Matching into a competitive surgical program: What you should know

20 Jul 2018
By Mariela Martinez

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by, 

And that has made all the difference.”   

– Robert Frost

In retrospect, the past year has been one of pain, uncertainty, and great transformation. The months after my homeland of Puerto Rico was struck by hurricane Maria during my surgical away rotations was one of great introspection, resilience, and metamorphosis. I am proud to say now that despite all the hardships, and despite the odds, I matched into my desired surgical specialty: urology.

When I  became interested in surgery, I found it hard to know what to do to become a competitive applicant. If you are medical student with an  interest in surgery (or a surgical specialty), here are some important aspects to consider as you start your journey:

1. Don’t be afraid to test the waters early

When I became interested in surgery during first year of medical school, I began to seek opportunities to spend time in the operating room and  meet the surgery residents at my institution. The benefits of these early interactions are three-fold: gain exposure to the OR before third year clerkships, networking, and exposure to diverse surgical specialties. To my surprise, it was during these early experiences that I met one of the urology attendings who became my mentor two years later.

Match day! When I found out I was going to become a urologist.

2. Become an active member of national professional organizations

Professional organizations such as the Association of Women Surgeons (AWS) provide a great venue to meet women surgeons who can become great role models, sponsors and mentors. I highly encourage you to join AWS and/or to start a AWS chapter at your institution. Other organizations where I found great support and mentorship are LMSA and NHMA. Seek opportunities to actively participate in national conferences, committees or initiatives where you can meet potential mentors.

3. Mentorship is crucial

You will be surprised how far these mentorship relationships can take you! From general residency application advice to helping you secure clerkships at highly competitive programs. Do not limit your mentors to attendings within your surgical field of interest.
The most valuable mentor I have is not a urologist, she is a general surgeon. I am confident that without her guidance and her constant support I wouldn’t be where I am today. I invite you to take advantage of the AWS Find a Surgeon Tool to find a surgeon and AWS member near you. For advice on fostering your mentor-mentee relationship read: The Four Golden Rules of Effective Menteeship.

4. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone

During fourth year clerkships, be strategic about where you conduct your rotations. These are great opportunities to gain exposure, learn more about the program, and possibly get a strong letter of recommendation. A good letter from a good surgical program director can go a long way during applications.

Don’t be afraid to do away rotations in cities or programs that you had not considered before. An excellent resource to learn about surgical residency programs is FREIDA Online from the AMA.

5. You will be entering a male-dominated profession. Do it proudly! We all contribute to change the trend

It is no secret that surgery has been (and still is) a field dominated by men. Statistics from the Medscape compensation report show that male physicians (65%) are more likely to pursue surgical training than female physicians (35%). According to the AWS, in 2015 19.2% of surgeons in the US were women and women in surgery still earn 8% less than their male counterparts. The AAMC Physician Specialty Databook 2014 estimates that only 38% of general surgery residents are women.  The American College of Surgeons has shown that the gender disparity is greater among surgical fields such as urology and orthopedic surgery (Figure 3).

Despite, being in minority we have proven to deliver exceptional care to our patients. A recent study published in BMJ, suggested that female surgeons had lower death rates, complications, and lower post-surgical readmission rates compared to their male counterparts.Currently, more women are pursuing careers in surgery and are gaining more visibility with the viral sensation of #ilooklikeasurgeon and the replicas of the New Yorker Cover across the world.

I encourage you to join the increasing trend of women becoming the new faces of surgery in the US. After all, it is up to us to pave the way for women who aspire to become the surgeons and healers of tomorrow.

Mariela R. Martinez Rivera is a Urology Resident in NY. During her medical training, Mariela became a recipient of the American Medical Association (AMA) Minority Scholar Award and has been inducted as Junior Member of the Alpha Omega Alpha and Gold Humanism Honor Society for her commitment to serve communities in Puerto Rico. She studied Biology at University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez where she conducted research in Genetics and Admixture of the Puerto Rican population. Mariela then 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 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.

She enjoys painting, photography, and singing. Mariela also loves going to the beach and spending time with her family.

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.

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