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How to Become a Surgeon

By Anita Akpuoforba


Pursuing a career as a surgeon can feel like answering a higher calling, given that the fate of numerous individuals rests quite literally in your hands. This path demands exceptional skills, extensive training, and an unwavering dedication to excel; otherwise, the consequences for patients can be dire.

If you believe you possess the right resolve and are prepared to invest the effort, here is a comprehensive guide to what it takes to become a successful surgeon.

Career Summary

Surgeon Salary

Surgeon Salary

A surgeon’s salary ranks among the highest in the labor market, due to the peculiar nature of their job, which requires that mistakes are kept to the barest minimum to prevent the loss of lives.

According to Glassdoor, the estimated surgeon salary that can be earned in the United States is $261,432 per year, with an average salary of $231,949 per year.

A breakdown of this salary scale can be observed below:

  • Entry Salary (US$152k)
  • Median Salary (US$261k)
  • Executive Salary (US$481k)

Above the apex level listed, surgeons have the potential to earn even higher salaries, depending on their specialization, employer, or if they choose to open their own private practice.

Surgeon Job Description

Any medical professional who specializes in performing surgical procedures to treat injuries, diseases, and various medical conditions is called a surgeon. They are also involved in the diagnosis and planning of surgical interventions to ensure they can cater to any problems that might arise during surgery.

The surgeon job description does not include performing routine physical examinations. This is usually relegated to general practitioners.

Surgeon Career Progression

  • Attending Surgeon: An attending surgeon’s job description includes performing surgeries independently, treating patients, and collaborating with medical teams. This is the initial stage where you gain experience in various surgical procedures.
  • Senior Attending Surgeon: At this stage, you lead surgical teams in complex procedures, build expertise in specific surgeries, and offer guidance to junior attending surgeons. Your experience allows you to take on more challenging cases.
  • Surgical Director or Division Chief: Overseeing a surgical department or division, you manage operations, allocate resources, and make decisions related to patient care. You collaborate with hospital administration for strategic planning.
  • Lead Surgeon or Surgical Innovator: As a lead surgeon, you innovate new techniques, refine procedures, and contribute to surgical advancements. You collaborate with research institutions and industry partners to improve patient care.
  • Medical Director or Program Director: In a leadership role, you oversee surgical training programs, ensure educational quality, and guide residents’ progress. Your expertise contributes to maintaining high standards of surgical education.
  • Clinical Consultant: Transitioning into consulting, you advise medical device companies on product development, contribute expertise on surgical techniques, and play a role in advancing surgical instruments and technologies.
Surgeon Career Progression


  • Personal fulfillment from impacting lives.
  • High earning potential.
  • A wide range of specialties to choose from.
  • Job security.
  • Respected by medical peers.


  • Demanding work hours.
  • Potential for burnout due to the physical demands of the job.
  • High-stress environment at the workplace.
  • The emotional toll of delivering difficult news to patients.
  • Risk of medical errors during surgery.

Valuable Skills to Have as a Surgeon

  • Exceptional hand-eye coordination and dexterity.
  • Knowledge of anatomy, physiology, and surgical techniques.
  • Adept at time management.
  • Effective communication skills.
  • Adept at stress management.

Popular Surgeon Specialties

  • Orthopedic Surgery
  • Cardiothoracic Surgery
  • Neurosurgery
  • Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery
  • General Surgery
  • Pediatric Surgery
  • Ophthalmic Surgery

How to become a Surgeon

Surgeon 5 Steps to Career

Surgeon Education Requirements

The surgeon education requirements can be mainly split into three categories: undergraduate studies, medical school, and residency. Each one has different requirements that prospective surgeons need to adhere to if they want to properly navigate this career path.

  • Obtain a Bachelor’s Degree

Start by completing a bachelor’s degree in a pre-medical or related field, which typically requires four years. While there is no specific major requirement, most aspiring surgeons choose subjects like biology, chemistry, or biochemistry.

There are also a variety of institutions you can attend, depending on your location. Since most surgeons have to study science-based courses during their undergraduate days, you would most likely pay fees that are predetermined for such courses.

