Although a career in plastic surgery requires a long journey through college, medical school, and residency, my discussion with Rob made me aware this field allows for a great deal of autonomy and a very healthy work/life balance. Many plastic surgeons, including Rob, own their own practice. A reasonable schedule and flexibility are very possible since many plastic surgery procedures are elective.
Date of Interview: August 15, 2021
Interviewee: Rob Frank
Answer: Plastic Surgeon
Answer: I own a private practice and perform surgery at various outpatient centers and hospitals.
City you work in
Answer: Based in Northwestern Indiana.
[Compensation data was not provided by the interviewee. The below compensation information was retrieved from various published sources as referenced.]
According to May 2020 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual mean wage for surgeons (excluding ophthalmologists) in the United States is $251,650. This figure is inclusive of plastic surgeons, but specific reporting on plastic surgeons is not provided.
Medscape.com reported that plastic surgeons are among the top earners of all physicians. Pursuant to a 2019 survey Medscape.com performed, plastic surgeons’ average annual earnings were $471,000.
Years at your current job
Answer: 21 years in private practice
Years working in your field, including time at previous employers
Answer: I have always been in private practice, but I spent the first two years of my career working in someone else’s practice.
Can you please describe your education path to become a plastic surgeon?
Answer: I didn’t know I wanted to be a physician when I started college. I went to the University of Michigan, along with several of my high school friends, and pursued a Bachelor’s Degree in History and Asian Studies. I didn’t think the traditional pre-med paths suited me well, so I hadn’t taken a lot of the higher level science courses.
I ended up working at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta doing medical research for a few years. Eventually, I decided to apply to medical school and started at Emory School of Medicine. It was nearby the CDC in Atlanta, where I had been working. I had the opportunity to try many different medical practices over the course of those four years and really enjoyed surgery. While in medical school, you have to decide whether you like doing things with your hands or with your brain. Surgery was a good fit as I liked working with my hands. After medical school, I did a general surgery residency at Rush. That’s how I ended up in the Chicago area.
I was performing a lot of trauma surgery as I was finishing the general surgery residency. It was very fulfilling work, but I also realized people’s scars could be really bad and could impact the patients’ lives. This prompted me to pursue two years of plastic surgery residency after finishing five years of general surgery residency.
The three routes to plastic surgery are via general surgery, dentistry/oral surgery or orthopedics. Only the general surgery route requires general surgical training. After finishing the general surgery residency then they’d go into the plastic surgery residency. There were some people that were really into facial plastic surgery and did facial reconstruction. Many of them came through the dental/oral maxillofacial surgery pathway. There were also people that wanted to do hand surgery who came in through orthopedics residency and then would go onto plastic surgery residency. That was the old school way.
In the last 10-12 years, more people began matching (i.e. to a residency program upon finishing medical school) directly into plastic surgery. Most plastic surgeons don’t need to spend a lot of time doing things like colon resections and gallbladders that a general surgeon would do, so this became a more direct/common path.
In summary Rob completed 15 years of college and professional training: four years for his bachelor’s degree, four years of medical school, and seven years of residencies.
Do you have any other professional licenses or certifications?
Answer: Any physician’s first level of accreditation comes from taking national board exams after their second and fourth years of medical school [United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE-1)]. Another set of exams is required after the first year of residency. These exams are the baseline so you can have “M.D.” after your name. After residency, you take oral and written board exams (General Surgery in my case). More oral and written exams are required after the plastic surgery residency. Now, I have to be re-certified every 10 years. The process does require me to do some studying since I don’t practice some of the areas covered by the exam. My practice is more focused on a certain set of procedures. Also, medical procedures change all the time.
What is the minimum required schooling or training for your job?
Answer: Basically the path described previously [Bachelor’s Degree > Medical School > Plastic Surgery Residency] but additional training is required for those who want to become more specialized than I am. For example, someone might get a CAQ Hand [now referred to as Subspecialty Certificate in Surgery of the Hand] if they want to specialize in those types of procedures..
Do you feel that your school’s reputation had a significant impact on getting a job in your field?
Answer: Most people that graduate from US medical schools have a fairly similar trajectory. Those that graduate from non-US medical schools tend to have a harder time. There have been efforts by the National Board of Physician and Surgeons to keep non-US medical school graduates out of US residencies which has made it difficult for them. M.D.’s and D.O.’s have equal opportunities to practice surgery, medicine or whatever else they want to pursue. However, if you’re interested in something like academic medicine (e.g. being a chairman or professor), you may need to train at certain institutions.
Job Demand & Stability
How long did it take to land your first job in your field after graduating?
Answer: It’s not easy when you finish training and you have to figure out where to find a job. It’s not like there are [plastic surgeon] jobs posted in the back of the Reader. Students often talk to their professors in an effort to find opportunities that may exist in practice. Sometimes job opportunities percolate down through national meetings. There are instances where you may hear about people that are looking for colleagues/associates, but so many plastic surgeons are in solo practice, so it’s not as common in this field. As a result, many new plastic surgeons go out to start their own practices. This comes with challenges, such as deciding in which community/market you want to establish your practice, since you’re on your own to work though these decisions. That’s why I joined someone that already had a practice. I didn’t know much about running an office, recruiting patients, etc.
