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How to Become a Surgeon: The Definitive Guide

If you’re thinking of becoming a surgeon, congratulations! You’ve selected an intellectually challenging, rewarding, and lucrative career.

But if you’d like to become a surgeon, it’s important to understand what it will take to reach your goal.

  • After high school, it takes 13-16 years of education and training to become a full-fledged surgeon.

Steps along the way include:

  • Graduating high school
  • Earning your bachelor’s degree
  • Taking the MCAT
  • Applying to medical school
  • Passing the USMLE
  • Completing clinical rotations
  • Completing a residency

If that sounds confusing and overwhelming, don’t worry. In this guide, we’ll share in-depth information about each step in the process, from high school all the way to becoming a working surgeon.

There’s a lot to cover, so let’s get started!

What is it like to be a surgeon?

Surgeons perform operations to treat injuries, diseases, or other medical issues.

  • They examine and assess their patients, then use instruments to perform invasive or semi-invasive procedures that may be lifesaving or life-enhancing.

Naturally, this is a high-stress job that requires focus and precision.

  • They oversee all aspects of a patient’s surgery, including the diagnosis and preoperative, operative, and postoperative care.
  • This includes overseeing nurses and technicians in the operating room, ensuring sanitation and safety, and being prepared to initiate lifesaving measures at any point during the procedure.

Surgeons answer questions, provide information, and give instructions for recovery.

  • They may prescribe medication to manage pain or otherwise help patients recover from the procedure.

Many surgeons work long hours, which are often overnight and/or irregular.

  • When surgeons are on call, they must be available to answer patients’ phone calls or make emergency visits to hospitals or nursing homes.

Most surgeons are required to stand on their feet for long periods of time.

Surgeons work in a variety of settings, including private practice, government programs, the military, and hospitals.

Many surgeons regularly travel from their office to various area hospitals to care for their patients.

What types of surgeons are there?

Surgeons may receive training in many types of surgery, such as a general surgeon, or they may train in highly specialized fields like:

  • Cardiothoracic surgery – Conditions within the chest such as lung cancer, coronary artery disease, heart valve abnormalities, diseases of the diaphragm, management of the airway and injuries to the chest
  • Colon and rectal surgery – Various diseases of the intestinal tract, colon, rectum, anal canal, and perianal area, as well as organs and tissues involved with primary intestinal disease, such as the liver, urinary, and female reproductive systems
  • Obstetrics and gynecology – Provide medical and surgical care for pregnant women, deliver babies, and treat conditions that affect the female reproductive system. Sub-specialties include maternal-fetal medicine specialists who deal with high-risk pregnancies and endocrinologists who manage issues related to infertility and reproductive endocrinology.
  • Gynecologic oncology – Treat gynecologic cancers that affect the female reproductive system
  • Neurological surgery – Disorders of the central, peripheral, and autonomic nervous system, including supporting structures and blood supply.
  • Ophthalmic surgery – Comprehensive care of the eyes and vision.
  • Oral surgery – Treat diseases, injuries, and defects in the head, neck, face, jaws, and tissues of the oral and maxillofacial region.
  • Orthopedic surgery – Devoted to the care of the musculoskeletal system, including bones, joints, muscles, nerves, and arteries. Orthopedic surgeons treat congenital deformities, infections, tumors, trauma, degenerative conditions, and secondary muscular problems in patients suffering from cerebral palsy, stroke, and paraplegia. Specialties within the field include hand surgery, sports medicine, spine surgery, joint replacement, trauma surgery, and oncology.
  • Otorhinolaryngology – Diseases and disorders that impact the ears and the respiratory and upper alimentary systems (commonly referred to as ears, nose, and throat).
  • Pediatric surgery – Management of surgical problems in children ranging from newborns to teenagers. Areas of expertise include neonatal, prenatal, trauma, and pediatric oncology.
  • Plastic surgery – Repair, replacement, and reconstruction of defects of the body’s form and function. Plastic surgery may also be elective surgery for aesthetic reasons.
  • Urology – Disorders of the adrenal gland and the genitourinary system. Urologists have extensive knowledge of the reproductive and urinary system and their structures.
  • Vascular surgery – Diseases that affect the arteries and veins throughout the body. Vascular surgeons also diagnose and treat strokes, aneurysms, and blood clots.

How much money do surgeons earn?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for a surgeon is $255,110.

This figure will vary by specialty, location, and level of experience.

  • For example, orthopedic surgeons earn closer to $315,000, while plastic surgeons average about $270,000.
  • Meanwhile, general surgeons make $265,000 on average.

Location also plays a significant role in how much money you will earn.

  • Reported salaries for surgeons vary widely, with surgeons in states like New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, and the Washington D.C. area earning substantially higher salaries.

Of course, you’ll have to factor in the cost of living when considering salaries by geographic location.

When salaries are significantly higher in a certain city or state, it’s typically because the cost of living there is significantly higher too.

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What is the career outlook for surgeons?

Overall, employment of surgeons and other physicians is expected to grow by 13 percent over the next decade (per the Bureau of Labor Statistics).

  • The average growth rate for all jobs is eight percent, so this career is growing faster than the national average.

The growing and aging population is expected to continue driving the demand for physicians of all specialties.

  • There will always be patients who need surgical and medical care, making surgery a stable and in-demand career.

In addition, most medical school graduates are matched to residencies (essentially their first jobs as physicians) upon graduating.

This means that if you can successfully complete your medical school education, you’re almost guaranteed to land a job in your field.

What skills do I need to be a good surgeon?

To be an effective surgeon, you’ll need the following skills:

  • Excellent communication
  • Critical thinking
  • Decision-making
  • Organization
  • Manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination
  • Physical stamina
  • Calm under pressure
  • Flexibility and the ability to adapt to a changing environment
  • Focus and patience
  • Leadership
  • Teamwork
  • Emotional resilience

Of course, you’ll also need extensive knowledge of your surgical specialty, including diagnosis and preoperative, operative, and postoperative care.

That’s where your medical education comes in.

Steps to Becoming a Surgeon

Before you make up your mind to become a surgeon, you should know that it’s a long process.

(You will earn a salary during your residency, but not as much as you’ll earn once it’s completed.)

If that sounds overwhelming, don’t worry. Let’s look at the steps you need to take to become a surgeon, starting in high school.

High School

Naturally, the first major step toward becoming a surgeon is graduating from high school.

To put you on the path to success, however, you’ll need more than just a high school diploma.

During your junior and senior year of high school, focus on accomplishing the following:

By taking these steps, you’ll build your resume for acceptance to a quality college or university. From there, you can apply to a top-notch medical school.

In addition, the items on this list will prepare you to succeed as a med student and—eventually—a surgeon. They will also give you the chance to ensure that a career in surgery is a good fit for you.

College Applications

During your junior and senior year, it’s time to start preparing for college applications.

Take the SAT/ACT until you’ve achieved a competitive score, gather letters of recommendation, and begin writing your college application essays.

  • Be sure to apply to schools with strong science and math programs.
  • Remember that you don’t have to choose a university where you’d like to attend medical school.

In addition, you don’t have to limit yourself to schools with pre-med programs.

Undergraduate School

You may be surprised to find that your choice of major does not factor heavily into your acceptance to medical schools.

Unless you’re already set on a major or very passionate about a specific subject area, it’s a good idea to choose a major that will help you prepare for medical school and pass the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT).

  • Most medical school students major in Biology, so that’s a good route if you’re undecided.

Majoring in a relevant field will also help you complete prerequisites for medical school that will also count toward your undergraduate degree. These prerequisites typically include:

  • Biology-two semesters
  • Chemistry-2-4 semesters, typically both organic and inorganic
  • Physics-two semesters
  • English-two semesters
  • Mathematics- two semesters, typically calculus and statistics

These requirements may vary, so visit the websites of medical schools you’re interested in to see what courses you need to take.

Medical schools may also require biochemistry and sociology and/or psychology.

  • It may also be helpful to take courses in medical history, communication/public speaking, anthropology, and a foreign language.

As in high school, you should participate in relevant clubs and organizations, research opportunities, and volunteer work or internships.

  • These will make you a more competitive medical school applicant and a more effective surgeon.

To summarize, in undergraduate school you should:

  • Major in just about any discipline, although a relevant field like Biology is recommended
  • Meet medical school prerequisites
  • Participate in relevant activities and opportunities
  • Earn your bachelor’s degree

The MCAT

While still in undergraduate school, you’ll also need to take the MCAT. In most cases, students take the MCAT during their junior year of undergrad.

  • The MCAT is essentially the SAT for medical schools. It’s a hugely important part of your application because it’s meant to predict how well you’ll perform in med school.

The exam takes 7.5 hours to complete and consists of four sections:

  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
  • Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
  • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills

For each section, you’ll receive a score ranging from 118-132. You’ll also receive a total score ranging from 472-578.

  • The average overall score for MCAT test-takers is a 500. An above average score (over 500) will get you into many medical schools, but you should aim for a 508 or higher.

Be sure to thoroughly prepare for the MCAT with test prep books, a study group, an MCAT prep program, and/or tutoring. It’s also important to take courses that will prepare you to answer questions on biology, physics, sociology/psychology, and critical analysis.

After you take the MCAT, your scores are automatically forwarded to the American Medical Colleges Application Service (AMCAS).

AMCAS is basically like the Common Application for medical schools. This means you don’t have to send your scores separately to medical schools, unless you apply to a school that doesn’t use the AMCAS.

Medical School Applications: A Three-Part Process

It’s time for the next step: applying to medical school! Medical school applications are submitted in June prior to your first year of medical school.

During this process, we recommend that you use the Medical School Admissions Requirements database.

  • There, you’ll find useful information about application deadlines and requirements, average test scores and GPA, and acceptance rates.
  • It costs $28 to access this information, but it’s well worth it.

Admission to medical school is highly competitive, so it’s a good idea to apply to at least 15 medical schools.

  • This can get expensive. The AMCAS charges a fee of $160 for applying to one school, then $39 for each additional school.
  • Of course, this is a wise investment when you consider the salary you’ll earn as a surgeon.

In addition, the AMCAS greatly simplifies the process of applying, since you can send one application to many schools.

In July or August, the schools you applied to will either notify you that your application was rejected or invite you to complete a second application.

Unlike the first-round application, these applications are different for every school. You may have to answer a series of essay questions, and there may be a fee associated with the application.

If the school is impressed by both applications, you’ll advance to the third and final round: the medical school interview.

If the interview goes well, you’ll receive an offer of admission from the school. Congrats, you’re in!

Medical School: The First Two Years

The first two years are medical school are fairly similar to undergraduate school.

You’ll be taking foundational medical courses in a classroom setting.

  • After the first two years of classes, you will take the first part of the United States Medical Licensing Examination, commonly called the USMLE-1.

You have to pass this exam to continue medical school.

The USMLE-1 is an eight-hour exam divided into one-hour blocks. The test is limited to 280 questions, and you won’t be required to answer more than 40 questions per block.

Medical School Rotations

During your third year of medical school, you’ll gain practical experience through a series of clinical rotations.

  • While working with a supervisor in a variety of medical settings, you’ll have the opportunity to explore various surgical specialties and determine which you’re most suited for (and which you enjoy).

These rotations should help you determine your specialty, if you weren’t already decided.

  • Then, you’ll spend your fourth year of medical school taking in-depth electives related to the specialty of your choice.

At this point, you’ll take the second part of your licensing exam (USMLE-2).

Completing a Surgical Residency

With your fourth year completed, it’s time for your residency. A residency is a paid supervised internship at a teaching hospital.

  • Medical school students across the nation celebrate “Match Day,” when they learn what residency program they’ve been matched with by The National Resident Matching Program.

The NRMP uses a computerized algorithm to compare medical school students’ ranked preferences with program director’s preferences.

You’re not guaranteed to get one of your top choices.

Surgical residencies are especially long. Most future doctors spend three years in their residency.

  • Future general surgeons, on the other hand, complete five-year residencies.
  • And if you choose a sub-specialty in surgery, you’ll spend an additional 1-3 years in your residency. That means in total, your residency could be up to eight years.

Residents receive a salary, but it averages about $48,000—much less than you’ll earn as a full-fledged surgeon.

  • During the first year of your residency, you’ll also take the third and final portion of your licensing exam.
  • This is the most difficult part of the USMLE because it tests your ability to provide medical care in an unsupervised setting (just like you’ll do as a real surgeon).

Although it’s not currently required, it’s also highly recommended that surgeons become board certified through the American Board of Surgery.

Landing a Job as a Surgeon

After completing your residency and passing the final part of your USMLE, you’re ready to become a practicing surgeon.

  • Many surgeons stay on at their residency, but you can also search for work elsewhere.

You can work in a hospital, clinic, or private practice related to your surgical specialty.

  • Surgeons also work in institutional and academic medicine, the military, government programs, and ambulatory surgical settings.

Because medicine is continuously advancing, a surgeon is never done learning.

  • To keep your license current, you’ll need to earn Continuing Medical Education credits through activities that maintain and update your medical knowledge.

Certified surgeons must also fulfill requirements to remain certified.

Conclusion: How to Become a Surgeon

As you can see, it takes a lot of dedication and commitment to become a surgeon.

But if you’re sure the career is a good fit for you, it’s certainly worth it. You’ll earn a high salary while saving and improving lives.

If you decide that becoming a surgeon is your calling, earn your bachelor’s degree, attend medical school, choose a surgical specialty, and complete your residency.

Study hard, pass all three portions of your licensing exam, and start your dream career. Good luck!

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