How Stressful Is a Surgeon's Job?

Daniel J. Egan, MD


November 28, 2012


I want to be a surgeon but am concerned about the stressful nature of the job. Is life as a surgeon truly as stressful and daunting as it seems to be?

Response from Daniel J. Egan, MD
Associate Residency Director, Department of Emergency Medicine, St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center, New York, New York

This question is more generally about choosing the right specialty, but first I will specifically address surgery.

Surgery is a very broad field with many subspecialties. There are 2 aspects to the stressful nature of a surgeon's job: the actual skillset and performance of an operation and -- in many of the surgical fields -- the need to be able to act quickly and often in an emergency.

If the latter scares you, then you should reconsider the realities of surgery. If you enjoy the technical part of the specialty, you can still consider it. Not all surgeries are emergencies, and some are less complicated than others.

You might consider focusing on specific areas that may allow you to have a more normal schedule yet still work in the operating room. Breast surgery is one example that comes to mind. As a student, you will get the sense of what the operating room feels like, and the experience will help calibrate your enthusiasm or even fear/anxiety in operations.

Let's talk about the bigger question of choosing a specialty. We have discussed this in the past -- and you can check out Medscape's Choosing a Specialty series for details on surgery and other specialties -- but it is important to revisit because before you know it, you'll be making a decision.

Each specialty and working environment will come with its own stressors. Follow this advice during your clinical rotations to fully gauge stress levels in each field:

Seek rotations that are true to a specialist's daily life. The majority of your clerkships will take place in the hospital, taking care of people in the inpatient setting. For hospital-based specialties such as emergency medicine and anesthesia, what you see in your rotations will give you an accurate picture. The academic hospitalist or hospital employee has a lifestyle similar to what you see during your rotation.

In contrast, in specialties in which you'll be spending most of your time in the outpatient world, a hospital rotation may not give you an opportunity to see what practicing physicians in each field do on a daily basis. For example, a general pediatrician spends most of his or her time taking care of well children in the office. That day-to-day life may not be as exciting for you, but you won't know until you give it a try.

Pay attention to personalities. You'll see as you begin to rotate through your clerkships that certain personality types tend to be more typical in each field. If you are a chill, laid-back individual who doesn't like early mornings, for example, surgery may not be for you.

I'll let you come to your own conclusions about the personality of each specialty because each field and physician has his or her own opinion about everyone else.

You obviously need to be passionate about your choice. However, you also need to interact with others in your chosen specialty as well as the typical consulting specialties on a regular basis. So, if you don't get along with those "types," then you should take that into consideration.

Ask experts. Take advantage of faculty and ask them about their stress levels and job satisfaction. Everyone loves to talk about his or her specialty and gets excited when a medical student expresses interest.

In addition, ask your dean's office to put you in touch with alumni who are in practice and whom you could shadow for a day or just talk to about the specialty outside of the academic setting, if you are moving in that direction.

Finally, take advantage of electives or opportunities to see some of the specialties to which the core curriculum does not directly expose you. You may find something you totally love. It's an exciting time. Ask questions,