Getting the most out of your surgical placements and SSCs

Starting a surgical placement is sometimes quite daunting. Students do not get taught much on surgery during medical school and there is sometimes a lack of guidance on what to expect. The switch from classroom-based learning to full on clinical placement also makes it difficult for students to adapt. These are the top tips for medical students starting their surgical student selected component (SSC) or placements.

Tip 1: Finding the right supervisor

When choosing a student selected component, students will sometimes have a choice of specialty as well as supervisor. Choosing the right supervisor can create lifelong relationships with seniors in the field and can sometimes lead you to liking the specialty and making it your future career. Read about your supervisor; their work, their interests, their teaching, their publications and more importantly if they had students in the past. This will give you a good idea if your supervisor is supportive and welcoming to students.

Tip 2: Be prepared

It is sometimes difficult to switch from lectures to being on clinical placements. Ad hoc learning will be a big part of your learning and sometimes pre-reading on the subject might prove to be useful. For example, if you know you will be attending a particular surgery, have a read on how it is done and the relevant anatomy. You will often be quizzed by surgeons and you might even leave a good impression if you know the answers to them.

Tip 3: Be proactive

Surgeons are busy but if a keen medical student came along to their clinic or ward round having read about their work and showing interests in what they are doing, they will be more than happy to have you on board. If you are interested in being in the operating theatre, have a look at their list for the day and speak to them or the registrar about the possibility of joining them. They will be more than happy to teach as many of them need teaching experience for their portfolio and you will get a lot out of it. You can also try to scrub in as this is where you will see and learn more. At the same time, you will be able to help during the operation by holding instruments or even practise your suturing skills.

Tip 4: Ask questions

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. By asking questions you are showing your interest and eagerness to learn more. Sitting quietly in the corner of the operating theatre will not help and will decrease your chances of getting scrubbed up or involved. When your supervisor is busy he might also direct you to other doctors or sessions which might be more useful to you instead of sitting down and doing nothing.

Tip 5: Be familiar with your ward

Your supervisor will not be here all the time. Find time to familiarise yourself with the team, procedures being done, theatre lists, clinics and so on. There are a lot of opportunities for you to learn; you just need to be keen and look out for them. It could be assisting the F1 with a review of a deteriorating patient, removal of a chest drain after the ward round, practising your venepuncture skills, learning from other members of the team and their roles such as physiotherapists or speech and language therapists, or improving your history and examination skills with feedback from another student or doctor if possible. You could also go to endoscopy to have a look on how different procedures are done such as a gastroscopy or even an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP).

Tip 6: Get involved in surgical research

Being on SSCs and surgical placements is the best time for you to get involved in surgical research. You would have been part of the team and be knowledgeable about the different challenges or procedures in your chosen specialty. This is the best time to identify any pathway that needs auditing or any research that you can contribute to. Do not be afraid to ask your supervisor for opportunities as sometimes they have a huge workload and just need a medical student who is keen and who will have time to complete their work. In the process, you will get an experience of how to do surgical research and can potentially present your work during upcoming conferences.

Tip 7: Enjoy it

Surgical placements are high paced and you will learn a lot in a short amount of time. There will be times where you will feel overwhelmed and although being prepared and pushing yourself is helpful, the most important part is to enjoy it. Seize every opportunity you are presented with for your own development and enjoy every minute of it.

About the Author

Jordan Ng is a final year medical student at Newcastle University with an interest in general surgery. Feel free to email him with any questions at: