How to Pursue a Career in Orthopedics

Orthopedic surgeon operating on a foot.

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Orthopedics has become a more sexy profession thanks, in part, to the character of Dr. Callie Torres, the resident orthopedic surgery on TV's Grey' Anatomy. At the same time, major strides in orthopedics have drawn medical hopefuls to a profession where you can today reconstruct joints, restore mobility, and correct spinal deformities previously thought untreatable.

Moreover, it has become an incredibly lucrative field of practice where the average annual salary for an orthopedic surgeon now exceeds $500,000. This ranks it as among the top-paying medical professions alongside cardiology and urology.

Pursuing a Career in Orthopedics

While there are no specific class requirements needed to pursue a postgraduate degree in orthopedics, entry into a medical school or orthopedic residency program is highly competitive. While you would think that being single-minded in your pursuit of orthopedic career would play to your advantage, it's not always the case.

In fact, most schools today are more interested in students who have a well-rounded background with diverse interests as opposed to someone whose breadth of knowledge is centered around one specific field. By having a broader range of interests and experiences, admission committees can see that an applicant has a better understanding of "what's out there" and greater insights into what he or she wants to achieve as a doctor (rather than as a specialist).

With that being said, orthopedics residents do seem to have unique qualities that set them apart. As a group, they tend to have greater satisfaction in their profession and are less likely to drop out or switch specialties.

General surgery residents, for example, have nearly a 20 percent attrition rate compared to orthopedic residents who have an attrition rate of only around five percent, according to a study from Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.

Medical School Assessment Criteria

Medical schools want to identify talented individuals who are well-rounded and have realized achievements in a number of key areas. These include:

  • Academic success is key. With that being said, which classes you chose to take in high school or college matters very little to admissions committees. How well you did in these classes does. Medical schools today would much rather accept a straight-A student with a major in French and history than a B-minus biology major.
  • Volunteering helps define your character. Volunteering at a local hospital or clinic not only demonstrates your desire to contribute to society, but it can also show that you're interested in the overall care of a patient if your volunteer experiences are diverse.
  • Extracurricular activities show who you are. Again, it doesn't matter what you do. The admissions staff simply wants to know who you are as a person, including how you cope and how dedicated you are to your pursuits. Join a sports team, an acting club, or a singing group, whatever brings you joy. Dedicate yourself to these activities, and become a leader.
  • Creativity is a must. Creative people find creative solutions and are always keen to explore new or novel ways of doing things. They tend to ask questions more and look around a problem for answers rather than from just one angle. Do you have a unique talent or skill? Don't hide it; highlight it.

The bottom line is this: if you want to make an impression, do not follow the crowd. Despite what people may think, there are very few hard-and-fast rules to get into medical school. Just be yourself and stand apart. Once in, you will get all the training you need to explore a career in orthopedics.