This often ranges between US$10,000 and US$50,000 or more, depending on whether you are attending a public or private university or if you are an in-state or out-of-state student.

  • Medical School

After completing your bachelor’s degree, you need to attend medical school. The process involves taking the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and achieving a competitive score, which is necessary for applying to and interviewing for medical schools. After getting in, you would study for four years before earning a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree.

Taking the MCAT would cost less than US$500. However, the average cost of medical school per year is between US$39,237 and US$63,630, seemingly more expensive than the undergraduate fees. Luckily, there are loans and scholarships to help offset most of the tuition and practical fees.

Other fees like lodging, feeding, and more are expected to be dealt with by you. The cost of these expenses varies depending on the taste of the medical student.

  • Complete Residency

Another surgeon’s educational requirement is completing a residency program. These programs provide hands-on clinical experience in a specific medical specialty under the guidance of experienced physicians. It can vary in length, typically lasting 3 to 7 years or more, depending on the specialty.

First, medical students apply for residency positions through the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP), also known as “the Match.” The application process involves submitting applications to specific residency programs through the Electronic Residency Application Service (ERAS). This includes your academic and clinical achievements, letters of recommendation, personal statement, and more.

Residency programs then review applications and invite candidates for interviews. After interviews, both applicants and residency programs create rank-order lists in order of preference. Finally, The NRMP uses a computerized algorithm to match applicants to residency programs based on their rank order lists. It is important to note that the Match is binding, meaning that if you are matched to a program, you are committed to entering that program.

Licensing, Certification and Further Studies

  • Obtain a Medical License

To practice as a surgeon, you need to obtain a medical license in the state or country where you plan to work after completing your residency program. For those in the USA, this implies you have to pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE).

This three-part standardized test is designed to examine a medical student’s ability to apply medical information, principles, and concepts to analyzing and resolving medical problems they might experience in real life. Ultimately, those who end up passing have proven that they have the necessary qualifications to provide safe and effective patient care.

  • Board Certification

After completing residency, you can choose to pursue board certification by taking a certification examination administered by a relevant medical specialty board. For intending surgeons, this would typically be the American Board of Surgery (ABS).

Board-certified surgeons are recognized by their peers and patients as having achieved a higher level of competence in their field. It can enhance professional credibility and potentially lead to better job opportunities and higher earning potential.

  • Fellowship (Optional)

Some surgeons choose to pursue fellowship training to specialize further in a specific area of surgery. Fellowships are optional and can provide advanced expertise in areas like pediatric surgery, plastic surgery, trauma surgery, etc.

Its duration can vary based on factors such as the specialty, program requirements, and whether the fellowship includes research or additional training components. But on average, it lasts between 1 and 3 years.

  • Consider Sub-specialization (Optional)

Some surgeons also choose to further specialize in their surgical field. This involves additional training and education to become an expert in a specific aspect of the specialty.

Can I Become a Surgeon Through Online Education?

Due to the hands-on nature of the career path, it is practically impossible to become a surgeon through online education. However, online education can play a role in supplementing your medical knowledge and learning about specific surgical topics via a variety of resources available on the web.

Web Resources to Supplement Your Medical Knowledge

  • Medscape: Medical news, articles, clinical reference tools, and CME opportunities
  • PubMed: This is a database of biomedical literature and research articles
  • Merck Manuals: Comprehensive medical information for professionals and patients
  • ClinicalKey: Access to medical textbooks, journals, multimedia, and clinical guidelines
  • MedCram (YouTube): Educational medical videos covering a wide range of topics
  • American Medical Association (AMA): Resources, research, and guidelines for medical professionals

Practical Experience

What Are the Residency Opportunities for a Surgeon?

You are already aware that completing a residency is one of the many educational requirements for surgeons. It can be likened to going on an internship, with the only striking difference being that you would spend more time on a residency program than on a typical internship.

