How to Become a Surgeon in 2024

December 16, 2023

how to become a surgeon, orthopedic, general, cardiothoeracic

Are you considering becoming a surgeon? This can be an excellent career path for motivated students, since surgical jobs are challenging, lucrative, and involve making positive impacts on many lives. However, becoming a surgeon is no easy feat. How long does it take to become a surgeon? What would it involve to become a general surgeon, versus becoming an orthopedic surgeon, or becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon? Continue reading for information about types of surgical careers, as well as a timeline for becoming a surgeon.

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What’s Involved in a Career as a Surgeon?

Yes, the education for being a surgeon takes time, but the time commitment does not stop there. The daily life of a surgeon involves long hours of work and a range of responsibilities before, during, and after surgical procedures.

First, surgeons must diagnose conditions and give patients the necessary information for preparing for their surgical procedures. During the surgery itself, surgeons lead teams of assistants, technicians, and anesthesiologists. The surgery requires precision and patience, and even afterward, surgeons provide treatment and care. This includes pain management, infection control, and any necessary follow-up procedures.

So, the skills required for being a surgeon are physical, mental, and social. Surgeons must demonstrate a willingness to work long hours, precision, focus decision-making abilities, teamwork and communication skills, physical stamina, hand-eye coordination, emotional resilience, adaptability to changing situations, and an ability to remain calm under pressure.

How to Become a Surgeon – Types of Surgeons

Here are ten of the kinds of surgeries that students may decide to specialize in, depending on their interests and skills. This list certainly doesn’t cover it all, but it demonstrates the vast range of specialties:

1) Cardiothoracic Surgery

This specialty includes conditions of the heart, lungs, and other structures within the thoracic cavity (in other words, organs within the chest). A cardiothoracic surgeon might treat issues from coronary artery disease to problems with swallowing, and would be the one to perform a heart or lung transplant.

2) Obstetrics/Gynecology

While this is a broad branch of medicine (often referred to as OB/GYN), surgery in this specialization includes procedures around pregnancy and labor. Minor office procedures include colposcopy, endometrial biopsy, and vulvar biopsy.

3) Neurological Surgery

This medical specialty concerns treatment of the brain, but not only that. Neurosurgeons also treat issues related to the spinal cord and peripheral nerves throughout the body. They may help patients with issues from back and neck pain, to head injuries, to Parkinson’s disease.

4) Ophthalmic Surgery

Trained in the field of ophthalmology, an ophthalmic surgeon diagnoses diseases that impact the eyes, and can perform surgeries to correct refractive errors, glaucoma, and cataracts.

5) Orthopedic Surgery

An orthopedic surgeon specializes in musculoskeletal injuries and diseases, treating sports injuries, ruptured spinal disks, bone tumors, and various forms of arthritis, among other issues related to bones and muscles.

6) Otorhinolaryngology

Also known as ear, nose, and throat specialists, these surgeons manage conditions related to hearing, smell, and taste, as well as those that affect voice, breathing, and swallowing. They are also often involved in facial cosmetic surgery.

7) Pediatric Surgery

Pediatric surgeons treat children from birth through adolescence with surgical needs. These needs can range from surgical repair of birth defects, to diagnoses and surgical care of cancers, to emergency procedures such as appendectomies. Pediatric surgeons are known for examining and treating children in a way that helps them feel safe and at ease. So if you want to be a surgeon and you’re also good with kids, this could be a great field for you.

8) Plastic Surgery

This surgical specialty includes elective procedures for changing one’s appearance, as well as the reconstruction of facial/body tissue due to illness, trauma, or birth disorders. While plastic surgery is known for improving appearances, it is also concerned with restoring function. This is one of the highest-paid surgical fields.

9) Urology

A urologist specializes in diagnosing and treating conditions related to the urinary system, which includes the bladder, kidneys, ureters, and urethra. A surgeon in this field will perform operations such as kidney removals to vasectomies.

10) Vascular Surgery

Vascular surgeons are trained to treat diseases related to blood vessels, which often involve blocked arteries throughout the body (except for the brain and heart).

Income for Surgeons

The median salary for physicians and surgeons in the U.S. in 2022 was $229,300, according to the United States Department of Labor. That said, surgeon salaries depend on type of surgery and location. According to reports, the highest-paid surgeons are Plastic Surgeons, Neurosurgeons, Orthopedic Surgeons, Thoracic Surgeons, Otolaryngologists, and Urologists (different reports offer different orders of these ranking depending on year and location, but you are likely to be well-compensated if you work in any of these fields).

