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Plastic Surgery vs. Anesthesiology: Which Specialty is Right for You?

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by Alec Palmerton, MD in Career

Plastic surgery vs. anesthesiology is one of the biggest debates among medical students interested in physiology. Both specialties allow you to explore the complex workings of the human body and use your skills to improve patient outcomes. However, they also have significant differences, such as the scope of practice, the work environment, and the training requirements.

How do you decide which one is right for you? I faced the same question as a medical student at Stanford, and I had to balance my personal and professional aspirations. I also had to consider practical factors such as job availability, salary, and training duration/path. In this article, I will provide helpful information and tips to help you make an intelligent decision on plastic surgery vs. anesthesiology and find a fulfilling career that matches your interests and abilities.

Plastic Surgery vs. Anesthesiology: Salary and Job Security

Plastic surgery might be your specialty if you want to earn a lot of money and have a steady demand for your services. But be prepared for a competitive job market after fellowship, even if you graduate from a prestigious program.

Anesthesiology, meanwhile, offers more job openings. You can easily find a hospital that needs anesthesiologists, and the career outlook is positive, even if the salary is not as high as plastic surgery. But anesthesiology also comes with some challenges, such as higher burnout and less job security, which we will discuss later.

According to recent data, plastic surgeons have the highest average annual salary among medical specialties at $619,000, while anesthesiologists earn less with an average of $448,000.

Estimated Physician Average Yearly Salary by Medical Specialty in the US

Plastic surgeons earn $619,000 per year on average, while anesthesiologists earn less with $448,000 annually

Plastic Surgery vs. Anesthesiology: Competitiveness

Here we can assess the competitiveness of a specialty by looking at the unmatched rate – the % of people who apply and do not match into their preferred specialty. Among US seniors, anesthesiology had a 10.5% unmatched rate, making it moderately competitive. In comparison, plastic surgery was the most competitive residency in the 2022 Match, with a 37.3% unmatched rate among US Seniors.

Plastic Surgery vs Anesthesiology

Anesthesiology had a 10.5% unmatched rate, while plastic surgery had a 37.3% unmatched rate among US seniors

Training Path: Residency

Plastic surgery residency requires completion of a five to six-year residency program accredited by the Residency Review Committee for Plastic Surgery (RRC-PS). Anesthesiology involves a four-year anesthesiology residency.

An anesthesiology residency is typically less competitive than a plastic surgery residency. Your USMLE scores, med school, and research are the main things for residency applications. Research is also a big thing for fellowship applications, and your residency program counts more, but your USMLE scores matter much less.

Plastic Surgery vs. Anesthesiology: Work-Life Balance

Work-life balance is a crucial factor for many medical professionals. Anesthesiologists often enjoy a better work-life balance due to the nature of their work. They have the ability to “clock out” at a designated time, leading to more predictable schedules. However, it’s worth mentioning that this also means anesthesiologists are thought to be more easily replaced, as they don’t typically maintain a panel of patients.

Plastic surgeons often have demanding surgical schedules and may work long hours in the operating room. They may also be on-call for emergencies such as trauma or burn accidents.

On average, plastic surgeons and anesthesiologists work 52.2 and 51.8 hours per week, respectively, ranking them in the middle of medical specialties.

Estimated Physician Weekly Working Hours by Medical Specialty in the US

Plastic surgeons work an average of 52.2 hours per week, while anesthesiologists work fewer hours, at 51.8 per week.

Plastic surgeons spend an estimated 11 hours per week on administrative paperwork tasks, such as documenting pre- and post-operative notes and taking photographs. In comparison, anesthesiologists only have to spend 9 hours per week, ranking on the lower end of all medical specialties.

Estimated Physician Admin/Paperwork Hours by Medical Specialty in the US

Plastic surgeons work on admin/paperwork an average of 11 hours per week, while anesthesiologists work fewer hours, at 9 per week.

Training Duration and Subspecialties

The training duration is a key aspect to consider when choosing between plastic surgery vs. anesthesiology. Anesthesiology has a four-year training period, while plastic surgery has a minimum of five to six-year residency program.

After completing a plastic surgery residency program, some surgeons may choose to pursue additional fellowships to further specialize in a particular aspect of plastic surgery. This can increase the length of your plastic surgery training.

Plastic Surgery vs. Anesthesiology: Job Satisfaction and Burnout Rates

Job satisfaction plays a significant role in career fulfillment. According to various studies, plastic surgery tends to have higher job satisfaction rates than anesthesiology. Many plastic surgeons express contentment with their career choice and would choose it again if given the chance. Additionally, plastic surgery has lower reported burnout rates than anesthesiology.

According to recent data, plastic surgery ranked at the upper end of all medical specialties with 97% of plastic surgeons stating that they would choose the same specialty again, while anesthesiology ranked slightly lower with 87% of anesthesiologists feeling the same way.

Job Satisfaction Rate By Medical Specialty in the US

Plastic surgeons reported a 97% job satisfaction rate, while anesthesiologists reported lower satisfaction with 87%

That being said, the burnout rate for plastic surgery was 46% which was near the lower end of all medical specialties. In comparison, anesthesiology had a burnout rate of 55%, ranking above the middle of all medical specialties.

Burnout Rate By Medical Specialty in the US

Plastic surgeons have a burnout rate of 46%, while anesthesiologists have a higher burnout rate of 55%.

Plastic Surgery vs. Anesthesiology Comparison

To provide a visual overview, here’s a table comparing plastic surgery and anesthesiology:

AspectPlastic SurgeryAnesthesiology
Average SalaryGenerally high income, especially in specialized areas like reconstructive or cosmetic surgeryCompetitive income influenced by the complexity and duration of surgeries
Job SecurityStable field with availability of both reconstructive and cosmetic proceduresSteady demand, particularly in surgical and procedural settings
Training PathTypically involves 5-6 years of plastic surgery residencyRequires 4 years of medical school, followed by a 4-year anesthesiology residency
LifestyleGenerally predictable work schedule and increased opportunities for time off, but may involve on-call responsibilities for trauma or burn cases
Varied; potential for irregular hours, on-call duties, and a focus on perioperative care
Administrative PaperworkLow to Moderate documentation requirements for patient records and surgical plans Less paperwork than plastic surgery due to less direct patient management
Job SatisfactionGenerally high, satisfaction tied to successful surgeries and patient outcomesOften high due to the critical role in patient care, teamwork involvement
Burnout RatesLow to Moderate, depending on the workload and stress associated with surgical proceduresModerate, influenced by operational pressures and the nature of procedures
PersonalityRequires creativity, precision, and good communication skills, attention to aestheticsAbility to stay calm under pressure, excellent communication skills, attention to detail, adaptability to dynamic situations

Please note that this table serves as a general comparison. To determine the most suitable career for you, consider your personal and career priorities and goals.

Concluding Thoughts

Choosing the right specialty between plastic surgery vs. anesthesiology depends heavily on your priorities. To determine this, try reverse engineering your ideal life and identify your top priority. A helpful exercise is to write down the top five things you want to achieve in your career and personal life. Knowing these priorities will make finding a career that aligns with them easier. Often, the biggest obstacle is not a lack of knowledge about different fields but a lack of self-awareness about our own preferences.

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Want FREE Cardiology Flashcards?

Cardiology is key for impressive USMLE scores. Master cardiology from a Harvard-trained anesthesiologist who scored USMLE 270 with these 130+ high-yield flash cards. You’ll be begging for cardio questions - even if vitals make you queasy.