So you want to be a Surgeon in the United States? 6 Tips to Succeed as an International Medical Graduate (IMG)
By Sristi Sharma
Congratulations! Your ambition of becoming a surgeon in the United States has finally brought you to this country. You have left your family, your life and everything behind to train in an environment that is completely new to you. You know that you have a steep learning curve ahead of you-be it clinical, personal or social. So how do you navigate this new phase of your career?
There are unique challenges that come with being an IMG in the States. Here are 6 tips that will help you become the best surgical trainee you can be:
- Be good…no excellent…at what you do! Know your subject inside out and practice your surgical skills . Challenge yourself to learn more everyday. There is no substitute for hard work, and as a foreign medical graduate you will have to work even harder to prove yourself everyday.
- Learn the system: Do everything you can to understand the system you are trying to enter. Surgery is a very fast paced specialty and it is unforgiving to those who are slow to catch up. The goal for foreign medical students intending to start their residency should be to be at the same level as a US 4th year medical students. You are not necessarily behind on the clinical knowledge, however the medical students here know how the system works-right from electronic medical systems to how patient care works. To get upto speed familiarize yourself with the lingo. Observe how everyone behaves in their work environment. It does not matter what country you come from, things are different in the United States. As a trainee, you need to be able to hit the road running when you start. Your preparation will go a long way.
- Find a mentor: A common piece of advice you will get right from the beginning is to “find a mentor who can guide you”. I cannot stress this enough. Your life will become much easier if you find someone who has been in the same place as you recently. It may be a student from your country who has successfully matched into a residency program or an attending who now has a successful setup. This person may not necessarily be the mentor you are looking for, but they will be your first step to finding one. Ask questions, ask for help. Many people want to help and will even go out of their way if you just ask them. This is especially helpful as you start talking to your potential mentors. The surgeons you meet are busy people who wear multiple hats in their careers and personal lives. They are open to mentoring you as long as you prove that you are in this for the long haul. You are also not limited to one person. You should work with several mentors to achieve your goals. Your motivation will show through in your actions.
- Value your uniqueness: One of the worst pieces of advice I received when I first landed in this country was, “make sure you do not tell people what you went through in India. The clinical community will not appreciate it and will think you are not adequately-trained and incompetent”. For the next 3 months I wallowed in doubt and self-hatred. It showed in my interactions with people. I came across as an under-confident individual who was unsure of herself. Very quickly I realized that my approach was wrong. My experiences were unique, and for the most part doctors and surgeons were curious to hear about how I practiced medicine back home. At institutes such as Hopkins and Harvard, I have been working with and learning from the surgeons who share my goal of making the surgical systems better in my country. At every step they want to learn about my experiences to effectively understand the changes that are needed. This experience has taught me it is very important to find a mentor who will appreciate your unique experiences and will encourage you to learn new things while being yourself.
- Speak up and take a risk. While working towards my MPH at Hopkins, I was looking for a job. I had heard that one of my professors was looking for a student to help out with his project. But his requirements for the job were very specific. I didn’t have the technical skills that were needed for the job but I had enrolled in classes to learn them at the very moment the job was being advertised. The fear of not getting the position was crippling and I hesitated even to approach the professor. When one of my friends heard about my dilemma she gave me advice that has completely changed my life. She said to me, “You may not get the job if you ask him, but if you do not ask you will definitely not get the job”. Since then, I have made this my mantra. There have been many moments when I have been turned away, but there have been many more when people have gone out of their way to help me out. All that stood between me and them was my willingness to ask for help. It is by speaking up I have found the best of my mentors. Oh and for those of you still wondering-I did get the job!
- Don’t fake it. Insincere stories, praises, gifts and fake accents? Just…no!
Being a foreign medical graduate in the US is tough. Being a foreign medical graduate AND a surgeon in the US is even tougher. So, if you want to be a good resident and a successful surgeon, work hard, reach out for help, be genuine and embrace your uniqueness.
Sristi Sharma MD, MPH is a General Surgery Resident at University of Colorado, Denver. She is a previous Paul Farmer Global Surgery Research Associate, Harvard Medical School, a graduate of Johns Hopkins University and a proud alum of Sikkim Manipal University, India. She is an passionate about advocating for global surgery. She was born in the Himalayas and is a Gorkha to the core.
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.