My View: So you want to be a surgeon? Advice to my younger self

Featured art for August My View

Dr. Cathy Hung
Dr. Hung
 I always knew I wanted to be a doctor. I remember vividly playing doctor-patient with my 6-year-old brother when I was in the sixth grade. I would always make him be the patient and scribble fake prescriptions for him, ask him questions, listen to his lungs with my toy stethoscope, and make him fake-cough so I could treat him with some medications — usually pieces of candy. 

I didn’t always know I wanted to become an oral and maxillofacial surgeon. I didn’t know there was such a specialty called oral and maxillofacial surgery. When I was a child, I knew a woman who was very conscious of her smile because her front teeth were bucked, and she felt that she had bad breath. She also showed me she had bumps all over her gums. I asked her why her gums were bleeding while the dentist was cleaning her mouth, but she wouldn’t answer. One day, she disappeared for two months, and when she reappeared, her face looked different.  The prominent bucked teeth recessed, and she was smiling a lot more.

In recalling the details, I now realize that she went through orthognathic surgery and exostosis reduction. She suffered from gingivitis and periodontitis at a young age. The surgery improved her confidence and changed her life. 

I wasn’t set from the beginning to pursue surgery. In fact, my impression of the specialty was that this was a specialty belonging to big guys. I was intimidated and didn’t feel that I should be even looking into it.

It wasn’t until my third year of dental school, when I did clinical rotations, that I found out I was interested in surgery. Sure, oral maxillofacial surgery is a lot more than taking out teeth, but as a dental student that was the first procedure I was exposed to, and I was immediately intrigued.

When I was doing a rotation at the VA as a third-year student, I remembered being asked to climb up a very high stepladder to a very elevated bed to do a bedside extraction on a medically compromised patient. Being able to serve a sick patient by the bedside was such a gratifying experience to me. I asked myself how I could be doing more of this.

The answer for me was to pursue a career in oral and maxillofacial surgery.

Although the statistics still show a smaller percentage of women in the specialty of oral and maxillofacial surgery, the number is slowly on the rise. Regardless of your gender, sexual orientation or race, if you are interested in oral and maxillofacial surgery, start researching now to see if it’s for you. Looking back, I feel that early preparation is really the key to success. If I could go back in time and mentor or coach my younger self, here is some of the advice that I would be giving:

1.     Remove your mental block. Don’t let other people’s comments or the stereotypes of oral and maxillofacial surgeons stop you from pursuing your interest. Changing your mindset is the hardest thing that you must do to give yourself a chance. During the application process, many of my classmates were discussing how many interviews they received. Remember all you need is one match, regardless of the number of interviews you receive. If you receive even one interview, there is a chance.

2.     Do a thorough research of what the residency training entails and whether this is something you are willing to go through. The rigorous training puts your mind and body through a four-to-six-year crucible. Those who can last the race come through as stronger and more disciplined individuals. If you don’t match, you can decide to try again or apply to noncategorical positions. Not matching a program does not make you a bad candidate. Remember, there is a bit of luck involved in the matching process. Do not tie this to your self-worth. Research the residency programs that you are interested in to see how they are  structured, as each program is different.

3.     Prepare yourself to be a more attractive candidate by spending extra time cultivating your basic skills and knowledge. These days, social media gives candidates an extra advantage of being able to connect to a larger circle, including professional associations, mentorship programs and professional closed groups. There are tons of resources available. Sign up for courses, attend meetings, shadow at practices and hospitals, meet other like-minded individuals — the possibilities are endless. Get yourself access to places where you can sharpen basic surgical skills and read journals such as the Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, which is the official journal of the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons. I decided to pen the book “Behind Her Scalpel: A Practical Guide to Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery with Stories of Female Surgeons,” a book full of resources for potential candidates in college or dental school. It was my project while I was participating in the ADA Institute for Diversity in Leadership Program. I wanted to be able to bring this book on a time machine to my younger self, because I wish I had a book that inspired me and gave me strength when I was going through the application process and residency training. Prepare yourself for the interview and provide confident and concise answers when asked. When I was the chief resident, I was involved in the interview process of potential incoming residents. Looking from the other side of the fence, since there are so many applicants, those who exhibit a positive attitude, are confident — but not arrogant — concise and to the point, leave the most positive impression, have better chances of matching. Imagine yourself as an interviewer. Would you take yourself as a candidate based on how you present yourself? This applies to all the other interviews you will have in your life. Get to know some of the residents as they can give you a glimpse of what residency life is like, and you can prepare yourself better when it comes.

4.     Have a backup plan when things don’t work out, as they sometimes don’t. When I applied for a residency program, I took a chance on myself and only applied to oral and maxillofacial surgery. Had I not matched, I would have to return to my home country, as I was on a student visa. In retrospect, that was a risky move. I would advise that you have a backup plan just in case you do not match oral and maxillofacial surgery residency programs. Those who have strong interest in pursuing again may be exploring a noncategorical position, or perhaps there is another specialty that interests you equally. You may also be considering a general practice residency or advanced education in general dentistry program. In any case, keep moving to the next stage. Keep pursuing.

5.     Be resilient and train yourself to take criticism well under a high-pressure environment. Don’t take things personally, as there will be high-tension situations during residency many, many times. You might be feeling defeated by some of the comments or experiences you will face. There might be an adjustment period going from dental school into residency. Give yourself credit and time to adapt, but learn to adapt quickly. Don’t spend too much time ruminating over mistakes and keep on moving. Focus on learning about patient care as a whole beyond teeth and jaw. There is no need to act, as true strength comes from within. Be resilient, proactive and do your due diligence. Don’t act tough. Be your authentic self.

Whether you are interested in a four- or six-year program, the ultimate goal is to complete the program and possibly become board-certified. My last piece of advice would be to cultivate the unique you by focusing on developing your strength and reducing the noises from comments that would distract you from your big goal. n

Cathy Hung, D.D.S., is a board-certified oral and maxillofacial surgeon with a solo practice in New Jersey.