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Going for General Surgery in the Military: Tips from MU-COM Alumni

Apr 26, 2024, 13:43 PM by User Not Found
General surgery is challenging to match into, especially for Health Profession Scholarship Program (HPSP) recipients navigating the military's complex match process, but MU-COM alumni offer insights and guidance to help students succeed.

Samuel Baule, OMS-1 '27 | April 26, 2024

Going for General Surgery in the Military: Tips from MU-COM Alumni

General surgery is a difficult specialty to match into and as a Health Profession Scholarship Program (HPSP) recipient the military match process has even more complexity associated with it. Luckily at MU-COM, we have alumni who have not only attained this goal but are willing to give back by helping students along this journey. I reached out to past HPSP recipients who are currently completing their general surgery residencies and gained insight on how to stand out in the application process. I was able to speak with two residents, Rachel Hernandez, DO '21, and Timothy Cho, DO '21, who are both in their third year of residency. Dr. Hernandez is in a military program at the Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi, while Dr. Cho is in a civilian-deferred program at Carle Foundation Hospital in Illinois. After speaking with these alumni, I was able to summarize recommendations on how to approach medical school, the application process, and military medicine in general.

Why did you land on general surgery as a specialty and what activities helped you narrow down that specialty?


Dr. Hernandez initially planned on pursuing family medicine until her third-year rotations where she fell in love with the idea of the operating room. This was a late start considering the military match happens roughly a semester prior to the civilian match. In order to show her interest and intent on a career as a general surgeon she prioritized her third-year rotations toward surgical interests like trauma, acute care, and orthopedic trauma rotations. 

 Dr. Cho was set on surgery in his pre-med years and identified the innate respect, autonomy, and patient trust associated with the operating room. Throughout medical school, he prioritized surgical rotations, in a similar way to Dr. Hernandez, by completing multiple surgical subspecialty rotations. In his words, he completed these to confirm which specialty would be right for him, eventually deciding that general surgery would be the correct path as it has the most opportunity for sub-specialization later. Dr. Cho currently plans on pursing a trauma/surgical critical care fellowship upon completion of his residency training.

What should medical students, specifically DO students, prioritize if wanting to match into general surgery?


Dr. Hernandez explains that the military places a large emphasis on leadership, seeing as you are expected to perform your duties as both a military officer and surgeon. She believes that her leadership in the Student Association of Military Osteopathic Physicians and Surgeons (SAMOPS) allowed her to display these traits during the interview and application process. This club, which is present on our campus, allows students to pursue leadership roles but more importantly has an associated mentorship program nationally that connects aspiring physicians with military doctors who are currently practicing in the student’s desired specialty. Dr. Hernandez notes that she did not take part in any of the research opportunities available at Marian, which is important to note due to the overemphasis on research in surgical fields. She did complete research in her undergraduate education; however, she notes that something that would have improved her already impressive application would have been engaging in case reports or conferences. She explained that these do not require an extensive amount of time but will help round out your application.

 Dr. Cho had similar advice and emphasized that the first thing to note on any application will be your academics. Medical school applications filter out people who are unable to deal with the rigor. So residency programs understand that every applicant has a baseline intellect. He explains that the standardized board exams are crucial in setting yourself apart from the field. In the military, it is not necessary to take both sets of board exams, COMLEX and USLME, as military residency programs have a way of converting COMLEX scores to understand what your score represents. This is a piece of information which was reiterated by Dr. Hernandez. However, if you were to pursue a civilian program, like Dr. Cho, he recommends taking both exams as having a USMLE score will help remove any bias that could be associated with a COMLEX score alone. In addition, he recommends finding mentors in your chosen specialty, the world of medicine is small, and surgery even smaller. As a result, quality letters of recommendation from established individuals within a specialty will go a long way in the application process.

How was your chosen path to practicing medicine different than a peer who went a traditional civilian route?


Dr. Hernandez’s case is a military residency. There is not much difference in practice. You will have to complete two active-duty tours as audition rotations while in medical school and attend the basic officer leader course (BOLC) as a summer commitment. Aside from medical school requirements, the cases in residency are much of the same. The bread and butter of the specialty being gallbladder surgeries, hernia repairs, and appendicitis, with colon or small bowl cases also highly prevalent. She makes a note that depending on the location of your program, being either more community or an academic hospital, the cases will have varying levels of pathology involved. This is the same as a traditional civilian route where your choice of program has a great deal of influence over the kinds of cases with which you will be involved.

 Dr. Cho From the standpoint of a civilian-deferred residency program, Dr. Cho says roughly the same thing. The major difference is that he has no military commitments while completing his program as he is placed in the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR) the same status he was in during medical school. In terms of patient population, a more traditional program like Dr. Cho’s will see people of all ages while Dr. Hernandez’s practice is more geared toward young military-age patients. Fundamentally there is little difference as they are learning to become general surgeons regardless of where their residency takes place.

Did you participate in any research or clubs at Marian that you believe made you stand out in the application process?


Previously, Dr. Hernandez mentioned her involvement in SAMOPS, but she was also involved in other organizations on campus. She continued to explain that the leadership roles and conferences she attended made her stand out against her peers and is something aspiring surgeons should take part in as much as possible.

 Dr. Cho completed research while on campus, and he was the Student Government Association (SGA) president. He echoes the emphasis on leadership roles as helping him stand out in the application process. An important note he made about research was that it was less of a passion and that helped him decide on general surgery instead of a more specialized surgical field. Being heavily involved in research can help you if you plan on pursuing more sub-specialized fields like pediatric, cardiothoracic, or plastic surgery. Furthermore, Dr. Cho expressed that the benefit of completing research is being able to network and build connections within a field. While it is not necessary for matching into a desired career it can help.

Is there anything that you wished you knew about military general surgery before you went down this path?


Dr. Hernandez's main advice is that you should understand the work expectations of a general surgeon. She often works 80 hours a week, with shifts going for over twelve hours. The emphasis for medical students is that they should be realistic with what is a tolerable work-life balance for them. Surgical specialties require a lot of time and attention to detail, that should be well understood by anyone heading down that path.

 Dr. Cho's advice was focused more on career aspirations. In his experience, a large amount of HPSP recipients are there to complete their required time in service and then leave the military. While this is normal and expected, he explains that you should pick the program that is best for your goals as a surgeon. For him he plans on exploring the options that are in the military health system and not necessarily just completing his required time. Your career is the most important aspect for you. Being a military surgeon opens a lot of doors, and one should explore those options with your long-term career in mind.

In Summary

To summarize the above information, military medicine is similar to that in the civilian world. To stand out in your application, do well on boards, explore leadership opportunities, and find mentoring where possible. If you are wanting to pursue a career in military general surgery, be realistic about your work-life balance expectations and your career goals. Thank you to these alumni for taking time out of their busy residency schedules to help aspiring surgeons!

About the author


Samuel Baule is a first-year medical student at MU-COM. He finished undergraduate coursework as a distinguished military graduate with a degree in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Iowa. Outside of class, he holds leadership positions in Marian’s Global Health Alliance, American College of Osteopathic Surgeons - Medical Student Section, and Student Association of Military Osteopathic Physicians and Surgeons. This summer he will work as a MU-COM Summer Research Fellow and investigate the application of lymphatic drainage techniques on pediatric patients. A recipient of the Health Professions Scholarship Program, he plans on pursuing a career as a General Surgeon within the United States Army upon graduation. 

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