Neurosurgery is undeniably one of the most intriguing, challenging and rewarding specialties. It is also considered one of the most competitive specialties — as a result, many medical students self-exclude from neurosurgery based on preconceived notions of the field. This is especially true of female trainees, who see in neurosurgery a specialty dominated numerically by men. However, at the University of Ottawa, the Neurosurgery Medical Student Chapter is working to change these existing biases about the specialty. In terms of gender-based interest in neurosurgery, a third of the members of the neurosurgery interest group are female. In 2020, out of the 91 aforementioned students seeking surgical mentorship, four out of 13 who listed neurosurgery as their top choice were female. All of the club executives are female, as is our staff sponsor, Eve Tsai, MD PhD, FAANS, as well as our resident mentors, Diana Ghinda, MD, PhD, and Janine S. Hsu, MD. Having an all female organizing committee was not intentional. Perhaps some subconscious part of us gravitated towards seeking female mentors — a testament to the need for representation. Dr. Tsai, the only female staff neurosurgeon at the University of Ottawa, has provided us with this representation and serves as unspoken encouragement for other women to pursue a traditionally male dominated field such as neurosurgery.
Her leadership and mentorship have dispelled some of the most common myths we held about the specialty, as well as brought to light some of the important realities of being a female neurosurgeon.
Myths about neurosurgery
Myth #1: Having a family is difficult, especially as a female neurosurgeon
“It’s possible; you can have a family, that shouldn’t stop you. Dr. Tsai [female neurosurgeon] has done it, as have many others” according to Adam Sachs, MD, MA. The AANS Neurosurgeon has published articles on this topic, including The Challenges of Starting a Family During Neurosurgical Residency Training and Women in Neurosurgery: Walking the Balance Beam of Life.
Myth #2: Your whole life must be about neurosurgery
Many neurosurgeons have interests outside of their work that they are able to pursue: advocacy, sports and artistic endeavours. Read the six-article series Hustle, Think, Work, Play: Sports & Neurosurgery published in the AANS Neurosurgeon.
Myth #3: Poor patient outcomes
“A lot of neurosurgical patients go on to live regular, normal lives, or even better lives than before. Patients often think that when they are referred to see a neurosurgeon that their prognosis is going to be grim, but this isn’t always the case. There is so much you can do as a neurosurgeon to help restore a patient’s quality of life” according to Safraz Mohammed, MBBS, FRCSC. A recent report from the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children suggests that adverse events are a minority in neurosurgery.
Myth #4: I’ll be operating for hours on end on one case
One of the benefits of a career in neurosurgery is the variety of procedures one can perform. These procedures all vary in length and you can tailor your practice accordingly. Many neurosurgical procedures can be lengthy, but as the surgeon you are engrossed in the task at hand and time will fly.
Truths about neurosurgery
Truth #1: The hours are long, but it gets better
Residency is grueling and the hours are long. Neurosurgery is one of the busiest services at a hospital and thus requires a large time commitment. As you progress in your career, you gain the ability to tailor your schedule to your liking. You will always be busy, but there are ways to adapt and adjust.
Truth #2: You won’t be a trainee forever, but it will take time
Neurosurgery has one of the longest residency programs and many often go on to pursue fellowships. The length of the training required prepares you to be confident as a staff surgeon on call when confronted with a challenging case in the middle of the night.
Truth #3: Neurosurgery requires relentless dedication
Neurosurgery is demanding, like any specialty, and it requires continuous training, responding to urgent cases and dedication.
Truth #4: It is a physically, mentally and emotionally demanding career
It is true, but that’s why residency is a training program. You are trained to become a competent surgeon, which includes developing physical, mental and emotional resiliency.
Our mentors have helped us to better understand the myths and truths of a career in neurosurgery. The keys to dispelling myths are early exposure to neurosurgery, more hands-on opportunities in the form of workshops and demonstrations, mentorship programs pairing students with residents, fellows and staff and increased representation for women. For those who think that a career in neurosurgery is unattainable, there are ways to steer yourself toward the path — find a mentor and find out how they did it. Seek feedback from your mentor on how you can improve yourself as an applicant and person. Seek guidance from as many people in the field as you can. Spend time in the division learning about the specialty, finding out the myths and truths yourself. Get involved in research or service projects related to neurosurgery and the neurosciences. This AANS Medical Student Chapter at the University of Ottawa has been working in collaboration with the Division of Neurosurgery to offer as much early exposure as possible and hope to stimulate more interest in neurosurgery!
Editor’s note: We hope that you will share what you learn from our posts. September is Women in Medicine Month, which honors physicians who have offered their time and support to advance women with careers in medicine. We invite you to join the conversation on Twitter by following @Neurosurgery and @WINSNeurosurge1 and using the hashtag #WIMmonth.
Alexandra Beaudry-Richard, MD-PhD Candidate
University of Ottawa
Anahita Malvea, MD
University of Ottawa