Many academic surgeons have earned additional degrees to further their careers. What is sometimes less clear is how these new skillsets change a career trajectory beyond the letters after one’s name. Here we share three perspectives on how additional degrees earned during surgical training are shaping our paths in academic medicine.
Filip Bednar, MD, PhD
I have been drawn to basic science research since high school. The idea that a systematic approach to the building of knowledge can yield insights into the world around us has always appealed to me. I also believe that surgeons can and should contribute to fundamental basic research from which therapeutic advances can eventually arise. Many avenues exist to acquire the necessary skills for surgeons to lead or participate in this type of research. Obtaining a Doctor of Philosophy degree (PhD) is one of them. I chose to pursue this route during my medical school training for two reasons – the protected time to develop a defined research skillset with expert knowledge of a specific area via a structured didactic program and the opportunity to produce an original body of work within the same area through the PhD thesis.
Having obtained my PhD in microbiology and immunology, I then embarked on my general surgery training. My research experience, together with my clinical rotations during the first three years of residency, led to my interest in tumor immunology and biology and defined my subsequent career path in surgical oncology. As a resident, I was able to combine my clinical training with a two-year postdoctoral fellowship in pancreatic cancer biology. My postdoctoral research project now forms the basis for the ongoing work in my laboratory. None of my current progress would be possible without my early interest in basic research and ongoing training, including my PhD, that I have received during every step of my education.
Interest in basic research may arise at varying points of a person’s career. When it does, the key questions that one has to answer for him or herself are how much additional training they would like to obtain, how much additional training time they are willing to go through along with the resources needed to complete such training, and to what degree they want to participate in basic research in their long-term career. One does NOT have to obtain a PhD to be a surgeon involved in productive basic and translational research. However, a PhD course of study will provide a protected time and structured exposure to learn research techniques and become an expert in a specific area of inquiry. The most important piece of advice is to actively seek and identify mentors and role models early in the process that can serve as a sounding board when making these decisions. The AAS/SUS includes many surgeons at various stages of their career, who are also basic and translational researchers and are eager to share their expertise with trainees. It is an excellent place to start on this journey whether one is a medical student, resident, or junior faculty.
Connie Shao, MD (future MSPH)
My interest in healthcare disparities stemmed from my experiences as an undergraduate student at Washington University in St. Louis. Our innovations in the Biomedical Engineering Department seemed to be in stark contrast with life across the Delmar Loop. In medical school, engaging with patients in South Side Chicago confirmed my interest, as I took advantage of volunteering opportunities at University of Chicago to serve our community. There was substantial cognitive dissonance in meeting patients who presented with late-stage diseases that could have been prevented while simultaneously doing basic science research that made me question whether those patients would ever be able to benefit from my work.
As a resident at University of Alabama at Birmingham, I discovered a rich environment of health services research that allowed for us to better understand what factors were impacting patient outcomes. When deciding to do two years of research during residency, it made sense to include formal training on epidemiology and statistics to help me better understand how to ask and answer good research questions. I decided to do a part time Masters of Science in Public Health (MSPH) over the course of two years, focusing on the Health Outcomes track. My research is funded through an American College of Surgeons Resident Research Award and by an institutional T32 grant from the Health Services/Comparative Effectiveness Research Training Program (HSR/CERTP), led by Michael Mugavero, MD, MHSc, PD/PI and Emily Levitan ScD. The HSR/CERTP T32 award has provided funding for my degree.
This experience has given me a greater understanding for the role of my research within the sphere of public health, as well as a formal learning experience for someone who had minimal training in statistics. My experience in MATLAB and C++ as a Biomedical Engineering student helped languages like R be less intimidating, but it was the projects and clear instruction through my degree that really helped me learn the language. I am actively applying these skills to my research on disparities in peri-operative telemedicine use and post-operative complications associated with pre-operative COVID-19 infection.
In the second year towards earning my MSPH, I will be taking courses on mixed methods research to supplement my research on barriers and facilitators to telemedicine use as we try to reduce the pre-existing digital divide. Being able to apply theory to practice has been an incredibly rewarding experience. Knowing that at the end of the day, we are moving the needle on creating interventions to improve care and make it more equitable makes our research very fulfilling. To that end, having the structured background to make that dream a reality has been made possible through obtaining my MSPH.
Robert Hollis, MD, MSPH
Though I had a passion for becoming a health services researcher, I will admit I didn’t truly understand what a public health degree included or the implications of the degree on my career when I enrolled. After much learning, I obtained my MSPH in 2016 at the UAB School of Public Health during two years of dedicated academic development time in surgery residency. My tuition was partially funded by an institutional T32 grant in surgical oncology.
Compared to an MPH degree, the MSPH is usually geared towards academic goals with a narrower focus than an MPH degree. The MSPH tracks at UAB are often enrolled by health professionals who want additional skill sets to perform high quality research. Instead of writing a thesis, I wrote research papers for degree requirements. During those two years, the coursework provided a nice structured adjunct to the ongoing clinical research analysis and writing.
Now five years later and one year into my first faculty position, I can begin to speak to the impact of the degree on my career. Most practical are the skills from my coursework in epidemiology, econometric methods, biostatistics, and data programming that I now utilize weekly. Some courses that seemed more abstract such as “social and ethical issues in public health” have provided a fuller understanding of the social constructs and directions of my current work. Further, the various research work that we evaluated in the coursework has provided me with new viewpoints that extend beyond what we see in our surgical journals. This experience has broadened my research perspectives and helped stimulate creativity for new ideas and methodology.
Most critical are the doors that were opened after obtaining my MSPH by simply providing additional tangible evidence of my dedication to clinical research. The degree offers “structured training” that provides a foundation and provides confidence beyond a publication portfolio to your future boss interested in hiring a young surgeon scientist. It earns its line in grant applications as evidence of my commitment to clinical research. But more importantly, it remains something that I personally value for the skills, knowledge, and perspectives that it has provided me towards making a greater impact on patients.
The path to academic surgery varies for all individuals, but many aspiring surgeons will seek a degree at some point in their training. While degrees do not guarantee a successful research career, they provide formal training to put the candidate at the best launching point for their career. Our examples are just a few of the many different degrees that surgeons have sought. We encourage you to consider what impact you want to have and how an additional academic degree during training may help you achieve your goals.
For more posts on additional degrees in academic surgery see “Do you need another degree” by Dr. Courtenay Holscher and “Adult Learning, Truth About Multitasking, and thing or Two about Clarity, Concentration, and Equanimity” by Dr. Mio Kitano.