Work/Family Balance in Academic Head & Neck Surgery: Notes to Female Surgeons

My name is Sarah Rohde and I am currently finishing my 5th year of practice as an academic head & neck oncologic and microvascular surgeon at Vanderbilt University.  I work full-time and have a wonderful spouse, 2 beautiful sons, and three perfect partners.  On the road to becoming a head and neck surgeon, I had many doubts and almost didn’t choose this route. 

During my fourth year of residency, I began interviewing for private practice jobs.  Even though I interviewed at great practices of which some were in beautiful locations or had partners who proudly showed off their boats or second homes, I felt that something was missing for me.  I didn’t see anyone treating cancer.  I didn’t see anyone performing the surgeries I had grown to love and or treating the patients I cared most deeply for.  I knew that for me something was lacking in these opportunities.

I began to discuss the nagging feeling with both my husband and with my mentors at work.  My husband lamented not moving back home to happily raise a family.  My male mentors worked long hours and had grown children.  I didn’t know whether my persistent dream of becoming an academic head and neck physician was compatible with my lifelong desire to become a mother. 

Fortunately, I had a supportive partner who knew my passion for treating patients with cancer and a wonderful mentor who was like a second father to me.  My husband encouraged me to pursue my interests.  My mentor encouraged me to do what felt right in my career and to further stand up for myself to protect my family.  With this acknowledgement and support, I signed on to do a fellowship in Head & Neck Oncologic Surgery and Microvascular Surgery.

Now seven years later, I know without a doubt that I am in the right career.  I love developing close bonds with my patients and their families as they battle cancer.  I love teaching undergraduates, medical students, residents and fellows.  The operating room remains stimulating to me.  Even more, I love that I have been able to do all this while having and raising two delightful, silly, and sweet boys and maintaining a solid, loving relationship with my spouse.

It’s not to say that it’s always easy, but to me it’s worth it.  I do my best to balance my needs at home and at work.  I promise to myself and to my family that I will be efficient at work and that I will control my schedule as much as possible.  In turn, they understand when the unexpected happens, and I am needed early or late at work. 

My advice is only to do what makes you happy.  You have spent a significant amount of time, money, and heartache to prepare yourself for being an otolaryngologist.  Choose the career that fulfills you.  If that career happens to be academic head and neck surgery, work hard and stand up for the things that are important to you whether that be dedicated research time or being available for a family event.  Surround yourself with supportive family and coworkers and work as a team.  Don’t be discouraged by small failures, but encouraged by what you can do for your patients and the example you can set for your children and those you will train.


Sarah Rohde, MD
Head & Neck Oncologic Surgery & Microvascular Surgery

Vanderbilt University