgeon coming through who will try to multitask lots of different things like academia, clinical work and children. That makes life interesting. “
This week Jane Somerville, a female cardiologist and Emeritus Professor at Imperial College London, was interviewed on BBC Radio 4. In this truly inspiring interview she talks among other things about her career, role models and being a woman in medicine in the 50s.
The episode is available online, so click here to listen.
Misogyny, a bad work-life balance, the “old boys’ club” – there is a long list of reasons cited for the lack of women in surgery. However, a recent study conducted in the UK by Edward Fitzgerald from the University of Nottingham and his colleagues (which, by the way, also mentions WinS!) suggests that the main reason lies somewhere else: Women just seem to be uninterested in surgery itself.
In their study they gave out surveys to female and male newly qualified graduates from the University of Nottingham Medical School asking about interest in a career in surgery as well as reasons for this. Not surprisingly, men generally reported more interest in surgery than women (42% vs. 25%). The number one reason for this was a lack of interest in surgery itself. This was, however, followed by negative attitudes towards women in the field. The latter reason was backed up by the fact that 59% of male and 68% of female participants believed that surgery was not a career that was welcoming to women. When asked the open question why this was the case, the fact that surgery was male-dominated was the number one reason cited, followed by the difficulty of maintaining a family life and limited flexible training opportunities.
This study shows that even among newly qualified female graduates, the perception of surgery remains stubbornly stereotypical masculine and unattractive for women. It is therefore not just a matter of time until more and more women will enter surgery – it remains important to show women in medical schools that surgery is not just for men and that it is an exciting and welcoming place to work.