Balancing a Career as a Surgeon-Scientist

05 Sep 2023

By: Kavitha Ranganathan, MD

Satisfaction in one’s career can come from a variety of places. In fact, most of the time, it has to come from a variety of places. Don’t place all your eggs in one basket, they say. While a surgical career is unparalleled in the achievement of instant gratification, the daily reminder that healthcare isn’t perfect can also be a source of mental exhaustion. Being a surgeon-scientist is one way to address this. The scientist part of this career choice allows you to balance your short- and long-term visions, and amplify your contributions to the next generation.

Importantly, however, it can be challenging to balance a clinical career alongside research acumen and productivity.  Protecting your time for research and clinical care, securing grant funding, and staying resilient amidst unique challenges in two different worlds is tough. Below are some tips I believe to be helpful for those embarking on a career as a surgeon-scientist. 

  1. Study big problems
    • It can be challenging to figure out what you want to study as you embark on your career after surgical training. It is easy to avoid big problems. For the struggle of balancing a career as a surgeon and scientist to be worth it, study problems that are meaningful to you and humanity. By the end of your career, the satisfaction of working on a problem that is important to you will be worth it. My lab focuses on food insecurity in surgical patients. This is a problem that has been important to me since my childhood. While I tried to convince myself to pursue more traditional pathways including basic science and clinical research, global health work is what has always been my passion, and ultimately what brings me the most joy. 
  2. Focus on building your clinical and research acumen during residency
    • Becoming a safe surgeon is the obvious top priority during residency. Importantly, however, it is also your time to access rich mentorship from funded investigators, develop skill sets required for research, and build your CV. This allows you to be a top candidate for grants open to early career investigators during the first five years after residency graduation. Use this time wisely, and it will pay off. A focus on establishing expertise has been particularly important for me. It has always been easy for people to dismiss me as too young, too quiet, too un-surgeon-like. But, when people see what you really bring to the table from a more objective standpoint, they are less likely to turn you away. You will get more and more opportunities once you get a chance to prove yourself.  
  3. Recognize that research and surgery are team sports
    • Silos inherently limit progress. To be an effective surgeon and scientist, work on your collaborative spirit, and approach both fields with humility. Give credit to those around you that contribute to your success, and identify generous mentors and mentees who support your multifaceted career. As an early career faculty, my mentees have been especially critical to my success. They provide me with the drive and passion to serve them well as they work hard towards the goals of mitigating food insecurity and alleviating poverty in surgical patients within the context of our lab. The sense of community within the lab brings all of us joy in a way that is hard to replicate in virtual forums or through social media. 
  4. Don’t give up
    • Staying in the game is the best way to achieve success in academic surgery. To do this, you must be resilient. Grit is the most important unifying quality required for a surgical career and scientific advancement. Shifting my mindset from rejection=failure to rejection=opportunity for growth has been one of the most critical changes I’ve made since becoming faculty. It has freed me from the pursuit of perfection, and allowed me to learn from my mistakes instead of wallow in them. 


Dr. Ranganathan is currently an Assistant Professor within the Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. She serves as the Director of Craniofacial Reconstruction. To that end, her clinical practice focuses on trauma reconstruction, facial forms of gender affirming surgery at the Brigham, and cleft lip and palate reconstruction at Shriners Hospital for Children.

From a research standpoint, Dr. Ranganathan’s lab known as Surgeons Against Poverty works at the intersection between national and international health equity work science with a specific focus on identifying solutions to financial toxicity and food insecurity for surgical patient populations as part of the Center for Surgery and Public Health. She has over 90 publications including in the Lancet, JAMA Open, and Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, was awarded the National Endowment for Plastic Surgery Grant this past year, and has secured numerous grants in this space. She is Vice President of the Young Plastic Surgeons group within the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.

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