11 Essential Tips for Shadowing a Surgeon

Surgery is a highly sought-out field for pre-med and medical students. A career as a surgeon can be exciting. You are working with your hands, facing many challenges, and seeing quick results with patients. I’ve heard plenty of surgeons say that when they are in the O.R. for hours, it seems like only minutes.

If you are a pre-med student interested in one day becoming a surgeon, I highly recommend shadowing a couple. The O.R. may seem like a place that is off-limit to students, but the reality is that most surgeons will let you stand in the room just a couple of feet away from the operating area.

Shadowing a surgeon is important because it will help you see what being a surgeon really means. What’s it like being in the O.R.? How often are they working? How often are they doing procedures vs seeing patients? What kind of paperwork do they need to do?

These are all important questions that can be answered by shadowing.

After you have found a surgeon to shadow and you are ready to start, follow these 11 tips for shadowing a surgeon that will help you get the most out of your experience.

Although these tips are extremely helpful, you should also check out our complete guide to shadowing a doctor. This guide covers everything you could possibly need to know about shadowing so that you get the most out of your experience!

#1 Be Professional

This is the most important tip in my opinion. It’s important to be professional whenever you are shadowing any kind of surgeon.

Act like the hospital you are shadowing at could one day be your employer. Because the truth is, you never know where you will end up! Also, word gets around and you don’t know what physicians are friends with the board at a medical school you applied to.

Introduce yourself to everyone you meet. Charge nurse, scrub nurse, and anesthesiologist, all-important personnel of the O.R. and you should get to know them. This can go a long way. Going out of your way to introduce yourself to everyone will strike a good impression on them and you may end up learning something!

At the end of a surgical procedure, thank everyone for having you in the O.R.  

#2 Dress Appropriately and Always Be On Time

When shadowing a surgeon, you want to make sure you are dressed professionally. A more conservative business casual is fine, but you can’t go wrong with full-blown business professional. Alternatively, you could wear scrubs. But if it’s your first day I recommend the business attire if the surgeon hasn’t told you otherwise.

When you go into an O.R., you will need scrubs. Not just any scrubs, but the hospital appointed scrubs. These scrubs are usually found in the locker rooms where you can change out of your patient rounding scrubs/business attire.  

Surgeons might not always be on time but you better be. Show up to your shadowing gig a little early so that you can get a chance to meet some of the staff before the surgeon arrives.

#3 Study Procedures Before Hand

This is a very useful tip, one which I wish I implemented earlier in my surgical shadowing days.

If you know what procedure you will be viewing, spend the time studying it before. There are plenty of videos on youtube with information regarding particular surgical procedures and lots of live surgeries as well.

Also, study the anatomy and physiology around the area of the body the surgeon will be operating on. For example, if it’s a cholecystectomy (Gall Bladder Removal), know exactly where the gall bladder is, what it secretes, organs that are next to it, and anything else that could be pertinent.

Not only will studying the procedures help you learn more about anatomy and physiology, but it will also prepare you to ask educated questions while shadowing. This will impress the surgeon you are shadowing a lot!

#4 Bring a Notebook

I brought a notebook to every one of my shadowing opportunities. Having a notebook gives you purpose. Instead of standing in the corner of the room staring at patients, you can be taking notes and looking like you are supposed to be there.

Having a notebook will give you the opportunity to jot down questions you might have but can’t ask at the moment. Also, you can review the notes at home later and refer to textbooks in order to have a better understanding of the subject material.

#5 Eat a Good Meal Before Going Into the O.R.

The O.R. is a new environment for your senses. New sights, smells, and sounds. It is very normal for pre-med students, medical students, and even residents to feel light-headed when viewing surgery. And yes, people do pass out.

Don’t feel bad if this is you! Plenty of students have passed out the first time they saw a surgery and later became surgeons.

There is an old medical school saying that goes something like this: “The first student to pass out during surgery rotation, he/she will be a surgeon.” I probably butchered it, but it is essentially saying that feeling light-headed or passing out doesn’t mean you aren’t cut out to be a surgeon. In fact, it could mean you are engaged and take the process very seriously.

