Intended for healthcare professionals

Student Careers

Slice of life

BMJ 2004; 329 doi: (Published 01 September 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;329:0409324
  1. Chris Callaghan, honorary clinical fellow1,
  2. Ayyaz Ali, specialist registrar in cardiothoracic surgery2,
  3. Gavin Pettigrew, honorary consultant transplant surgeon3
  1. 1Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge CB2 2QQ
  2. 2Papworth Hospital, Cambridge CB3 8RE
  3. 3Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge CB2 2QQ

For budding surgeons with an interest in complex surgery that is both ethically and technically challenging, transplant surgery may be the ideal career choice. Chris Callaghan, Ayyaz Ali, and Gavin Pettigrew offer a practical guide

More than 2500 solid organ transplant operations are performed each year in the United Kingdom, and with advances in immunosuppression and anaesthetic and surgical techniques, more than 85% of renal, liver, and heart transplants are functioning one year after surgery. Although surgeons from different specialties are concerned with transplantation, transplant surgeons share common characteristics and training requirements.

Personal characteristics

Some colleagues perceive transplant surgeons to be workaholics who barely see the light of day. Although transplant surgeons do require stamina and the ability to work hard, you do not need to be Superman or Superwoman. You need to be attracted to “big” surgery--long operations on sick patients requiring intensive support services. You must be committed, analytical, and have excellent communication skills. An interest in immunology is an advantage.

Transplant surgery is one of the most “medical” of surgical specialties--you need a good working knowledge of medicine, infectious diseases, and pharmacology. The shortage of donor organs means that you have to come to terms with making potential life or death decisions regarding who is put on the transplant operation waiting list. Most importantly, it is essential that you are comfortable working in a multidisciplinary environment where decisions are made collectively.

The job

A career in transplant surgery will not give you uninterrupted sleep and lots of private work, but it will provide you with a unique combination of intellectual and surgical demands (box 2).

Box 2: Pros and cons


  • Multidisciplinary

  • Technically challenging surgery

  • High public profile

  • Relatively low volume of patients but long duration of contact

  • Exposure to critical care and high technology medicine

  • Often life saving surgery

  • Multiple subspecialty interests bring …

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