How Long is a Surgical Internship? (Explained!)

Chances are, if you’re interested in becoming a surgeon, you probably already know it’s a long and difficult road.

But besides going to med school (which is the first step), what happens next? Things can get a little bit confusing post-graduation…

So, how long is a surgical internship?

A surgical internship is normally a year in length, usually beginning at the start of summer (after med school graduation).

The confusion about how long internships actually are is because of old naming traditions (more on this later).

Interns are residents at the start of training. Depending on what type of surgical speciality an individual is training in, the length of training will differ.

Here are some typical numbers for common surgical residencies in the United States:

  • Plastic surgery: 6 years
  • Orthopedic surgery: 5 years (including 1 year of general surgery)
  • Neurosurgery: 7 years
  • General Surgery: 5 years

What is a surgical intern?

A surgical intern is someone who has completed medical school and is now undertaking post-graduate training in a surgical discipline. It’s the old name for what’s now known as a first-year medical resident.

They are on the beginning path to becoming a senior surgeon.

Surgical interns are found working in hospitals or surgical clinics full-time. Their work is usually done under the guidance and supervision of licensed surgeons. They can’t perform surgery independently until receiving full licensing.

Interns are typically the domain of the American healthcare system. British interns training as surgeons would normally be referred to as “junior doctors” until reaching consultancy (attending) seniority.

Wikipedia lists the individual meanings of a medical internship for most major countries here.

How many hours does a surgical intern usually work?

In the U.S. the hours of a surgical intern (or any medical intern) are subject to the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME’s) guidelines.

Here’s the official line…

Rules mandate that all first-year residents work no more than 16 hrs continuously, preserving the 80-hr limit on the resident workweek and 10-hr period between duty periods. More senior trainees may work a maximum of 24 hrs continuously, with an additional 4 hrs permitted for handoffs. Strategic napping is strongly suggested for trainees working longer shifts.


First-year residents, in this case, as explained previously, are what are known as “interns”.

Whether interns actually do work up to (or over) 16 hours in a day is a little contentious, however.

It’s not unusual to find anecdotal reports from interns choosing to work over those hours (and well over the 80-hr workweek threshold).

As this article states, many physicians are breaking this limit and keeping quiet about it (Source).

What does a typical week in the life of a surgical intern look like?

Typical weeks depend on where and what (type of surgical specialty) an intern is training in.

Most surgical interns will begin their days early (6 or 7 am starts are not unusual), reporting for rounds in the hospital and preparing for the arrival of their supervisors. Rounds involve checking in with the patients on a ward and reviewing their individual cases.

Most interns will be tasked with making notes on patients (or checking labs and other vitals) and then heading to the theatre to perform or assist in surgical procedures.

Related: Do You Have To Do Surgery In Medical School?

Days usually end in the office to consult or in the emergency room evaluating patients. Evening rounds may also take place where surgical interns help prepare for the next day of surgery and check on patients after surgery.

Interns that are on-call may have to reside in the hospital while others might finish work in the late evening. As surgery can be a busy specialty it’s not unusual for departments to become overloaded. Many interns also have to work weekends.

It’s definitely not an easy thing to train for!

Despite how “Day in the Life” videos might make it look…

How long are you an intern?

As mentioned before, the length of training of an intern is typically one year in the U.S. (the first year of medical residency).

Depending on what country you train in, and what type of doctor you’re training to be, this is open to change.

How long is a surgical fellowship?

Surgical fellowships are additional training programs and can be anywhere from 1-3 years in length depending on the type of surgical training.

Unlike a surgical internship, which all surgeons will undergo at the start of their career journey, fellowships are usually the domain of top graduates. Commonly it’s individuals who have completed extensive research or gathered unique experience early on in their residency training that go on to fellowship training.

Fellowships match a physician to a specialist and have them work closely with the latter in order to train in a particular subspecialty.

The more complex this subspeciality, the longer the fellowship will generally be.

They typically take place at the end of residency programs, a minimum of 5 years into a surgeon’s career post med school.

Do surgical residents get interns?

The way specialty medical training works in most countries means that most residents will have superiority over interns (or other resident physicians with fewer years of experience).

While surgical residents will not usually be permitted to supervise surgery independently with an intern (they legally need an attending or consultant surgeon specialist), they are able to delegate non-surgical related work such as note-taking and patient observation and monitoring.

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