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How to Become a Surgical Nurse

By Ajoke Aminu


Are you a nurse who is not afraid of the sight of blood? If you have fortitude for the harsh realities of the operating room, learning how to become a surgical nurse could be the leveler you need. This article will outline the common steps to becoming a surgical nurse, from education and training to licensure and professional development, including the surgical nurse salary.

Career Summary

Surgical Nurse Salary 

Surgical Nurse Salary

Surgical nurses are often present with difficult situations in the operating room that require them to be super precise, composed, and trained. But does their pay match their expected professional level?

Based on a statistical estimate, here’s the salary range of a surgical nurse:

  • Entry (US$79K)
  • Median (US$98K)
  • Senior (US$123K)

Certainly, the surgical nurse salary can be viewed as a substantial income when compared to the reported average salary in the US, which stands at US$59,428 as of 2023.

What does a Surgical Nurse do?

Surgical nurses or “perioperative nurses” play a crucial role in the operating room, assisting surgeons before, during, and after surgical procedures. They ensure the operating environment remains sterile and safe for patients. Surgical nurses anticipate surgeons’ needs, handle instruments, and contribute to maintaining aseptic conditions. Beyond technical duties, surgical nurses provide emotional support to patients, fostering a compassionate and reassuring atmosphere in the operating room.

Surgical Nurse Career Progression 

  • Staff Surgical Nurse: Entry-level position, providing assistance in surgical procedures and perioperative care.
  • Senior Staff Surgical Nurse: Experienced staff nurse with additional responsibilities, often involved in mentoring junior staff.
  • Charge Nurse or Head Nurse: Leads and coordinates daily operations of the surgical unit, overseeing staff and ensuring efficient workflow.
  • Nurse Manager/Director of Surgical Services: Manages the entire surgical services department, addressing budgeting, staffing, and quality improvement.
  • Surgical Clinical Nurse Specialist: Specializes in a specific area of surgical nursing, providing advanced clinical expertise and education.
  • Nurse Practitioner or Clinical Nurse Specialist in Surgical Nursing (Optional): Takes on advanced practice roles, providing direct patient care with potential prescriptive authority.
  • Director of Nursing or Chief Nursing Officer (CNO): Executive leadership role overseeing all nursing departments, including surgical services.
Surgical Nurse Career Progression

Advantages of Being a Surgical Nurse

  • Making a direct impact on patients’ lives by contributing to their healing and recovery.
  • Learning innovative surgical techniques by being at the forefront of medical care.
  • Opportunities for professional development.
  • Job stability and demand.
  • Competitive salary and benefits.

Challenges to Expect as a Surgical Nurse

  • Getting accustomed to the fast-paced environment of the operating room.
  • Enduring long hours on your feet.
  • Facing the risk of overstress and burnout head-on.
  • Experiencing emotional challenges while helping patients with critical conditions.
  • Getting used to the intricate communication dynamics within the surgical team.

Essential Skills to Have as a Surgical Nurse

  • Sharp critical thinking to make quick decisions in high-pressure situations.
  • A keen attention to detail for the precise execution of tasks.
  • Effective communication skills to collaborate seamlessly with surgeons and fellow nurses.
  • Empathy and strong care to provide emotional support to patients undergoing surgical procedures.
  • Being able to adapt to unexpected situations with composure.

High Demand Specialties for Surgical Nurses

  • Orthopedic Surgical Nursing
  • Cardiac Surgical Nursing
  • Plastic and Reconstructive Surgical Nursing 
  • Urological Surgical Nursing
  • Pediatric Surgical Nursing 

How to Become a Surgical Nurse

Surgical Nurse 4 Steps to Career

As you read along, we’ll be diving into all that is necessary to become a surgical nurse. While there are numerous soft skills a surgical nurse must possess before they can do the job, the very first step to getting there is getting proper education. 

Step 1: Pursue a Degree in Nursing

As much as getting a nursing degree is only a small part of achieving a surgical degree nursing career, it is the most basic step you must pass through before anything else. 

What Degree Do I Need to Become a Surgical Nurse?

The most common paths include obtaining either an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). The ADN is a quicker route, typically taking two to three years, while the BSN is a four-year program that provides a more comprehensive education in nursing.

Once you complete your nursing degree, you’ll need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) to become a licensed registered nurse (RN). After becoming an RN, gaining hands-on clinical experience is crucial, and many aspiring surgical nurses pursue positions in critical care or perioperative nursing to build relevant skills.