Education and Training Timeline for Becoming a Surgeon

While becoming a surgeon can be a great career move, becoming certified is quite a long process. A student must be willing to complete 13 years of education, more or less, following high school graduation. Additionally, though surgical jobs usually pay very well, undergraduate and medical school degrees can be expensive, and medical students often have to take out loans (top medical programs like Duke University and Harvard University cost over 60k per year). That said, you’ll start earning money once you’re a medical resident. Further, your pay will increase drastically as a full-time surgeon. Continue reading for the most common steps to becoming certified as a surgeon.

Completing Your High School Degree

If you’re still in high school and thinking of becoming a surgeon, you’ll want to earn a high GPA and receive strong scores on SAT or ACT tests (if the colleges you’re applying for require them). You may want to focus on advanced-level math and science courses, especially in your junior and senior years. Not sure what to do with a summer break? Consider pursuing one of these medical internships for high school students.

Completing Your Undergraduate Degree

Then comes your undergraduate degree, which is necessary for getting into medical school. You may want to apply for universities with strong math and science programs, though it turns out that your college major does not necessarily impact your chances of getting into medical school. Many future medical students major in the humanities, as well as the sciences. Either way, you will want to complete course prerequisites for medical school. These include an array of science and writing-oriented classes (here is a list of Harvard Medical School’s prerequisites, for reference). It can also help to take courses in foreign languages, as well as social science areas such as anthropology and sociology.

While in college, you should also work to maintain as high a GPA as possible and participate in relevant extracurricular activities and internships.

Applying for Medical School

An important step will be taking the MCAT, which many students take while still in college (though waiting one or several years is also an option). The MCAT is basically the SAT for medical school entrance, so you should leave yourself a few months to study. The total score between sections ranges from 472 to 528. However, you’ll want to receive a 511 or above to get into a highly-ranked medical school. Click here for further reading on MCAT score ranges and percentiles.

You will want to apply to a selection of medical schools (some experts suggest applying to between 15 and 25 medical schools, though this can get expensive, since each one comes with an application fee). At the moment, the top five surgical programs according to US News & World Report include: Johns Hopkins University, University of California—San Francisco, Harvard University, Duke University, and University of Michigan—Ann Arbor. Especially if you receive high MCAT scores, you may want to consider applying for these programs.

How to Become a Surgeon – Medical School

The first two years of medical school involve taking a variety of classroom courses, not totally unlike being an undergraduate. After these two years, you will take Part 1 of the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE-1), an 8-hour exam divided into 1-hour blocks. You will need to pass this exam in order to move onto the second two years of medical school.

These second two years are focused on practical experience. Year 3 involves clinical rotations, in which you work with a supervisor in a variety of settings to gain experience with different surgical specialties. During this time, you’ll determine which surgical specialty you’re best suited for, if you haven’t already decided. Year 4 involves electives related to this specialty of choice. Following these years, you’ll take USMLE-2 in order to continue onto your residency.

Surgical Residency

During “Match Day,” you are matched with a teaching hospital where you’ll participate in a residency (essentially, a specialized and paid internship). Your match is established by the National Resident Matching Program, which uses a computerized system to match students’ ranked preferences with program directors’ preferences.

Most medical residencies last 3-years, though surgical residencies often last longer (at least 5-years, and up to 8). After the first year of your residency, you will take the third and final part of the licensing exam, USMLE-3. This tests your ability to provide medical care in an unsupervised setting. Many surgeons also become certified through the American Board of Surgery during their residency years. This board certification demonstrates a surgeon’s lifelong commitment to professionalism and quality care, and can increase the likelihood of finding a job.

Optional Surgical Fellowship

Many future surgeons take an additional fellowship after their residencies. This helps them to gain further experience in their specialty fields. Many hospitals offer surgical fellowships, and fellows tend to earn more than residents (though not as much as fully-certified surgeons). To become a surgical fellow, you need to have passed all three USMLE exams and received a medical license. Fellowships usually last between 1 and 3 years.

Finding a Job as a Surgeon

Some surgeons take a job at the place of their residencies, while others look to land elsewhere. Surgeons often work at hospitals, though there are also opportunities at clinics, private practices, and military settings. It’s important to note that though you may now be a qualified surgeon, professionals in this field are never done learning. Surgeons must stay up-to-date with advancing medical practices and fulfill requirements to stay certified.

How to Become a Surgeon – Conclusion

All in all, becoming a surgeon takes years of education, exams, and practical training. Not to mention the high cost of medical school and certification exams. That said, if you have the skill, passion, and determination to make it to your surgical certification, all the hard work can pay off. For information on success in the medical field, check out these articles on how to become a doctor and the best summer programs for pre-med.