Residency for young doctors is generally considered to be one of the hardest parts of medical training. It’s more intense than medical school, and far, far more physically and emotionally draining. Residency is post-graduate training where a doctor get his or her specialty. There are no “majors” in medical school – the type of doctor you are is determined during residency.
Surgical residencies have long been seen as some of the most difficult programs a doctor can go through. So what can you expect as a surgical resident? What are the work conditions like? What do you actually DO during the day? It’s important to know these things before you choose this career, or even before you choose to go to medical school.
Note also that this article focuses mostly on general surgery residency. This is the most common type of surgery residency, but there are a few others, such as othopedic surgery. As a general rule, they really aren’t that different.
One thing that you can be assured to experience as a surgical resident is long hours and intense work conditions. It is not uncommon for surgical residents to work upwards of 90-100 hours. In the last few years there have been attempt to “limit” the work week to 80 hours, but there are ways around that (such as scheduling “non-work” yet mandatory meetings during what were previously counted as “work” time).
In your first year, most surgical residents will not be doing a lot of surgery. For the most part, they will be supporting the more senior doctors and residents. They will take a lot of histories, chase a lot of lab reports, follow-up a patient after a procedure. This type of work is called “scut-work”. It’s boring, it’s tedious, and it’s absolutely essential to the proper care of a patient who has undergone surgery.
On occasion, you will get “lucky” in your first year and actually get in to the operating room to help with a surgery. During this time you will spend most of the surgery holding clamps and generally trying to not screw anything up that could harm the patient. If you are good, you’ll be paying close attention to what’s happening, because in a year or two, you’ll be taking a far more serious role in surgery.
There are tests and exams during a surgical residency. You will have to take the last of the USMLE Step exams early on in the process. There are also exams and evaluations for each department you rotate through. Surgical residents have to rotate through many parts of the hospital, spending time with as many departments as they can. You have to learn as much surgery as you can in a very short time.
A surgical residency can last up to six years – more if you want to become more and more specialized. As the years go by, you gain a greater amount of responsibility. In the later years, you will be given the responsibilty for handling a surgery on your own. The complexity of these surgeries will increase with increasing experience and proven ability.
Surgical residency is something that must be seen and experienced to really understand what it’s like. It’s long, it’s hard, and it can be very rewarding when you know that you are making a positive impact in the lives of people who need your skills and dedication.