However, if you aim to go further into nursing education, you can choose to pursue the following programs:

  • Master’s Entry to Nursing Practice (MENP): The Master’s Entry to Nursing Practice is an accelerated nursing program that equips you to become a registered nurse (RN) with a master’s degree or post-graduate certifications as an advanced practice nurse (APRN). It’s crucial to review program prerequisites, as some cater to those with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), while others are tailored for individuals without prior nursing experience. If you lack a nursing or science background, you might need to complete prerequisite courses to ensure readiness.
  • Master of Nursing Science (MSN): An MSN degree opens doors to advanced career possibilities, including roles as nurse educators, administrators, or health policy experts. The MSN also prepares individuals for positions as advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) in specialized areas like nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, certified registered nurse anesthetists, or certified nurse midwives. Completing the MSN program in two years or less is feasible for those with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). Online MSN programs offer flexibility for working professionals, allowing you to tailor your studies to accommodate your schedule.

Note that specialized certifications in perioperative nursing, such as the Certified Perioperative Nurse (CNOR), and the Registered Nurse First Assistant (RNFA) credential, can enhance your qualifications for surgical nursing roles. These certifications often require a certain amount of experience in perioperative nursing and successful completion of an exam.

Becoming a surgical nurse is not just about the educational qualifications, but about developing a well-rounded skill set and a compassionate approach to patient care. The delicate nature of a surgical nursing career is top-notch— it’s no wonder why they fall under the highest-paid medical professionals.

Can I Become a Surgical Nurse through Online Education?

To become a surgical nurse, pursuing a comprehensive education is essential. While some didactic components of nursing education can be completed online, the practical and hands-on aspects of surgical nursing often require in-person experiences. Hybrid programs, which combine online coursework with on-site clinical training, can provide a balanced approach.

However, to be really grounded requires full-time experience. Start by researching accredited nursing programs that offer a surgical nursing focus. Look for institutions that have partnerships with healthcare facilities to ensure access to clinical rotations. During your online coursework, you’ll likely cover topics such as anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, and surgical nursing principles.

Clinical rotations in a hospital or surgical setting are crucial for gaining practical skills and exposure to real-world scenarios. These experiences allow you to apply theoretical knowledge, develop critical thinking skills, and become familiar with the fast-paced surgery environment. Ensure that the program you choose provides robust clinical training opportunities.

Additionally, most nursing programs, whether online or hybrid, require students to complete a certain number of clinical hours to meet licensure requirements. Before choosing a program, it’s crucial to verify its accreditation, the specific focus areas offered, and any on-campus requirements for clinical components. Also, check if the program aligns with your state’s licensing requirements for advanced practice nursing roles.

Here are examples of universities that offer online surgical nursing programs:

Step 2: Develop the Essential Skills for Surgical Nursing

Considering how demanding their careers can be, surgical nurses require a multifaceted skill set to excel in the operating room.

These skills include:

  • Clinical Competence: Surgical nurses must possess a high level of clinical competence, including a deep understanding of surgical procedures and medical conditions, and the ability to implement evidence-based practices in patient care.
  • Critical Thinking: The ability to think critically is crucial in the fast-paced environment of surgery. Surgical nurses need to assess situations quickly, make sound decisions, and adapt to unexpected changes during procedures.
  • Attention to Detail: Surgical procedures require precision. From preparing the operating room to assisting surgeons, surgical nurses must pay meticulous attention to detail to ensure patient safety and the success of the surgery.
  • Communication Skills: Effective communication is vital for collaboration within the surgical team. Surgical nurses need to convey information clearly to surgeons, anesthesiologists, and other team members to maintain a well-coordinated and safe surgical environment.
  • Stress Management: Surgical settings can become high-stress environments. So they need to be adept at stress management, staying calm under pressure, and maintaining focus on patient care amidst challenging situations.
  • Empathy and Compassion: Surgical nurses work closely with patients who may be anxious or frightened. Demonstrating empathy and compassion helps in providing emotional support to patients and their families, contributing to overall patient well-being.
  • Teamwork and Collaboration: Surgery involves a multidisciplinary team. Surgical nurses need to collaborate effectively with surgeons, anesthesiologists, and other healthcare professionals to ensure seamless and coordinated patient care.
  • Adaptability: Surgical procedures can be unpredictable. Surgical nurses should be adaptable and ready to respond to changes quickly, whether in the surgical plan, patient condition, or unexpected challenges during the operation.
  • Technical Proficiency: Proficiency in using and maintaining surgical equipment is essential. Surgical nurses should be comfortable with technology and possess the technical skills required for tasks such as operating room setup and managing specialized equipment.
  • Ethical Decision-Making: Surgical nurses may encounter ethical dilemmas. Being able to make ethical decisions in the best interest of the patient while considering professional standards is a crucial skill.
  • Continuous Learning: Healthcare is dynamic, and surgical techniques evolve. Surgical nurses should have a commitment to continuous learning, staying updated on the latest advancements, and participating in professional development opportunities.