  • General Surgery Residency: This is a common path for surgeons who want to develop a broad foundation in surgical procedures. General surgery residents often rotate through various surgical specialties, including trauma, abdominal surgery, and more.
  • Orthopedic Surgery Residency: Orthopedic surgeons specialize in musculoskeletal conditions and surgeries, such as joint replacements, fracture repairs, and sports medicine procedures.
  • Neurosurgery Residency: Neurosurgeons focus on surgical procedures related to the nervous system, including the brain and spine. This field requires extensive training and expertise.
  • Cardiothoracic Surgery Residency: Cardiothoracic surgeons specialize in surgical procedures related to the heart and chest, including heart transplants, coronary artery bypass surgery, and valve repairs.
  • Plastic Surgery Residency: Plastic surgeons perform both cosmetic and reconstructive surgeries to enhance appearance or repair defects.
  • Pediatric Surgery Residency: Pediatric surgeons specialize in surgical procedures for infants, children, and adolescents, addressing a range of congenital and acquired conditions.
  • Vascular Surgery Residency: Vascular surgeons focus on the diagnosis and treatment of conditions affecting blood vessels, such as aneurysms and arterial blockages.
  • Urology Residency: Urologists specialize in surgical procedures involving the urinary tract and male reproductive system, including kidney surgeries and prostate procedures.
  • Ophthalmology Residency: Ophthalmologists perform eye surgeries such as cataract removal, laser eye surgeries, and corneal transplants.
  • Otolaryngology (ENT) Residency: ENT surgeons focus on surgical treatments for conditions related to the ear, nose, and throat, including sinus surgeries and ear reconstructions.

What Skills Will I Learn as a Surgeon?

As a surgeon, you will acquire a diverse set of skills that are essential for performing successful surgeries and providing optimal patient care. These skills encompass both medical knowledge and practical abilities.

  • Surgical Technique: You will master various surgical techniques specific to your chosen specialty, whether it’s general surgery, orthopedics, neurosurgery, or another field. This includes learning how to make precise incisions, handle tissues, control bleeding, and suture wounds.
  • Anatomy and Physiology: A deep understanding of human anatomy and physiology is essential for accurately identifying structures, avoiding vital structures, and planning surgeries.
  • Hand-Eye Coordination: Surgical procedures require exceptional hand-eye coordination to perform delicate and intricate maneuvers with precision.
  • Decision-Making: Surgeons need to make critical decisions in real-time during surgeries, especially when unexpected complications arise. You will learn to analyze situations quickly and choose the best course of action.
  • Communication: Effective communication is vital for discussing treatment options with patients and their families, collaborating with medical teams, and providing clear instructions to operating room staff.
  • Patient Assessment: You will learn how to assess patients’ medical histories, physical conditions, and diagnostic results to determine the most appropriate surgical interventions.
  • Teamwork and Leadership: Surgeons collaborate closely with nurses, anesthesiologists, and other medical professionals during surgeries. Learning to lead and communicate effectively with the surgical team is crucial for patient safety.
  • Time Management: Surgical procedures have a set timeframe, and you’ll need to manage your time efficiently to complete surgeries without compromising patient care.
  • Ethical and Professional Standards: Surgeons adhere to high ethical and professional standards. You will learn how to maintain patient confidentiality, respect patient autonomy, and provide compassionate care.

What Is the Work-Life Balance of a Surgeon?

The work-life balance of a surgeon can vary depending on the individual surgeon, the type of surgery they practice, and the setting in which they work. However, in general, surgeons tend to have long hours and irregular schedules. They may be on call 24/7, working nights, weekends,   holidays, and even traveling for work.

The demands of the job can also have an impact on a surgeon’s ability to balance work and life. This includes dealing with the emotional stress of attending to sick and injured patients and working under pressure all the time.

Despite the long hours and demanding work, many surgeons find their jobs to be very rewarding. They enjoy the challenge of the work and the satisfaction of helping patients. They also appreciate the flexibility that their jobs offer, along with the heavy surgeon salary they get paid.

What’s the Career Outlook for Surgeons?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the employment of surgeons will grow by 3% from 2021 to 2031, which is slightly slower than the average for all occupations. One of the reasons this growth is expected is due to the aging population, which will lead to an increased demand for surgical procedures.

