How to Match in Plastic Surgery

Plastic surgery is by far the most competitive subspecialty: unfortunately, only about 50% off plastics applicants end up matching. But as you know by now, it’s not all about smarts; there’s lots of things you can do to position yourself competitively in the applicant pool. What it comes down to (like so much else in this world) is good old-fashioned hard work and face time (see Advice for Third Years for more on ‘face time’). The plastic surgery community is a really small world, and people talk. Spend enough face time with the big names in plastic surgery, and they’ll vouch for you. Relationships make the world go round, especially the small world of plastics.

1. Find a mentor
The most important thing you can do is find a plastics mentor early on in the process. Your mentor should be a mid-level professor: someone who is establishing themselves in the field and still be willing to give you the time of day. Usually, the residency director (and not the chair of the department) is ideal. Send them an email and ask to schedule a meeting. At the meeting, be prepared to demonstrate your interest in plastics (i.e. “Why plastics?”) and discuss your interest in research. Explicitly ask to get involved in research opportunities in the department. You may have to do some scut work that will NEVER turn into a publication, but it’s all worth it.

2. Meet the Chair
You should make sure to meet the boss early on in the process (the earlier the better). You should think of your meeting with the chair as a mini-interview. All of the standard questions will apply: “Tell me about yourself,” and “What have you done,” are free game, in addition to the ubiquitous “Why plastics,” question. In short, you’ll probably go over the hi-lites of your resume to date. Don’t brag, stay modest, and be interested. It helps to know a little about the boss and his/her research and expertise. You should volunteer for any projects and research as well.

3. Show Up
Find out when the department meetings are and GO TO THEM. You should also get the resident teaching conference schedule, and GO TO THEM. TOO. Wear clinical attire and a big smile. You’ll probably sit in the corner and won’t get bothered. They’ll notice you, though, and that’s what it’s all about. Plus, you’ll get a glimpse into the daily life of plastic surgery residents and learn some gems on key topics if you can stay awake.

4. The Residents
Again, the importance of face time. The residents are a great resource, and can give you the low-down about the faculty: who to work with and who to avoid. Plus, they can put in a good word for you. Their opinions count… big time. You also might be able to pick up their research scraps and jump onto their projects. Everyone has scut (e.g. chart reviews, case reports, etc). Be willing to get it done.
Residents can also tell you all about your home residency program (the place where you have the best chance of matching!!!), the program at their medical school AND all of the other programs they’ve interviewed at. Don’t forget, with each resident, you’re looking at someone who got it done on the interview trail. Ask them how they did it, and learn about some hot (and not) programs in plastics. How do they feel about their current program?

5. Away Rotations
This is a huge part of the process. First and foremost, learn stuff about plastic surgery beforehand. You should keep the Michigan Manual of Plastic Surgery in your pocket at all times. It’s a great book to read about your cases and inpatients, and keeps info in a tight and simple format. Totally basic, totally must-have.
You should plan early on where you want to go. While your geographical interests may play a role, you should ask your mentor about the best programs. Oftentimes, your mentor has specific connections at a certain program. Take advantage of the small world of plastics, and go there.
EVERYONE wants to do away rotations, so plan early. Some places get sold out pretty soon in the process. Midway through third year is a good time to start looking. Check out the school’s website and make contact with the visiting student coordinator… email, phone calls, whatever. Check out, for help managing the logistics.

6. Hedge Your Bets
It’s hard to admit it to yourself, but there’s a chance that you might not match in plastics. Don’t be afraid to add a second subspecialty to your list (see Applying to Multiple Subspecialties for more info). For most of you, this means applying in general surgery. If you’re really passionate about plastics, this may just be the necessary evil to get you there. Plus, your interviewers will often ask you about your ‘Plan B’. Believe it or not, lots of residents drop out of plastics (and general surgery) once they get there and realize the time (and emotional) commitment involved. Where do they go? Anesthesia! If it’s plastics or nothing, this may be a good second choice (just don’t mention it on the trail!)

7. The Interview
If you’ve made it this far, your damn close to matching. Your application is obviously stellar and your grades are pretty tight. DON’T BRAG. The worst thing you can possibly do is get cocky. The WORST. Be as modest as you can. You already have your foot in the door. Let your successes speak for themselves and prove that you’re a team player who will be fun and easy to work with. After all, they’ll be spending the next six years with you. Would you want to hang out with an arrogant intern? Hopefully your personal statement isn’t weird (check out How to Write a Personal Statement for tips on avoiding weirdness) and you’ll be all set.

8. The Bottom Line
If this is something you really want, you’ll get it. It may take a few tries, a trip through general surgery, a research year out, and lots of scut, but if you really, REALLY want to be a plastic surgeon you’ll get there.

Good luck.

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