These skills collectively contribute to the expertise required for surgical nursing, ensuring the delivery of safe, efficient, and compassionate care to patients undergoing surgical procedures.

What are Some Web Resources to Learn Skills to Become a Surgical Nurse?

When choosing an online resource to learn from, always ensure that the resources you choose are reputable and align with industry standards and best practices. Meanwhile, here are a few we recommend for you.

  • Association of PeriOperative Registered Nurses (AORN): AORN offers resources, education, and events for perioperative nurses, including those aspiring to become surgical nurses.
  • Perioperative Nurse Training at HealthStream: HealthStream provides online perioperative nursing courses covering various aspects of surgical care.
  • Offers a range of courses, including those related to surgical nursing, with articles, webinars, and other resources.
  • American College of Perioperative Medicine (ACPM): ACPM offers educational content and resources related to perioperative care and surgery.
  • NursingCenter– Operating Room Nursing Journal: Access articles and resources from the Operating Room Nursing Journal to stay updated on surgical nursing practices.
  • American Nurses Association (ANA): ANA provides educational resources and updates for nurses, including those in surgical nursing.

Step 3: Gain Practical Experience

In addition to studying hard to earn a nursing degree and polishing the soft skills required to become a surgical nurse, you’ll most likely not get far if you do not have enough clinical experience in nursing. For a role as intricate as surgical nursing, knowing the ins and outs of an operational room is more important than anything else. You can get these experiences by taking internships or searching for job opportunities.

What Are Some Internship Opportunities Available for a Surgical Nurse?

From direct patient care to specialized roles within surgical services, the surgical nursing field offers a range of exciting opportunities to gain practical operational experience as well as profound growth and contribution to medical advancements.

These are the internship opportunities available to a surgical nurse:

  • Local Hospitals: Check with nearby hospitals that offer internship programs for surgical nurses to gain hands-on experience in various surgical procedures.
  • Surgical Centers: Explore opportunities at outpatient surgical centers where nurses can work closely with surgeons in a more specialized environment.
  • Teaching Hospitals: Consider internships at teaching hospitals, as they often provide comprehensive experiences with a focus on education and skill development.
  • Research Institutions: Some research institutions may offer internships that combine surgical nursing with research projects, providing a unique learning experience.
  • Trauma Centers: Interning at trauma centers can offer exposure to a wide range of surgical cases, allowing nurses to enhance their skills in critical care settings.
  • Specialty Clinics: Look for internships in specialty clinics such as orthopedic, cardiovascular, or neurosurgical clinics for more targeted experience in specific areas of surgery.
  • Veterans Affairs (VA) Hospitals: VA hospitals may have internship opportunities for surgical nurses, providing a chance to work with diverse patient populations.
  • International Programs: Explore international internship programs that allow surgical nurses to experience healthcare in different cultural settings.
  • Networking Events: Attend nursing conferences or networking events to connect with professionals who can guide you to available internship opportunities.
  • Online Job Platforms: Regularly check online job platforms that specialize in healthcare positions for updated internship listings in surgical nursing.

Step 4: Aim to Get Certified 

If you wish to enhance your career opportunities in nursing, aim to get certified. Though this certification is not legally mandated— it is a valuable asset. A prime example is the Medical-Surgical Nursing Board Certification offered by the American Nurses Credentialing Center

To get this special certification, you need to have worked as a nurse for two years, with 2,000 hours focused on surgical nursing in the last three years. You also have to finish 30 hours of continuing education.

Having this certification is important because it goes beyond what employers prefer. Surveys and studies from the American Board of Nursing Specialists show that certified nurses are usually more skilled and confident in their specific areas. Another study also showed that certified surgical nurses tend to be better at critical thinking, leading to improved outcomes for patients.

Moreover, certification serves as a testament to a nurse’s commitment to professional development. Employers are increasingly recognizing the value of certified staff, with many healthcare institutions actively seeking out certified nurses to elevate the standard of care provided. 

In fact, a report by the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses suggests that certified nurses contribute significantly to the overall improvement of patient safety and quality of care within healthcare settings. Furthermore, certified nurses often enjoy a competitive edge in the job market, with higher chances of career advancement and increased earning potential. 

