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How to Become A Surgeon Complete Guide

How to Become a Surgeon?

Physicians and Surgeons are among the most highly-paid professions in the US, with salaries going up to more than $208,000 per year according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, while the fast-paced world of medicine is an attractive field, it is also among the most challenging ones. Find out all you need to know about the duties of a surgeon, steps to become one and career outlook for surgeons in the US.

What does a Surgeon do?

The basic job description of surgeons is diagnosing and treating injuries and illnesses in patients. In order to do that, they examine patients, take into account their medical histories, prescribe the relevant medicines and perform and interpret diagnostic tests. Surgeons operate on patients to treat various kinds of injuries and illnesses including broken bones, cancers, tumors and different deformities. A large number of surgeons perform general surgery, though many professionals choose to go for a specialization such as neurological surgery (treating the brain and the nervous system), orthopedic surgery (treating of the musculoskeletal system), plastic surgery, reconstructive surgery or cardiovascular surgery.

According to O*Net Online, surgeons perform the following tasks:

  • Operate on patients to treat conditions. 
  • Examine patients to assess general physical condition. 
  • Follow protocols or regulations for healthcare activities. 
  • Analyze patient data to determine patient needs or treatment goals. 
  • Prescribe medications. 
  • Diagnose medical conditions. 
  • Prescribe treatments or therapies. 
  • Advise medical personnel regarding healthcare issues. 
  • Assist healthcare practitioners during surgery. 
  • Supervise patient care personnel. 
  • Record patient medical histories. 
  • Refer patients to other healthcare practitioners or health resources. 
  • Manage healthcare operations. 
  • Order medical supplies or equipment. 
  • Schedule patient procedures or appointments. 
  • Sterilize medical equipment or instruments. 
  • Conduct research to increase knowledge about medical issues.

The following table gives a basic overview of what is required to become a surgeon in the US, along with career details.


Treat diseases, injuries and illnesses by surgical methods, using various instruments and appliances.

Licensure or Certification

National and State-Level licensure is required. Certification is not a compulsion

Job Growth

10-14% (faster than average)

Median Salary (2017)

$208,000 per year

Steps to Become a Surgeon

The path to becoming a surgeon in the US is long and difficult, because of the highly technical nature of the job. Therefore, if you plan on opting for this field, you will need substantial time investment, along with a strong will to work hard. Let’s take a look at the process to become a surgeon in the US:

Step 1: Get a Bachelor’s Degree

Once you have finished high school, the first step would be to get a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution. Even though there is no specific major requirement for aspiring surgeons, it is recommended that you opt to study science at this stage. You may take up courses in biology, chemistry, physics, kinesiology and health sciences. At this stage you can start working towards a career in medicine by getting some real-world experience through internships.

Step 2: Pass the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)

The computer-based standardized test will assess your aptitude towards critical thinking, problem solving, knowledge of scientific concepts, written analysis and scientific principles. You will be required to submit your scores for the MCAT as part of your application for a medical school. This test needs to be taken in the senior year of college, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Step 3: Apply for Medical School

You will need to complete an extensive application process to get into a medical school. Most schools would require you to submit your college transcripts, along with scores from the MCAT and 2-3 letters of recommendation. Schools will also take into account your participation in extracurricular activities, your personality and leadership qualities. Most medical schools will also need you to clear an interview with a panel.

Step 4: Complete Medical School

Once enrolled in a medical school, students will be required to gain an advanced understanding of subjects such as anatomy, microbiology, biochemistry, pathology, medical law and ethics. These courses will count towards the completion of your Medical Doctor (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) Degree.

An M.D. will prepare you for advanced practice of allopathic medicine, while a D.O. will give you understanding and a more holistic view of osteopathic medicine. In the first two years of four-year medical school, you will be taking courses in biochemistry, physiology, pharmacology, pathophysiology, preventive medicine, anatomy and human anatomy. The last two years are dedicated to getting patient care practice and completing clinical rotations under the supervision of senior doctors. Rotations may be in internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, surgery, pediatrics, psychiatry and family practice.

Step 5: Complete a Surgical Residency

Once you have completed medical school, you will need to participate in a residency program in a specialty of your choice. A residency typically takes place in a hospital and can vary in duration, ranging between 3 to 7 years, depending on your specialty. As surgical residents, you will have the opportunity to gain an understanding of various kinds of surgeries, such as neurological, cardiovascular, pediatric, orthopedic or reconstructive. Residents will work in hospitals or surgical centers, under the guidance of experienced surgeons. According to the American Medical Association (AMA), residencies in general surgery typically last around five years, but may go on for an additional two to three years depending on the sub-specialty.

Step 6: Get Licensed

All states require surgeons to be licensed before they can begin practice. The exact requirements for licensure vary from state to state, but most will require candidates to have graduated from an accredited medical school, completed a relevant residency and passed an exam. Holders of an M.D. degree will need to clear the US Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) while D.O. surgeons would have to give the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA). For detailed information on licensing requirements, you are advised to get in touch with your state’s medical board.

Step 7: Consider Certification

Even though this is not mandatory for surgeons, it may increase employment opportunities. M.D.s and D.O.s who intend to get board certification in any specialty may have to spend around 7 years in residency training – the time frame would vary according to the specialty. To become board-certified M.D. or D.O., candidates would have to pass a certification exam administered by organizations such as the American Board of Medical Specialties, American Board of Physician Specialties or the American Osteopathic Association.

Career Outlook for Surgeons

Salary Data for Surgeons

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, surgeons made an annual mean wage of $255,110 as of May 2018. The total number of employees in this field were 34,390. The highest employers of surgeons were the Offices of Physicians with more than 25,000 of the work force employed. General Medical and Surgical Hospitals provided jobs for 6,970 surgeons. The state of California had the highest number of surgeons working in the field with 3,090, followed by Ohio (2,020) and Massachusetts (1,990). The top paying states for surgeons were Wyoming, Wisconsin, Utah, South Dakota and South Carolina.

Job Outlook for Surgeons

A per O*Net Online, the career outlook for surgeons is largely positive, with growth expected to be between 10% and 14%, which is faster than average. The aging population is expected to keep the overall demand for healthcare and surgeons high. As the older population demographic grows, the number of chronic illnesses is increasing resulting in people seeking high levels of medical care.

Job Prospects for Surgeons

Job prospects are expected to be good for nearly all graduates of medical schools, with numerous opportunities for physicians who are willing to work in low-income rural areas. Job prospects will also be good for surgeons who specialize in health issues that mainly affect aging baby boomers.  

Work Environment for Surgeons

Surgeons typically work in various healthcare organizations or hospitals in a group setting that allows them to share a large number of patients with other doctors. Even though this group setting allows them more time off, it gives them less independence than solo practitioners.

Surgeons typically work in sterile environments and may be required to stand for long periods of time. Most surgeons work full time – often working irregular or overnight hours. They may also be required to travel between their offices and hospitals to look after their patients. Emergency visits to hospitals and other healthcare centers are a common phenomenon, especially when on call.

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