CareerExplorer’s step-by-step guide on how to become a surgeon.
Is becoming a 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 surgeon
Ask simple, but pointed questions:
• What got you interested in 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 surgeon?
• What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a surgeon?
• If you could start over, would you still choose to be a surgeon? Why?
Research which colleges offer the best surgery programs
While there is not a specific degree required for undergraduate study, aspiring 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
Prospective 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. Most students take the MCAT at least a year before they wish to begin medical school.
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
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. 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 (USMLE) – Step 2 or the United States Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA) – 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 eight- year surgical residency accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education. During this time, surgical residents attend lectures, participate in simulation labs, and conduct patient rounds and case studies with licensed surgeons. They rotate through a variety of clinical settings including general and vascular surgery, surgical specialties, anesthesia, pediatric surgery, and the intensive care unit (ICU). They perform surgeries, starting as first assistant and assuming increasing independence as their skills improve. In addition, residents determine individual pre- and post- surgery care plans for patients.
Extended Residency / 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 surgery subspecialties are:
• Thoracic surgery
• Obstetrics and gynecology
• Cardiovascular surgery
• Neurological surgery
• Orthopaedic surgery
• Colon and rectal surgery
• Pediatric surgery
• Reconstructive surgery
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.
Board Certification & Continuing Education
Board certification is offered by the American Board of Surgery (ABS). Though not mandatory, passing Board examinations and earning ABS credentials establishes a surgeon’s commitment to excellence in the field and increases credibility and marketability in the medical community.
How to become a Surgeon
The path to becoming a surgeon is rigorous. It starts with enrolling in a pre-medical Bachelor of Science program. With the assistance of a faculty advisor, students construct a curriculum that meets the immediate demands of their major and fulfills their medical school prerequisites. Courses such as anatomy, biochemistry, physics, and math are common. Maintaining the highest possible grade point average while completing undergraduate studies is vital, as it allows students to compete for acceptance to medical school. Many aspiring surgeons volunteer at hospitals and clinics to gain experience and make connections.
It is common for undergraduates to write the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) and begin applying to medical schools in their junior year. Test results factor into schools’ selection and admission process; as do pre-med grades, volunteer experience, and demonstrated character.
While completing a four-year doctoral program at an accredited medical or osteopathic college, prospective surgeons should choose electives that are pertinent to surgery, and whenever possible spend their clinical rotations in surgical settings.
Following their doctoral studies, newly graduated Doctors of Medicine (MD) and Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) who wish to become surgeons apply to an accredited surgical residency. Specialized residences include thoracic surgery, neurological surgery, orthopaedic surgery, vascular surgery, and pediatric surgery. Once matched, residents devote five to eight years learning through hands-on practice, under the supervision and mentorship of experienced surgeons.
After completing their residency, surgeons can apply for their state licensure. Many also pursue optional board certification.
Due to the complexity and the demands of surgery, as well as to the ongoing advances made in the field, surgeons undergo training and learn throughout their career. This continuing education takes place at annual meetings and conferences; through research; and via study of scientific journals.