The American Nurses Credentialing Center’s certification is widely acknowledged and respected, with its recognition serving as a hallmark of excellence in the field. In a survey conducted by Healthcare Research and Quality, it was found that certified nurses are more likely to assume leadership roles and participate in research initiatives, thereby contributing to advancements in the nursing profession.

What’s the Career Outlook for Surgical Nurses?

All registered nursing jobs including surgical nursing jobs are expected to grow by 6% from 2022 to 2032, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is about the same as many other jobs during that time. The need for surgical nurses is going up because more people are getting older, and healthcare services are becoming more important. 

Right now, there are around 3 million registered nurses in the U.S., showing that nursing is an important and growing part of healthcare jobs. What’s more, is the numerous job opportunities available to you as an aspiring surgical nurse. View the next section for an insight. 

Surgical Nurse Popular Career Specialties

What are the Job Opportunities for Surgical Nurses?

Surgical operations demand various nursing roles, and even outside of the operational room, there are other delegations to which a surgical nurse can be assigned.

Here’s a list:

  • Operating Room Nurse: As a surgical nurse, you can work directly in the operating room, assisting surgeons during procedures, managing patient care, and ensuring a sterile environment.
  • Perioperative Nurse: Perioperative nurses cover the entire surgical process, from preoperative assessments to postoperative care, coordinating patient needs at every stage.
  • Surgical Intensive Care Unit (SICU) Nurse: SICU nurses care for patients who require intensive postoperative monitoring and support, often in critical or unstable conditions.
  • Ambulatory Surgery Center Nurse: Working in outpatient surgery centers, you would assist with various surgical procedures, ensuring patient safety and a smooth recovery process.
  • Surgical Services Educator: Transition into an educational role, teaching and training other nurses or healthcare professionals in surgical procedures and best practices.
  • Trauma Nurse Coordinator: In trauma centers or hospitals, coordinate and manage care for patients with traumatic injuries, often involving surgical interventions.
  • Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS) – Surgical Focus: Pursue a role as a CNS specializing in surgical care, providing expertise, guidance, and support to improve patient outcomes within the surgical setting.
  • Nurse Navigator – Surgical Oncology: Assist patients through the complex process of surgical oncology, offering guidance, education, and support from diagnosis through treatment.
  • Travel Surgical Nurse: Explore opportunities as a travel nurse specializing in surgical care, gaining experience in different healthcare settings and regions.
  • Research Nurse in Surgical Trials: Contribute to medical advancements by working as a research nurse in clinical trials focused on surgical procedures and interventions.
  • Nurse Manager – Surgical Services: Progress into a leadership role overseeing the day-to-day operations of surgical departments, managing staff, and ensuring quality patient care.
  • Post-Anesthesia Care Unit (PACU) Nurse: Focus on caring for patients recovering from anesthesia after surgery, monitoring vital signs and ensuring a smooth transition to the recovery phase.
  • Instrumentation Nurse: Specialize in handling and managing surgical instruments, ensuring their proper sterilization, organization, and availability during procedures.
  • These opportunities showcase the diverse career paths available to surgical nurses, allowing for specialization, career progression, and a significant impact on patient care within the surgical setting.

What is the Work-Life Balance of a Surgical Nurse Like?

The work-life balance of a surgical nurse can vary based on factors like their specific job setting, shifts, and individual preferences. Generally, surgical nursing can involve demanding schedules, long shifts, and on-call hours due to the nature of surgical procedures. It might impact personal time and flexibility, but many institutions strive to provide schedules that allow for rest and personal life outside work. 

Nurses often adapt by finding ways to manage their time effectively, ensuring they have adequate rest between shifts, and seeking support from colleagues and management to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Surgical nursing offers a fulfilling career where individuals have the chance to positively impact lives daily. However, nurses must recognize the significance of maintaining a balanced work-life dynamic. Effectively managing personal and professional spheres helps reduce stress, prevent burnout, and prioritize mental and physical well-being. 

Should I Become a Surgical Nurse?

The bottom line for this guide lies in whether you’re truly attuned to the life of a surgical nurse or not. Choosing whether you want to become one or not intertwines with a passion for surgical care and how well you can adapt to high-pressure scenarios.

Becoming a successful and experienced surgical nurse is really not as easy as you might think. However, if your drive remains solid and you’re all about the idea of being a crucial part of saving lives, it might just be your thing. Keep in mind that, it’s not just a job— it’s a whole world of surgical care where every second counts.

Are you seeing yourself staying a surgical nurse in the long run? Think about the decision as you go along the research and educational path to become one. If you still have the zeal to become one by the end of your education and research experience, then go for it— you can do it!

Careers Related to Surgical Nurse

Ajoke Aminu

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