How to Become a Surgeon

Learn how to become a surgeon with a medical degree and experience. Find out why surgeons earn one of the top salaries in medicine.

portrait of Meg Whitenton
by Meg Whitenton

Published September 21, 2022

Edited by Kristina Beek
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How to Become a Surgeon
Image credit: Cavan Images / Cavan / Getty Images


Surgeons play a critical role in medicine, lending their specialized expertise to a wide variety of diagnostic, preventative, and restorative procedures. Aspiring surgeons must complete a bachelor's degree, medical degree, and surgical residency to qualify for licensure to practice in their state. The best surgeons are patient, professional, and empathetic.

Surgeons need excellent attention to detail, problem-solving skills, dexterity and physical stamina to succeed in this occupation. Depending on their specialty, surgeons may earn a median annual wage of $255,000-$295,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

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What Is a Surgeon?

Surgeons are responsible for diagnosing and treating conditions that require operative care. Both primary care physicians and surgeons complete medical school and obtain a doctor of medicine (MD) or doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO) license. However, surgeons specialize in treating injuries, diseases, and deformities through surgical procedures.

Examples of conditions requiring a surgeon's care include torn ligaments, cancerous tumors, and cleft palates. Surgeons may work in a hospital or private practice, spending the majority of their 12-28-hour shifts in the operating room. Surgeons may also remain on-call during off-hours. Specialized practitioners include general, critical care, orthopedic, and neurosurgeons.

What Does a Surgeon Do?

Surgeons typically perform either open or minimally-invasive surgeries. Depending on their specialty, surgeons may use different techniques, such as lasers, needles, or radiation. Additionally, the daily responsibilities and scheduled procedures of a plastic surgeon may differ from that of an on-call critical care surgeon, for example.

Physicians and surgeons should aspire to be lifelong learners in their fields of expertise. While residencies are required of all surgeons, fellowships are optional, providing the opportunity to further develop skills and prestige in a subspecialty.

Surgeon Responsibilities

  • Diagnose Conditions: Surgeons diagnose a patient's preoperative condition, then develop a plan for preoperative treatment and discuss with the patient how to prepare for surgery.
  • Lead Surgical Teams: They lead the surgical team, including surgical assistants, surgical technicians, and an anesthesiologist, in performing the operation.
  • Treat Patients: Surgeons also provide postoperative treatment and care, including pain management, wound care, and follow-up surgical procedures.

Surgery Not For You? Check Out These Related Careers.

What Are the Steps to Become a Surgeon?

Most students spend at least 13 years on the path toward becoming a surgeon. Required steps include completing a four-year bachelor's degree, a four-year medical degree, and a minimum-five-year residency requirement. Other steps, like AP or honors classes in high school, gap years, and fellowship experience, differ depending on the student. Explore the academic and clinical requirements for becoming a surgeon below.

Step 1: Take Related AP Courses in High School

Aspiring doctors and surgeons should consider high school AP courses in subjects like chemistry, biology, and physics. High school students who can devote their time and effort to additional AP courses might take AP anatomy or AP physiology, where available. AP courses in these subjects are known to be especially challenging. But, they often enable students to opt out of some similar introductory college courses.

Step 2: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Aspiring surgeons must earn a bachelor's degree on their path toward practicing medicine. Students may wonder about the best major to choose for this profession. Many major in medical-related fields such as biology, chemistry, or human physiology. Aspiring doctors and surgeons in a four-year bachelor's program need a full schedule of STEM classes, such as math and science, and humanities courses.

Students may attend a college that offers a group of courses as a pre-med program. But, learners can still earn the credits they need to qualify for medical school without enrolling in a pre-med program. Required courses may include organic chemistry, microbiology, and psychology. A bachelor's program also emphasizes essential skills like discretion, communication, and teamwork.