Another reason lies in new technological advances in surgery that make it possible to perform more complex procedures that were too technical for surgeons to do. Additional demand might also increase due to many surgeons retiring during the decade.

This means it won’t be difficult to find a job when you are done with your residency and want to kickstart your career properly.

What Are the Job Opportunities for a Surgeon?

As a surgeon, you have a wide range of job opportunities available to you. Your specialization and experience will play a significant role in determining the specific roles you can pursue.

  • Hospital Surgeon: Many surgeons work as hospital-based practitioners, performing surgeries and providing post-operative care to patients. This can include general surgeons, orthopedic surgeons, cardiothoracic surgeons, neurosurgeons, and more.
  • Private Practice: Surgeons can establish their own private practice, where they offer surgical services to patients. This allows for greater autonomy in patient care and business management.
  • Academic Surgeon: Academic institutions often hire surgeons to combine clinical practice with teaching and research. Academic surgeons may teach medical students, supervise residents, and conduct medical research.
  • Consultant Surgeon: Experienced surgeons may work as consultants, offering their expertise to hospitals, healthcare organizations, and medical facilities. They may assist with complex cases or offer second opinions.
  • Surgical Subspecialist: Surgeons can specialize further in specific subspecialties within their field. For example, orthopedic surgeons can specialize in sports medicine, joint replacement, or spinal surgery.
  • Trauma Surgeon: Trauma surgeons specialize in treating patients with traumatic injuries, often working in emergency departments and trauma centers.
  • Military Surgeon: Military surgeons provide medical care to military personnel and their families. They may work in military hospitals or deploy to field hospitals in conflict zones.
  • Global Health Surgeon: Some surgeons choose to work in underserved regions or countries, providing much-needed surgical care to populations with limited access to healthcare.
  • Researcher: Surgeons with a strong interest in research can contribute to medical advancements by conducting clinical trials and studies and publishing research findings.
  • Medical Director: Experienced surgeons can take on leadership roles as medical directors in hospitals or healthcare organizations, overseeing surgical departments and ensuring quality patient care.

What Types of Companies Hire a Surgeon?

Surgeons are primarily hired by medical institutions and healthcare organizations due to the specialized nature of their work.

Some of the types of companies and institutions that hire surgeons include:

  • Hospitals: General and specialized hospitals employ surgeons to perform surgeries and manage patient care.
  • Clinics: Surgical clinics, whether general or specialized (such as orthopedic clinics), hire surgeons to provide surgical services to patients.
  • Academic Institutions: Medical schools and universities hire surgeons for teaching, research, and clinical practice.
  • Healthcare Networks: Large healthcare networks or systems often have multiple hospitals and clinics where surgeons can be employed.
  • Trauma Centers: Surgeons with trauma training are hired by trauma centers to provide immediate surgical care to critically injured patients.
  • Transplant Centers: Hospitals with organ transplant programs hire transplant surgeons to perform complex organ transplant surgeries.
  • Research Institutions: Research institutions hire surgeons for clinical trials, medical research, and advancements in surgical techniques.
  • Medical Device Companies: Some surgeons work with medical device companies as consultants or advisors for product development and testing.
  • Government and Military: Military medical facilities and government health agencies may hire surgeons to provide medical services.

Should I become a Surgeon?

Deciding whether to pursue a career as a surgeon is a deeply personal choice. To help you make an informed decision, consider several key aspects.

  • Passion for Medicine and Helping: Do you have a genuine passion for medicine and helping others? Dedication to patient well-being and prioritizing their needs are vital traits, so you need to thoroughly consider this.
  • Readiness for Sacrifices: The path to becoming a surgeon demands years of rigorous education, training, and long hours. If you’re not prepared for these sacrifices, surgery might not be suitable.
  • Physical and Emotional Resilience: Can you handle the emotional stress of patient care? Can you handle the stress of a fast-paced environment? Looking back at past situations in your life and how you responded to them can help you figure out the answers.

If you answered positively to these questions, a surgical career might align with your strengths. Nevertheless, remember that individual preferences vary, so you would need to do thorough research and have conversations with practicing surgeons who can provide valuable insights on how to become a surgeon.

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Anita Akpuoforba

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