As a fourth-year medical student on the general surgery interview trail, I am frequently asked, “Where do you think your niche will be in the future?” This question extends beyond my clinical interests and fellowship aspirations. Because I am applying to academic programs, explaining future intentions also involves identifying the area of academic surgery in which I hope to build a career. Distinct from my peers who will pursue bench science or global health, I hope to work as a surgeon-educator engaged in education investigation and innovation.
My own interest in surgery emerged while participating in a longitudinal, integrated clerkship, a model of third-year rotations in which students are precepted by a faculty physician in each discipline. Since I was attracted to surgery in the context of this unique program, I became curious about the consequences that educational decisions have on a trainee’s development.
Eventually I completed a Master of Education to better understand how educational theories could inform surgical training models. Between the third and fourth years of medical school, I studied the philosophy of education, educational research methods, adult development, etc… with the goal of attaining the theoretical knowledge and concrete skills to rigorously investigate surgical training.
Having described my academic interests, I am sometimes asked about what influenced my decision to become a surgical educator. The most important factor has actually not been any personal experience or additional degree. Instead, the strongest influence on my career development has been the academic surgeons with whom I have strong mentoring relationships.
The mentors in my life have provided all expected guidance and more. My third-year surgical preceptor was a generous clinical mentor who has also been a great sponsor of my career. The attending surgeon with whom I worked as subintern continues to provide wisdom regarding residency applications and interviewing. Still, it has been the research relationships with surgical educators that have most fueled my scholarly ambitions.
My research mentors gave me what every surgical trainee craves: autonomy. It was clear that they embraced the teaching philosophy that in order to learn, a person must do. They sent me IRB templates and told me to take my best shot. The literature review, protocol design, follow-up with the human research committee—all of these tasks were mine to attempt. Certainly I worked more slowly than my advisers would have, but I could not have learned so much about launching surgical education research projects without the opportunity to actually launch surgical education research projects. This is not to say that my mentors were unavailable. They always reviewed my work, edited it, and sent it back when it needed to be redone or approached in a different way. My confidence grew as a consequence of being given ownership over the work; it is with this confidence that I answer interviewer inquiries about my career ambitions.
Match Day looms, and depending on the algorithm, so does the possibility of moving away from the individuals who nurtured my early development in academic surgery. Opening that envelope will reveal the location of future mentors, the surgeons who will attend to my further progress. The availability of surgical educators will factor strongly into my rank list—if mentorship has been so critical in medical school, it must matter in residency, too.
As I continue to mingle with co-applicants at pre-interview receptions, I’ll remember that despite broad differences in our professional goals, what we likely have in common are strong mentors. Perhaps we also share the hope that we will match not just to a hospital or place, but to a department full of faculty members enthusiastic to invest their caring and wisdom in the development of the next generation of academic surgeons whether we are bench scientists, clinical researchers, global surgeons, or even education scholars.