Background The aim of this study was to analyze the factors that influence the advancement and the career choices of doctors and medical students.Methods Using the combined databases of the iformix and surgent websites, 450 doctors and medical students were invited to complete an internet-based survey. Surgent (http://www.surgent.ie) and iformix (http://www.iformix.com) are two free internet services administered by the authors. Surgent is a medical educational website, while iformix facilitates the online submission of abstracts to surgical and medical conferences across Britain and Ireland. The combined database of these two websites is approximately 4500 entries. Four hundred and fifty users represented a 10% sample based on an expected 40%-45% response rate. This was anticipated to yield between 180 and 202 respondents, statistically sufficient to analyze the data. A detailed Likert scale assessed the importance of "academic," "clinical," and "lifestyle" factors in determining career choice and progression. Analysis included descriptive statistics and inferential testing.Results Fifty percent (N = 222) of surveys were returned; 142 men and 78 women. Thirty-seven percent of respondents were Irish, 28% British, and 35% non-European. Fifteen percent were undergraduates, 4% interns, 12% had 2-4 years of clinical experience, while 69% had completed more than 4 years. Fifty-six percent had decided upon a career in general surgery. Overall, the most important factors for career choice were intellectual challenge (95%), academic opportunities (61%), and research opportunities(54%). Doctors with more than 4 years of experience deemed duration of training (p = 0.002), lifestyle during training (p = 0.02), and stress (0.005) as less important factors when considering career choice. Correlation analyses demonstrated that prestige (p = 0.002), patient relationships (p = 0.006), and advice from friends or family (p = 0.01) were more important influencing factors for interns. In terms of career advancement, 66% of non-Europeans considered family contacts important as opposed to 20% of British and 45% of Irish doctors (p < 0.001). In addition, 47% of females felt gender was important for career advancement as opposed to 31% of males (p = 0.01).Conclusions Academic and clinical factors play an important role in career choice. However, it is clear that lifestyle factors predominate in determining an individual's career decisions in surgery.