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Why I Chose Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery as My Specialty

Why I Chose Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery as My Specialty


For some, they know exactly what type of medicine they want to practice even before applying to medical school. For others, the path becomes clear once they are in medical school and completing clinical rotations. With more than 40 specialties to choose from, how do you know which is right for you?

How did you choose otolaryngology-head and neck surgery as your specialty?

I found otolaryngology almost by chance. In my second year of medical school, I started working on a research project (which wasn’t otolaryngology-related) with one of the otolaryngology residents at our hospital. She asked me if I would like to join her and one of her attendings, Chris Holsinger, MD, in the operating room later that week to observe a thyroidectomy. That was my first experience with the field. I continued to shadow with her, Dr. Holsinger, and other attendings they connected me with for the rest of my second year. Going into my third year of medical school, I suspected I was interested in going into otolaryngology, but I decided to go in with an open mind and found that I really enjoyed my clerkships in obstetrics and gynecology, medical oncology, critical care, and interventional radiology. Ultimately, though, they did not feel like they were as good of a fit. Finally, I found that I liked the academic side of otolaryngology during my research year in medical school (between my third and fourth years), which confirmed my decision to apply for residency training in the field.

What about the specialty most appeals to you?

So many things! From a technical perspective, I have loved the anatomy of the head and neck ever since I was a first-year medical student, and it was my favorite part of the body to teach later as an anatomy teaching assistant. Additionally, the operative techniques are extremely varied. Otolaryngologists perform large open operations, endoscopic procedures, and surgeries using microscopes. Robotic surgery is also becoming increasingly performed by some surgeons. The culture of the field was also something that drew me in. A lot of deciding which specialty to pursue is about feeling like you fit in and work well with others in the field, and I certainly felt that way with many of the residents and attendings at our institution. Finally, I love working with patients in otolaryngology. It is a surgical field with the opportunity to develop long-lasting and deep relationships with patients, as many conditions treated by otolaryngologists (e.g. cancer, hearing loss, sinus disease) need follow up for years, if not decades. The patient-physician relationship was very important to me as I selected a specialty and was one of the most important factors in my choice of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery.

Did you participate in an observership, and if so, what was it like?

Yes. I first participated in an observership as a pre-med student at Duke University. Even though it was in gastroenterology, I got a lot out of the experience and am still in touch with the physician I shadowed.

In addition to shadowing in the otolaryngology operating rooms throughout my second year of medical school, I enrolled in a continuity clerkship program throughout my third year. I was able to work in Dr. Chris Holsinger’s head and neck surgical oncology clinic for much of my third year and into my fourth year. This was a very valuable experience because not only was I able to find a close mentor, but I was also able to work with many of his patients over the course of months, getting to know them and their families. This clerkship was how I ultimately learned how much I valued the patient-physician relationship in my choice of specialty.

What tips do you have for students to get the most out of the experience?

I would encourage students to have some context to what you will be seeing and experiencing. You can do this through the Academy’s website or general searches on what otolaryngology is and some of the condition’s physicians treat. Do a little research before starting an observership, and you will get more out of it. In addition, don’t be passive. Instead, be an active learner. Ask questions between patients about what happened and ask more about the condition and the prescribed treatment. Ask questions that are not easily searchable. Not all observerships end up developing into a long-term professional relationship, but if possible, try to keep in touch and ask for a recommendation when applying to medical school.

Finally, if you get the opportunity to observe in an operating room, it is a great experience. It can be a little overwhelming, so make sure you know where you fit, and if you are ever unsure, ask because it takes a while to understand all the roles, and patient safety is most important.

What research did you do to learn more about the specialty?

Most of my research about otolaryngology involved talking to more senior medical students, residents, and attendings in the field about their experiences and perspectives. My academic advisors in medical school were also very helpful, of course. Earlier on in medical school, they encouraged me to be open and to try and get as much exposure as possible to several specialties during my third year. Once I was a bit more confident about my choice, they were amazing in helping me find research opportunities to explore my academic interests in the field more deeply.

About Anirudh (Ani) Saraswathula
Anirudh (Ani) Saraswathula is fourth year medical student at Stanford University.


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