Aaron Overbeck, OMS-3, Kentucky College of Osteopathic Medicine
Anesthesiology is a highly specialized field that receives relatively limited exposure among medical students. There are no classes dedicated to this specialty, there are only small numbers of students in the clubs at many schools, and there is no mandated rotation through the “specialty behind the curtain.” Many students don’t find interest in or pursue anesthesiology until third or fourth year of medical school, after spending time in the operating rooms. Several attending physicians assure their students that this is very common and should not deter anyone from pursuing this great profession for the sole reason of discovering it “too late.”
A mentor in the field can be a great boon when it comes to finding one’s calling and navigating the application process. Even before beginning that process, having a mentorship is beneficial in gaining an understanding of the day-to-day life of an attending anesthesiologist.
As a third-year medical student, I was fortunate enough to have a month-long elective rotation, which I chose to spend with the anesthesia team. It has been one of the best experiences for me as I not only started to learn the basic skills of anesthesia, but found mentorship and guidance in the field. A mentor is an invaluable resource moving forward. There is the obvious reason of needing letters of recommendation, and this is a good place to start. However, having a mentor is a lot more than that. It provides a way for students to ask all the questions that they may have about the field, lifestyle, income, debt management, residency selection, and more.
The first and most important step in finding a mentor is for the applicants to find someone who has a personality similar to their own. Anesthesiologists are stereotypically some of the most open and down-to-earth medical professionals. It is important that the applicants find a mentor who can connect with them on topics unrelated to medicine, whether that be sports, music, outdoor activities, or anything else. Clerkships are the best time for the students to find someone who will be able to guide them along the medical school journey to residency and eventually into a career, in which they may work side-by-side with the attending physicians as colleagues.
After the students find a suitable mentor, there are four major areas the mentor can help with.
Is anesthesiology the right path? The most important place for students to start is to get their feet wet and see what each day brings for an anesthesiologist. Clinical rotations should be full of discovering the likes and dislikes in each specialty, as you start to put together an understanding of what would be expected as future attending physicians.
How to pursue anesthesiology further? A mentor can provide students with all the information we could ever want in how to prepare for board exams, audition rotations, points of contact, and even further networking. Students should use their mentor as someone they can go to with both questions and ideas.
How to get into residency? Mentors have gone through this same exact process, and they understand the stress of not getting their top choice, thinking they’re not competitive enough, and having the self-doubt that accompanies many students as they tackle the steep learning curve. For students to have a mentor who is similar to themselves can be even more important at this point in their career because of this empathy and experience.
Being a point of contact. Many students feel an overwhelming sense of pressure to do everything perfectly and to have the ideal application when applying for residency. In some regards, we should feel this stress—we are going to be working with patients who entrust them with their lives and who tend to fear the anesthesia portion of surgery more than the surgery itself. However, it is important to have mentorship to provide reality checks when needed, to guide students in the right direction, and to provide both critiques and congratulations along the way.
One last comment that may seem difficult to accept is that students will not be proficient at those basic skills of masking a patient, performing intubations, understanding the anesthesia machine, and placing lines after doing only a couple of rotations. This time is simply an introduction to the field and provides a first exposure. It allows students to see a variety of cases and get a feel for the interaction between anesthesiologists, surgeons, CRNAs, and all the other professions working together in the OR. Students should enjoy the experience and make a connection with an attending physician who they can see themselves working with long-term, and they should always express gratitude for being allowed the opportunity to participate in the practice of anesthesiology.