Advice For Success
What advice would you provide to someone that would like to become a plastic surgeon?
Answer: The best plastic surgeons are good doctors. I think all the things that make a good doctor are the same as what makes a good plastic surgeon. You have to be interested in science and curious about how the body works. Also, you need to be a good problem solver. I think you have to be fairly studious to endure the extended duration in school. It’s a long road, but the end result is a really nice career. Many of my colleagues experience burnout from other areas of medicine/surgery, but I hope to be practicing plastic surgery for a long time.
Nature of Job and Schedule
Describe what you do
Answer: One of the nice things is that every day is different. This may not be the field for you,if you prefer to be very routine. Each person comes in with a unique challenge. I have a toolbox of skills/procedures available for each patient, but each patient requires these skills/procedures to be applied in a unique manner and involves problem solving. I see patients that are babies. I see patients that are ninety-year-old people. I see men. I see women. I see reconstruction types of problems where people are really ill and have a lot of morbidity and we’re saving their lives, so to speak. I really love the variety. Many patients are healthy and the procedures are completely elective. That aspect can also be intimidating, due to patient expectations. It would be a lot easier, some days, if I could just plug A into B and be done with it. The elective nature and corresponding expectations bring an additional challenge.
In regards to my weekly activities, I prefer to see patients on some days and do surgery on other days. Some plastic surgeons schedule their time differently where they may, for example, perform surgery in the morning and see patients in the afternoon each day. For me, it’s hard to switch gears like that within the same day. I have in-office days on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I consult with new patients and see follow-up patients on these days. For example, I may see a patient who’s had breast cancer and we’re meeting after her mastectomies to talk about next steps. Tuesdays and Thursdays are always surgery days. Often times surgery takes place at an outpatient surgery center, or sometimes at a hospital.
Describe your daily and weekly schedule
Answer: Monday-Friday. The hours vary. During office days, I am usually there from 9:00AM-5:00PM. I like to start surgery later in the morning around 9:00AM which is after my kids are off to school. I’m generally done with surgery by 3:00-4:00PM.
What parts of your job are repetitive?
Answer: The office days are somewhat repetitive for post-op patients. I sometimes see them in consecutive intervals, so the scheduling is somewhat repetitive, but the discussions are generally different.
What parts of your job require learning or performing new duties/responsibilities?
There’s so much out in the media, including social media, about plastic surgery. Oftentimes, my patients bring up something they’ve seen in a magazine, for example, which can become a new challenge. I really have to stay on top of the latest developments. There are procedures I’m doing currently that I wasn’t doing ten or fifteen years ago, because they didn’t exist. This includes procedures, such as fat grafting and some of the laser procedures.
Learning new procedures is really challenging because obviously you’re not going back to school. There are a couple different avenues to learn. National meetings provide opportunities to learn new procedures. These meetings often have sessions dedicated to teaching plastic surgeons. For example, if a new filler comes along, often times there will be sessions available on how to use it. The other avenue is to learn from industry reps that come to our office to show a new product. Training is offered as part of that process.
Describe the nature and frequency of working with other people while doing your job
Answer: The job is solitary, aside from dealing with patients. I don’t see colleagues that often. They may send referrals to me (e.g. from a general practitioner for someone with skin cancer or from an OBGYN for a woman who needs a breast reduction), but I don’t often work with them. I wish I could more, but that’s not the nature of the job.
Does your job require travel?
Answer: The travel is mostly just driving to surgery centers. National meetings occur twice per year. Due to the time commitment involved, I typically only attend these meetings once every other year. You tend to get less from these meetings as your progress farther along in your career. There are also smaller, regional meetings. For example, Chicago plastic surgeons meet approximately once a month. The meetings are usually held at a Chicago restaurant and include a guest speaker. I do often attend these meetings.
What is the most enjoyable or rewarding part of your job?
Answer: Improving an aspect of a patient which has bothered them for a long time. This could be anything from performing a breast reduction for a woman that’s suffered back and shoulder pain or removing a bothersome mole from someone’s nose that they’ve had their entire life. The rewards can be really great.
What is the most challenging or stressful part of your job?
Answer: There are two aspects. One is that patients can expect a very high level of improvement. Expectations of a healthy person doing an elective surgical procedure can differ greatly from someone that requires surgery. Expectations are not the same, compared to someone that, for example, has cancer or another debilitating illness and they absolutely need to have surgery. Many patients are deciding to have surgery and so that’s challenging.
The other aspect is all the paperwork that goes into what I do nowadays. Trying to get something through an insurance company or trying to get approval for a procedure can be difficult.
Does your job provide work/life balance?
Answer: I think it’s great for people that want to have a family. Since the procedures are elective, I get a lot of flexibility. I get to set my vacation schedule and not much interrupts it.
How much time off do you take from work?
Answer: About 4 weeks each year.
Any interesting/enjoyable perks of your job?
Answer: There’s a degree of comfort that I have in talking to people about plastic surgical procedures, and a lot of people want to talk about plastic surgical procedures. There’s also a certain amount of prestige in the field, which is nice.
What would you do if you had to change careers?
Answer: There are a lot of things I enjoy such as art, cooking, and boating. Plastic surgery does have an artistic component which allows me to bring that interest to bear.