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 pursing 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.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are Surgeons happy?
Surgeons rank among the happiest careers. Overall they rank in the 100th percentile of careers for satisfaction scores. Please note that this number is derived from the data we have collected from our Sokanu members only.
A very high happiness quotient in the surgical field is not surprising, in view of the vital work that surgeons do and the personal reward they reap from it.
What are Surgeons like?
Based on our pool of users, Surgeons tend to be predominately investigative people. This finding is a reassuring one, for the public at large and especially for anyone requiring surgery. Diagnosing and treating medical conditions is the work of men and women naturally disposed to investigating, examining, studying, scrutinizing, searching, reviewing; and ultimately, finding medical interventions and solutions.
How long does it take to become a Surgeon?
The educational track for surgeons is intensive. It can last thirteen years or longer, depending on the surgical specialty.
Pre-med Bachelor’s Degree – four years
Medical School – four years
Residency/Fellowship – five to eight years • General surgery residency (5 years) • Specialty surgery residency (5-7 years); common in plastic surgery, orthopaedic surgery, neurological surgery • General surgery residency followed by a second residency in a surgical specialty (6-8 years); common in colon and rectal surgery, thoracic surgery. • Integrated program (6 years); combines general and specialty training
Steps to becoming a Surgeon
Like every medical discipline, surgery demands a commitment to a lengthy and rigorous educational track, multiple levels of examinations and licensing, an arduous residency, and career-long learning and dedication.
Should I become a Surgeon?
To become a surgeon is not an easy task. Getting through medical school, completing a residency, and getting accepted into a competitive fellowship program all demand academic aptitude. And unquestionably, surgeons need outstanding communication, concentration, and interpretive skills; excellent attention to detail; and an ability to think quickly and innovatively. Overcoming these educational challenges and developing these capacities may make you a very competent clinician. To be an exceptional one, though, you need to cultivate some seemingly simple, yet fundamental, talents:
Confidence-to-knowledge ratio This is perhaps the most important trait of an effective clinician. While confidence is generally viewed as a positive trait, overconfidence – especially in medical circles – can, quite literally, be deadly. The ideal clinician realizes that unfamiliar situations may reveal knowledge gaps that necessitate collaboration and asking for help. Ignoring this fact is going to result in harm to patients.
Care about your patients ‘Well, of course,’ may be the response to reading this declaration. But it stands as a crucial reminder that for all of its science and all of its technology, surgery, like all branches of medicine, is about healing – and caring for – patients. If you enter the field for a stable job and a considerable income, without genuine compassion and empathy for the people you will operate on, it will be obvious. And it will be a detriment – to your patients and to yourself.
Keep learning At every level – doctor, nurse, paramedic, etc. – the practice of medicine is a challenge. It is constantly evolving and advancing. It demands constant, lifelong learning. Unless you are prepared to commit to continuing medical education and take periodic board review and other courses, your academic knowledge will start to leak away and you will become the clinician who is just getting by, instead of the one who is on top of the latest guidelines and treatments.
Delivering bad news never gets earlier. Every surgery poses some degree of risk. Things can change for the worse. Telling people that their loved one won’t be the same or won’t make it is very difficult and draining. The positive outcomes, however, outweigh the negative ones, by about ten to one.
Try different things before you commit to a specialty. It is very common for surgeons to choose a subspecialty during residency. When doing so, be certain to consider all aspects of potential specialties. For instance, the emotional impact of a potential negative outcome with a child patient may be enough for some surgeons to avoid specializing in pediatric surgery.
Surgery is all about teamwork. People tend to think of operating rooms as very austere, isolated places; but you are always working and communicating with a team, and everyone plays an important role. This typically includes surgical residents, a scrub nurse, and an anesthesiologist. If one person makes a mistake, another person needs to catch it. Something as trivial as failing to check a preoperative laboratory value can have fatal consequences. The stronger your team, the easier it is to avoid that situation.
If you are motivated by the information presented above, consider, as well, the soft skills and qualities that performing surgery requires:
Critical thinking Surgeons have to make time-sensitive decisions on a case-by-case basis. Especially in unconventional cases, they rely on their problem-solving skills to figure out new ways to approach procedures.
Motor skills Surgeons rely on acute hand-eye coordination and a steady hand. They work with advanced instruments and must be able to work in small spaces using technical maneuvers.
Physical & mental stamina Physical stamina and mental focus are essential for these doctors, who often perform lengthy surgeries. Hours are also irregular; for example, a surgeon may have to wake up in the middle of the night to perform an emergency surgery.
Technology savvy Surgery is technologically involved. New discoveries are made every year, and many of them incorporate new operating room technologies and high-tech surgical tools, such as medical drills and robotic arms.
Advanced reading comprehension Interpreting graphs and charts are a major part of a surgeon’s work. These doctors order scans to find evidence of tissue scarring, clots, and tumors. They must accurately interpret X-rays and images to diagnose conditions and determine treatment options.
Working in surgery is both profoundly technical and profoundly human. In the words of C. Everett Koop, MD, FACS, Pediatric Surgeon, and former U.S. Surgeon General:
I have never regretted going into medicine. I'd do it again tomorrow, and I tell that to any youngster who is considering it. Medicine is a calling. It is more than a business. One can make money doing other things. But I chose medicine – surgery – because it combined a quest for knowledge with a way to serve, to save lives, and to alleviate suffering.
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.