Step 3: Gain Practical Experience in the Healthcare Field

Aspiring healthcare professionals need experience before applying to medical school. Hands-on exposure through internships, shadowing, or volunteering in a healthcare setting is necessary for aspiring surgeons to test-drive their chosen careers. Additionally, medical schools will only consider applicants with practical experience as "serious" candidates.

Taking a "gap year" to seek experience between graduating from a bachelor's program and starting a medical degree can build personal character and inspire maturity and professionalism. Students should inquire through their bachelor's program about potential medical assisting, critical care, or clinical internship placement after graduation.

Step 4: Take the MCAT Exam

Any student planning to attend medical school to become a medical practitioner must first take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). The exam tests the skills of aspiring medical school enrollees across four core concept areas: biological and biochemical foundations of living systems; chemical and physical foundations of biological systems; psychological, social, and biological foundations of behavior; and critical analysis and reasoning skills.

The MCAT contains 230 multiple-choice questions and takes just over six hours to complete. Students should take the MCAT in the calendar year before the year they plan to apply to medical school. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) administers the test from January through September. AAMC also offers MCAT prep books and courses.

Step 5: Earn a Medical Degree

Once students have taken the MCAT, they can prepare their applications for medical school. Aspiring surgeons should not limit their applications to surgery-specific medical schools, as there is no such thing. Medical degree programs train students in broad medical skills while facilitating hands-on experience in their desired specialty.

Most medical degrees take four years to complete. Students spend the first two years focusing on microbiology, biochemistry, anatomy, pharmacology, pathology, and pre-clinical training. The final two years include clinical experience in an area of expertise such as surgery.

Step 6: Complete a Residency Program

Once an aspiring surgeon earns their MD, they begin their surgical residency to become eligible for licensure. All medical school graduates participate in a complex matching process to secure a residency in their specialty and location of choice. Most students decide their specialty and begin applying to residencies in their final year of medical school.

Resident surgeons do not necessarily need to decide on a subspecialty. A typical surgical residency requires 40-80 hours per week and can be more taxing than other types of clinical experiences. A residency helps surgeons refine their acute operating skills and on-the-spot decision-making abilities. Surgical residencies last a minimum of five years.

Surgical residents also tend to earn more than other specialties, at $71,545 per year, according to Glassdoor.

Step 7: Begin a Fellowship Program

A surgical fellowship helps surgeons gain specialized, post-residency clinical experience. Fellowships are available in subspecialties like orthopedic, plastic, cardiothoracic surgery, and general surgery. Since fellows have already obtained licensure, they tend to earn more than surgical residents. Fellowships can last for 1-3 years.

Candidates must have completed a residency training program approved by the Residency Review Committee in their preferred surgical specialty and accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education. Candidates can apply directly to some colleges or search for fellowships through an agency like the Fellowship Council.

What to Know Before Becoming a Surgeon

Accreditation

Students should only consider pre-med or bachelor's programs from accredited schools. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) oversees Institutional accreditation, which ensures a program meets national standards of higher education and career preparation. Medical schools require accreditation through the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, recognized by ED as the accreditation standard for programs leading to MD licensure.

Cost

While costs vary by school, students spent $8,500-$38,000 on undergraduate tuition and fees at four-year colleges in 2020-21, according to the NCES. This includes students enrolled in common pre-med majors like biology and does not differentiate between online and on-campus programs. Students must pay $325 to register for the MCAT before applying to medical school.

Applying to medical school requires an initial $170 application fee and $43 per additional school. Once enrolled in a medical degree program, students pay an average of $33,000-$57,000 in first-year tuition, according to the AAMC's 2013-2022 Tuition and Student Fees Report.

Salary

Surgeons earned a median annual wage of $295,000 in May 2021, according to the BLS. Yet, Doximity's 2021 Physician Compensation Report lists higher wages for nearly every common surgical specialty. Colon and rectal surgeons earned the least of all specialties listed, at $445,730, despite still ranking among the 20-highest-paying areas of expertise. