CareerExplorer’s step-by-step guide on how to become a plastic surgeon.
Is becoming a plastic surgeon right for me?
The first step to choosing a career is to make sure you are actually willing to commit to pursuing the career. You don’t want to waste your time doing something you don’t want to do. If you’re new here, you should read about:
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Take advanced science classes in anatomy, biology, chemistry, physiology, and physics
Take math classes to facilitate the calculation of medication dosages and the reading of graphs
Study Latin to help you understand unfamiliar medical terms that often have Latin roots
Study a foreign language to increase your capacity to communicate with the segment of the population that does not speak English
Interview a practising plastic surgeon
Ask simple, but pointed questions:
What got you interested in plastic surgery?
Can you tell me about an average day at your job, from beginning to end?
What do you like about your job? What do you dislike?
What is the most challenging part of being a plastic surgeon?
What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a plastic surgeon?
If you could start over, would you still choose to be a plastic surgeon? Why?
Research which colleges offer the best plastic surgery programs
While there is not a specific degree required for undergraduate study, aspiring plastic surgeons tend to concentrate their coursework in advanced biological sciences to meet admission requirements for medical school. They must graduate from an accredited Bachelor's degree program with pre-med prerequisite courses, such as microbiology, biochemistry, and human anatomy. Also recommended are classes in English, advanced mathematics, and statistics. Most medical schools require a grade point average of at least 3.5 and may choose only those candidates who rank at the top of their graduating class.
During undergraduate study it is also important for students to gain experience that will set them apart from other medical school applicants and prepare them for their chosen career. This experience may include volunteering at a hospital, performing community service, and research work. Especially valuable are job shadowing programs, which allow students to follow plastic surgeons and other doctors throughout a workday. All of these activities demonstrate work ethic and dedication to the medical field. Whenever possible, these experiences should be documented on letters of recommendation, which can be submitted with medical school applications.
Medical College Admissions Test
During their junior year of undergraduate study, prospective plastic surgeons must sit for the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) and the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM). Through a set of multiple-choice questions, this standardized exam allows medical schools to evaluate a candidate’s training and skill set. Many schools share their incoming student MCAT score average on their website to inform undergraduates of how well they need to score to compete with other applicants.
To achieve their highest possible MCAT score, students are encouraged to take advantage of assistance available to them. This includes study materials, pre-tests, practice tests, and online and in-person tutoring. These resources are designed to ensure that students attain the best possible score, which will open doors to medical schools.
Medical School & National Licensing
Plastic surgeons obtain either a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree.
Medical school is a very challenging four years of study that is divided into two parts. The first part, comprising the first two years of the schooling, is focused on course and lab work that prepares students intellectually for patient interaction. This training is in the biological and natural sciences, physiology, chemistry, medical ethics, and the art and practice of medicine. Students who wish to become plastic surgeons typically tailor their studies to include advanced classes in congenital anomalies, cancer, trauma, and degenerative/inflammatory disorders. To test their grasp of this portion of training, in the second year of medical school students pursuing an MD must take and pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) – Step 1. Those pursuing a DO must take and pass the United States Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA) – Level 1. A passing score on the USMLE or COMLEX-USA indicates that students are ready to begin supervised patient visits and gain clinical experience.
The second part of medical school, the second two years, is called Rotations. During this time, students have the opportunity to experience a variety of medical specialties and a variety of medical settings under the supervision of experienced physicians. Rotations further students’ understanding of patient care, situations, scenarios, and the teams that come together to help those that are sick. As they complete rotations, students tend to find out that they gravitate towards certain specialties or environments that fit their particular interests and skill sets. It is important that this time inform their decision of specialty or subspecialty, so that they find complete satisfaction as a physician.
After part two of medical school, students take the United States Medical Licensing Exam –Step 2 or the United States Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination – Level 2. The objective of these exams is to test whether or not students have developed the clinical knowledge and skills that they will need to transition into unsupervised medical practice.
After completing medical school, postgraduates begin a five- to six- year plastic surgery residency accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education. Plastic surgery residents typically attend lectures, participate in patient rounds with a licensed plastic surgeon, and complete clinical case studies. Their training in both reconstructive and cosmetic plastic surgery encompasses:
Fundamentals of surgery (wound healing, nutrition, intensive care)
Fundamentals of plastic surgery (wound care, flaps, implants/biomaterials, lasers)
Pediatric/Craniofacial (head/neck/face) surgery
Hand surgery, upper and lower extremity reconstruction, peripheral nerve surgery
Breast surgery (reconstructive/after cancer and aesthetic/cosmetic)
Trunk reconstruction including complex hernias, chest wall, and genital reconstruction
Skin and soft tissue cancer procedures
Burns and trauma surgery (to treat traumatic injuries resulting from car accidents, sporting injuries, and violent incidents)
Aesthetic/cosmetic surgical techniques including lasers, injectables, and minimally invasive techniques
Otoplasty (to treat protruding ears)
Blepharoplasty (eyelid surgery)
Emerging areas (hand and face transplant immunology)
Securing a plastic surgery residency is competitive. It is important to compile a thorough resume detailing educational history, research experience, and internships completed; as well as letters of recommendation.
State Licensing & Continuing Education
All physicians in the U.S. need to be state licensed. Licensing requirements may vary from state to state. Generally, candidates must have earned an undergraduate degree, graduated from medical school, completed a residency, and passed all necessary examinations. Often, the examination component is satisfied by passing the USMLE or the COMLEX-USA exam. States may further require periodic license renewal and mandate continuing education.
The continuing education component can be fulfilled by committing to a fellowship (see Step 9, below); by following a certification maintenance program (see Step 8, below); or by attending classes and seminars held by medical schools and professional organizations.
Board Certification (recommended / optional)
The American Board of Plastic Surgery (ABPS) offers board certification for allopathic plastic surgeons (MDs).
The American Osteopathic Board of Surgery (AOBS) offers board certification for osteopathic plastic surgeons (DOs).
Both the ABPS and the AOBS administer maintenance of certification / continuous certification programs.
Specialized Training / Fellowship (optional)
A ‘fellow’ is a physician who elects to complete further training or a ‘fellowship’ in a subspecialty, after or near the end of residency. The primary plastic surgery subspecialties are:
Aesthetic/cosmetic plastic surgery
Pediatric plastic surgery
How to become a Plastic Surgeon
The path to becoming a plastic surgeon is a long and demanding one. The process involves earning a Bachelor’s Degree, passing the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), applying to and completing medical school, and completing a residency program. Following this rigorous educational track, aspiring plastic surgeons must pass both national and state licensing exams. Some plastic surgeons choose to pursue a fellowship and specialize in a subfield, such as pediatric, craniofacial, hand, or breast reconstruction surgery.
Although there is no specific undergraduate degree required to be accepted to medical school, it is, of course, beneficial to major in a scientific field that fulfills the biology, chemistry, and physics prerequisites. Some students opt to major in pre-med, a program which encompasses all of the courses necessary to apply to medical school.
Acceptance to medical school is extremely competitive. Therefore, a high grade point average during undergraduate studies, excellent letters of recommendation, and an above average score on the MCAT are imperative.
During medical school, students can expect to spend the first few years taking courses in subjects such as anatomy, physiology, and pharmacology. The last two years of med school are dedicated to clinical rotations, during which students work in hospitals and other medical facilities under the supervision of a licensed physician. Among the common rotations are family practice, pediatrics, internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, surgery, and psychiatry.
After completing medical school, prospective plastic surgeons go on to complete either an integrated or an independent residency program. The integrated pathway is the traditional residency for plastic surgery, during which residents complete five or six years of training in both general surgery and plastic surgery procedures. The independent method is typically for doctors who begin their surgical training in another field and transition to plastic surgery after completing part of a residency program. General surgery training includes clinical rotations in different types of surgery, such as abdominal, cardiothoracic, neurological, trauma, and pediatric surgery. The plastic surgery component, comprised of rotations in both reconstructive and cosmetic surgery, includes training in congenital defects of the head, neck, and trunk; as well as burn management, fluid replacement, and breast surgery.
Nationally and state licensed plastic surgeons can choose to become board certified. Doctors of Medicine (MDs) or allopathic physicians apply for certification from the American Board of Plastic Surgery (ABPS). Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine (DOs) receive certification from the American Osteopathic Board of Surgery (AOBS). While these accreditations are voluntary, they demonstrate professionalism and dedication to the field, and instill confidence in patients.