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Women in Surgery: Advice to College Students

Surgery has long been known as a man’s field, but things are changing, says Nancy Gantt, M.D., FACS, professor of surgery. In 2018, four female NEOMED College of Medicine graduates matched in general surgery residencies.  Here’s some career advice from those new surgery residents to current college students.  

To read more on this topic, check out the fall issue of Ignite magazine, available in September.

My advice to college students considering surgery: Shadow a surgeon, make connections early, get experience early, take a cadaver class if possible, take a human anatomy class (not animal), be confident, be an advocate for social justice, be determined.—Maria Knaus, M.D.(’18)

My advice to college students considering a career in surgery is that they make this decision with eyes wide open. Having grown up with my father and then sisters in the field, I observed firsthand the sleepless nights of call followed by a full day of family obligations, the completely exhausting workweeks that caused my sisters to fall off the radar for a month, and the emotional toll of a profession that encounters very sick and dying patients every day. There is nothing easy about surviving residency, let alone balancing family, friends and emotional relationships in the few free hours. Students should have an open and honest conversation with a surgical mentor, if possible, or any member in the field who will give them all the information needed to make this decision.—Ileana Horattas, M.D. (’18)

First, pursue a field that makes you excited. Pick something that you can envision yourself waking up to do for 10, 20 and 50 years. Choose a field that you do not mind waking up early for, that leaves you feeling fulfilled at the end of the day, and that allows you to go home feeling accomplished and content. Pursuing that field will make you a better person, physician and family member.

The surgery lifestyle seems daunting, but I would personally rather spend 60-plus hours a week doing something that fulfills me than 40 hours a week doing something that drains me. And when I feel good about my work, I am a better person at home with my loved ones and a better physician for my patients. Most importantly, I am happier.

I also cannot stress enough the need to find good mentors. Dr. (Nancy) Gantt has been one such mentor, constantly encouraging aspiring female (and male) surgeons to follow our aspirations, improve our technical and patient skills, and helping us to network and find programs that suit our needs. She never fails to provide realistic advice, and she has always been quick to support us in any way she can. I genuinely do not believe that I would have matched so successfully without her guidance over the past four years. In addition to career advice, Dr. Gantt also reminds us to take care of ourselves. She advocates for yoga classes and group activities to ease stress during medical school and residency.

NEOMED surgery residents

Pictured from left to right is Sarah Hill, M.D. (’18), Ileana Horattas, M.D. (’18), Maria Knaus, M.D. (’18) and Celine Soriano M.D. (’18).

I will never forget her remarks during a Women in Surgery mixer. We had just watched a GoPro video that documented a female cardiothoracic surgeon’s average day, in the hospital from 5 a.m. until 9 p.m. Dr. Gantt was the first to say that this woman is remarkable, but that she herself could never maintain that lifestyle for an extended period of time. This was a huge comfort to me, as in those moments I was questioning my ability to survive such a grueling schedule. Because of Dr. Gantt and my other mentors, I am continuing my surgical training with great enthusiasm and feeling as prepared as I can be for the challenges ahead of me.

I would also like to pass on a piece of advice I received from an internal medicine chief during my clerkship. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are a bad mother. You can insert any title in the place of “mother.” Every person you encounter will have their own idea of the path you should follow, but deviating from their plan does not mean that you are wrong or that your priorities are misplaced. You have permission to choose the priorities that matter to you, and you are the only person who lives your life. In this resident’s case, she had always dreamed of becoming a cardiologist and chose to have a daughter during her PGY-II year. Many people close to her voiced that she should scale back her career aspirations, resigning herself to part-time, exclusively outpatient primary care. This path is completely acceptable to some physicians, female and male, who wish to spend additional time with their families and who enjoy providing outpatient care. However, this resident voiced that she wanted to set an empowering example for her daughter; that she did not have to compromise her life aspirations simply because others doubted her ability to be both a devoted mother and a successful, empathetic physician in the field of her choice.

This resident is now a cardiology fellow, an amazing mentor, and one of the most loving mothers I know. She is fulfilled by her work and feels that this allows her to be a better mother and role model for her daughter. In short, be what you want to be and have as many dimensions as you choose, because if something is important to you, you will make space for it in your life. –Sarah Hill, M.D. (’18)

My biggest advice for all students, regardless of gender, who are interested in surgery is to network and find mentors at all levels – residents, fellows, attendings and even retired faculty. Ask questions. Be enthusiastic. Show that you work hard. The Association of Women Surgeons played an astronomical job in shaping my career interests. I was able to attend conferences and listen to the stories of many women who have dealt with the struggles and obstacles of being a female in surgery and their advice overcoming such barriers. Having a support system throughout medical school and residency is extremely valuable. Not only do I have three outstanding female colleagues in my class pursuing general surgery, but I can also safely say they are three of my closest friends.—Celine Soriano, M.D. (’18)