If you think a career in neurosurgery is right for you and you feel excited and motivated, there are concrete steps you can take as a student to maximize your understanding of what this career really involves and optimize your chances for success getting into neurosurgery residency. So let’s jump right in and consider what you can do, whether you’re in high school, college or medical school.
How to Explore Neurosurgery as a High School Student
Increase Your Exposure
In high school, the best advice is to increase your exposure by reaching out to a local neurosurgeon. Rather than feeling intimidated you will be surprised at how receptive most neurosurgeons are to students who want to shadow them. Hospital rules and restrictions can sometimes make this difficult but if you find the right situation try to really see up front what the job is really like.
Chances are that you have seen neurosurgery portrayed on T.V or in the movies and it piqued your interest but the reality of neurosurgery is completely different than what you see in the media. Hopefully you will be able to witness rounds, clinic or maybe even an operation.
Focus on Your Schoolwork
There’s no doubt that getting into the best possible college sets you up for further success and getting into a good medical school. Good grades and life experience should be your goals. The more well-rounded you are as a person, the better you will be able to relate to your future patients.
Remember that neurosurgery is predicated on teamwork. Whether in the operating room or rounding in the hospital, neurosurgeons depend on and work with numerous colleagues who help take care of patients. Working on projects and focusing on experiences that emphasize teamwork and better relating to others, whether sports, performing arts, community service, help you mature and grow into the best version of yourself.
If you can take on a leadership role in whatever you are passionate about, even better. Learning how to work with people as a leader and mentor will serve you well no matter what career you end up choosing.
Develop Your Technical Skills
It can also be helpful to have a hobby or passion that involves some sort of technical skill. Hand-eye coordination is key in neurosurgery especially given that many of the operations are performed with microscopes, cameras and mechanical instruments. You do not have to be a concert violinist or elite athlete but anything that focuses on the mind-body connection and working with your hands can be helpful.
Apply for Scholarships
The process of writing about yourself, your goals and your values is something you will need to reflect on and do over and over again as you go through applications for college, medical school and residency. If that process gets you some financial support, even better.
Believe it or not, asking for money is a big part of academic neurosurgery. Writing grants for research or soliciting philanthropic donations are important to supporting your career and academic pursuits as a neurosurgeon. Applying for a scholarship as a student helps you develop these sorts of skills early on.
How to Improve Your Chances of Getting into the Best Medical School as a College Student
Grades and Experiences
In college, your goals are fairly similar to those in high school. Focus on getting good grades and building up important life experience. Emphasize teamwork, leadership roles and community service.
Many universities have medical schools, so this can be your first real exposure to clinical medicine. It is great to get a volunteer position at a local hospital. It may not be particularly glamorous but you will get to experience the hum and rhythm of the hospital.
You may even get the opportunity to observe surgeries validate your interest in going to medical school. It is also a great idea to shadow a neurosurgeon and continue to build up your first hand experience.
Participate in Research
Being in college also affords opportunities to participate in research and build your research credentials. Understanding how science works, learning laboratory techniques and publishing your work are fundamental skills to being a productive neurosurgery resident and attending. You don’t have to be working in neuroscience specifically, any experience in basic or translational science will help you.
College is also a great time to find a mentor. Even if that person isn’t in medicine, having an advisor and mentor is invaluable to honing your career, interests and goals. Find someone who pushes you to be the best you can be.
Work Hard to get into Medical School
Work hard to get into medical school, especially those with strong neurosurgery departments. High test scores, grades, letters of recommendation, clinical exposure and research experience are all important but so is being able to prove that your values include compassion for others and intellectual curiosity.
Even if you know you want to do neurosurgery, apply to medical school with the philosophy that you want to be the best and most well-rounded doctor possible and stay open to the possibility that you may choose a different specialty.
How to Maximize your Chances in the Residency Match as a Medical Student
Be a Well-rounded Student
When you are a medical student, you are just one step away from earning a residency spot and finally beginning your neurosurgical training. Continue to grind out good grades, aim for honors on your rotations and consistently strive for great evaluations.
As a medical student interested in neurosurgery, you need to succeed in all facets of school and not just your neural block or neurology and neurosurgery rotations. Being adaptable and fitting in well in a variety of settings with different specialties is a huge plus. Being a well-rounded applicant with a strong fund of knowledge across clinical medicine is critical.
If you are committed to neurosurgery as a medical student, it is important to focus on relationship building.This is like the most important thing you do to prepare yourself. Introduce yourself to your medical school’s neurosurgery department as early as possible. Get on an early start so that you will recognized when you begin attending grand rounds, shadowing in clinic and observing surgeries.
Also get to know the residents. You don’t want to be overbearing, remember that neurosurgeons have a ton of competition for their time and attention so having an extended conversation or expecting they will immediately start mentoring you isn’t realistic.
Participate in Departmental Functions
Prove your sustained interest by participating in department functions like grand rounds and getting involved in research as a student. The more time you invest in them, the more time they will invest in you.
Obtaining good mentorship is critical. These are the people who will be picking up the phone on your behalf when you start applying writing, you letters of recommendation and generally vouching for you when rank lists are being formed.
You want to have a good relationship with an academic neurosurgeon at your home institution and if your home doesn’t have a neurosurgery department consider traveling to one that does to work with someone.
There is more and more movement towards students taking time off during medical school to make themselves more competitive for residency but is it worth it, well the answer depends on your situation.
Whether or not you need to take time off ,you definitely need to do research and you need to publish. You will have a lot of independence as a future resident and attending neurosurgeon so a proven track record of being able to create and complete projects shows that you can back up your ambition with hard work and grit.
Publishing requires scientific knowledge, the ability to carry out experiments, generating and critically analyzing data and putting together a written story that ties your experiments and findings. An applicant with a track record of publications, ideally at least some as first author, will show that such applicant has got the skills to be a finisher.
While your research doesn’t absolutely have to be in neuroscience, that’s a huge plus. Consistency in your efforts and interests is also important. If your research is in a different area, try to highlight how the skills you learned in whatever you studied would easily transition and apply to successful research in neuroscience.
So if you focus on getting good grades, crushing your rotations, building up solid relationships and carrying out research, you put yourself in a great position for residency applications.