There is a similar saying in aviation that essentially says: “The best pilots are afraid of heights.” You would think someone afraid of heights isn’t cut out to be a pilot but the reality is he/she is probably a safe pilot.

Anyway, eating a good meal filled with protein will give you the energy to push through the entire procedure. Low blood sugar will only aggravate any light-headedness.

#6 Don’t Stand Next To Anything Sharp

This tip goes along with tip #5. Although not likely, if you pass out the last thing you want to do is to injure yourself on a scalpel or sharp end of a table while falling down. When picking a place to stand think: “Will I hurt myself if I fall over?”

Additionally, if you start to feel light-headed, don’t be afraid to tell one of the nurses so that they can have you take a quick break to compose yourself. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s normal to feel lightheaded. The good news is, if you happen to get lightheaded, this tends to go away with the more surgeries you observe.

#7 Ask Questions

Don’t be afraid to ask questions, but be mindful not to distract the surgeon, or O.R. team, during the procedure. Aside from the knowledge gained, asking questions will show that you are interested in the medical field.

I mentioned it before, you never know when the surgeon you are shadowing for becomes a factor in your career goals. Perhaps later on you need a letter of recommendation from him or her. Do yourself a favor and leave a really good impression!

#8 Don’t Get Distracted, be Observant of Your Surroundings, and Listen To Instructions

The O.R. can be a very busy place. People are moving around, tools are being passed around, and different monitors are going off. Make sure you don’t let yourself get distracted.

Observe the procedure but remain focused on your surroundings. Make sure to listen for instructions on what you should be doing. You are there to be a passive observer, don’t get in the way.

Also, it is important to note that everything on a blue sheet is the “sterile field.” Really important that you don’t touch anything on top of blue.

#9 Respect Patient Confidentiality

Patients expect their surgeons to maintain their privacy. When shadowing you are allowed in the patient’s room and O.R. but it is expected of you to uphold patient confidentiality just as much as the physician.

Do not take your phone out when in the presence of a patient. Even if you are just reading a text. It’s not professional and could make the patient uncomfortable. Notebooks are fine but do not write down any personal information about the patient.

#10 Help When You Can

If you really want to impress the staff of an O.R., you will be proactive in helping out instead of just standing around.

After a procedure, there is a quick frenzy to clean everything up so the next team can do the next surgery. Sure, there are tasks that require a certification and you can’t do them, but things like picking up trash from the ground, helping move a bed, or even just grabbing a warm blanket for a patient is helpful.

If a patient asks you for a cup of water or a snack, it’s okay to help but you need to make sure you ask the surgeon if it’s okay. Even if it’s something simple like a cup of water, you don’t know what they can and can’t have so it’s better to be extra cautious.

#11 Be Confident and Enjoy Yourself

The first time shadowing anywhere can be a little nerve-racking. Especially if you are shadowing a surgeon. The key is to be confident. You are working towards one day building a career as a physician. Don’t let any stress or anxiety get in the way of that.

Surgeons, O.R. nurses, and surgical techs have all seen clueless students like you. Don’t worry about what they think, just focus on making a good impression. If you stay confident, the staff will notice and they will respect it.

Finally, enjoy yourself. Shadowing should not be work. You get to experience the day in the life of a surgeon. Just imagine that one day you can be the one behind the scalpel.


I hope you find these tips helpful. Shadowing is an excellent experience for any premed student. Following these tips will help you get the most out of your experience shadowing a surgeon so that you can make a better decision about whether or not this is the career path for you.

Below are some other articles I have written regarding shadowing that you may find helpful:

9 Tips For Finding A Doctor To Shadow

What Are Good Questions To Ask When Shadowing A Doctor?

What To Expect When Shadowing A Doctor

My Experience Shadowing An OB/Gyn

How To Write A Thank You Letter After Shadowing A Doctor

Have any questions? Please leave a comment below!

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