Excelling in Your Surgical Rotations

by Allyson R. Alfonso, BS, BA1 and Ira L. Savetsky, MD2

Medical Student, NYU School of Medicine; Pre-Doctoral Research Fellow, Hansjörg Wyss Department of Plastic Surgery, NYU Langone Health

2 Plastic Surgery Resident, Hansjörg Wyss Department of Plastic Surgery, NYU Langone Health 


There is not much time for leisurely reading on a surgical rotation, so let’s get straight to the point. The following are tips and tricks on excelling in your surgical rotations. 

  1. Preparation, preparation, preparation. There is no such thing as being too prepared in surgery. Like surgeons are prepared and vigilant for all possible outcomes in the operating room, students should scale this level of preparation to their daily routine including: knowing the team’s patients, anticipating and preparing for their dressing changes, reading for the day’s cases, reviewing relevant anatomy, and practicing suturing and knot-tying skills. Stay tuned for a post on popular medical student educational resources for more details.
  2. Establish expectations early. When beginning a service, gain a clear understanding of your role on the team and how you can best help. This avoids unnecessary hesitance on your end and potential misunderstanding by the team.
  3. Anticipation is key. Reading your mind is impossible, but if you display that you have anticipated the next move, you have also shown a level of knowledge, engagement and attention to detail. Moreover, your anticipation and situational awareness will contribute positively to work flow and elevate team performance.
  4. Honesty is the best policy, always.
  5. Take care of your patients. Under sterile drapes with only a small surgical field in sight, it is easy to forget that you are operating on a person. Whenever you can, get to know your patients and their stories. Advocate for them and their needs. In the appropriate moments, offer a comforting hand in this difficult and often distressing time in their lives.
  6. Don’t forget to take care of yourself, too. You are in charge of setting yourself up for success. Eat well and carry snacks. Sleep when you can. Exercise or plan activities that energize you.
  7. Fill your pockets. There is nothing like the view of a medical student white coat overflowing with gauze and tape. Make sure everything you might need is accessible, and restock inventory often.
  8. Be a team player. There is nothing more noteworthy than a student who works together well with fellow medical students, positively contributes to the team dynamic, and upholds the team’s values. Not only does this foster a supportive environment, but it also makes the experience more enjoyable for everyone.
  9. There is as much in what is not said as there is in what is said. You don’t need verbal acknowledgment or conversation to be learning constantly. As a medical student in the operating room, watch every person’s move. You will start to realize how the residents anticipate, how deliberate every movement is, and how the team interacts with each other. Challenge yourself to identify the intricacies of surgery and learn from those leading by example.
  10. Remember that residents are human. As a student looking to excel in a rotation and expecting to learn, it is easy to lose sight of the reality that school has transitioned from a classroom to real life. There are patients to take care of and responsibilities to attend to. Not every day is a perfect day, so be understanding. Appreciate the opportunities you are given and remember to say thank you.
  11. Have fun! As a medical student you are in a position to explore and seek opportunities to learn, so get out there and enjoy the process.

Bottom line: Prepare, anticipate, be honest, professional and a team player. Care for your patients, take care of yourself and take ownership of your learning. Surgical rotations for future surgeons should be fun, so grab your scrubs, stuff your white coat pockets and enjoy the journey!

For specific information on “How to excel on a sub-internship” read this thoughtful article in PRS Resident Chronicles.

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