Paging all interns – Tips for excelling during surgical intern year

17 Jul 2019

By Mariela R. Martinez Rivera

Photo taken by me during my first month of intern year.

July 1st is finally here and with it, the beginning of your surgical training. Now is when things get real!

Last July 1st, was my first week of residency and I walked into the hospital for the first time eager to start this new stage in my life. Little did I know that soon I would be getting lost in the hospital floors, trying to decipher a new EMR system, and acknowledging that when nurses said: “Dr. Martinez” they were referring to me. The transition from medical student to physician happens exceedingly quickly and adapting to your new role as a first year surgical resident can become challenging. 

Here are some tips to make the best out of your intern year:

1. Get to know the territory. 

During the first year of surgical training, most of your time will be spent in the hospital. For you to become efficient navigating the hospital system, you first need to learn the infrastructure. Try to identify the key locations (and their phone extensions, if possible) such as: the operating rooms, radiology department, laboratory, pathology department, blood bank, etc. Knowing these key locations will be important for following up testing results and/or for managing urgent patient care needs. 

2. Establish goals and expectations.

Goals. It is easy to become overwhelmed when patient load increases, workload is high, and the hours are long. Evidence shows that among the factors that most affect intern confidence are high patient loads and long work hours. A good strategy that helped me manage daily setbacks was to develop short- and long- term goals. For example, a short term goal would be to have an inpatient discharge ready before noon and a long term goal would be to improve for example my knot tying skills. Focusing on goals keeps you motivated and focused on the task at hand. 

Expectations. Speak with residents who recently transitioned out of intern year and inquire about what specific roles/activities were expected from them. This will give you a general idea of what would also be expected from you as the new intern on the team. During the start of rotations, ask chief residents about what they expect from their junior residents. Inquire about senior residents’ experiences with attendings so that you can gain insight about them. Ask attendings directly what they expect from you while working with them. This will likely help establish good rapport with both attendings and senior residents.  

3. Efficiency: Prioritize tasks and stay organized 

Efficiency has been previously described among the skills needed to become a “great” resident. To become an efficient resident, you will need to learn to prioritize and stay organized. Prioritizing is a skill that you will need to apply throughout your surgical training and ultimately your surgical career. For me, creating checklists with checkboxes helped ensure that all tasks were done in a timely manner for my patients. Initially I would directly ask seniors what tasks they believed should be prioritized until I was able to develop this prioritization skill myself. Ask senior residents to briefly explain their rationale so that you can gradually learn to prioritize tasks on your own. 

4. Become an effective learner

As a resident, the time allocated for learning new concepts will be limited and likely diluted into the rest of your daily responsibilities. This means that you will have to make an effort to learn skills and concepts at a faster pace. Your learning will also mostly be self driven as you review anatomy and important concepts for procedures. A good strategy is to have an ABSITE review book to learn key concepts about topics. Also review your anatomy. Practice, practice, practice is the key. A good source of practice questions that can help solidify concepts learned are questions banks such as SCORE and TrueLearn.

5. Interpersonal Skills 

As a resident (and later on as an attending), interpersonal relationships are crucial for your work environment. Build strong relationships with your co-interns. You are all in this together and will likely need each other during this challenging year. Furthermore, create good relationships with support staff such as nurses, social workers, and consult services. Being mindful, respectful, and tactful with others will help you gain the trust of your colleagues. This will also help coordinate care for your patients. It goes without saying that people will be more happy to help someone they like than someone they dislike. Therefore, make allies…not enemies. The relationships you make (or don’t make) can truly make or break your first year as a resident. 

6. Don’t forget about yourself 

Taking care of yourself is highly important when you are in a constantly stressful environment like surgical training. Therefore, do not neglect your passions. Set time for them even if you can only do it occasionally. Find people who have similar interests to you and spend at least one day a week doing activities not related to surgery. Don’t forget to have fun, be patient and kind to yourself. Most importantly, enjoy the learning process and remind yourself that this process will pass.

After all, you will only be a first year surgical resident once in your life. Welcome to the first year of your career as a surgeon, it’s your time to shine. Embrace it, you are now a future surgeon. 

Mariela R. Martinez Rivera is a Urology Resident in New York. During her medical training, Mariela became a recipient of the AMA Minority Scholar Award and was inducted as Junior Member of the Alpha Omega Alpha and Gold Humanism Honor Society. She studied Biology at University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez with research focus in Genetics and Admixture of the Puerto Rican population. Mariela also completed a Masters Degree in Human Genetics at the University of California-Los Angeles where she received the prestigious Eugene Cota Robles Fellowship and the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. She graduated from Ponce Health Science University School of Medicine with honors.

Her interests include urology, oncology, surgery, health disparities, health advocacy, non-profit leadership, genetics and molecular biology. A native from Puerto Rico, Mariela has spearheaded diverse initiatives to increase leadership and advocacy among Latinos throughout her involvement in the Latino Medical Student Association. She is also passionate about increasing the representation of women in medicine and in surgical fields. Mariela enjoys painting, photography, and singing. She also loves going to the beach and spending time with her family. You can follow Mariela’s path towards becoming a Urologic Surgeon on Instagram at @urochick and Twitter @MartMari4460


Our blog is a forum for our members to speak, and as such, statements made here represent the opinions of the author and are not necessarily the opinion of the Association of Women Surgeons.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *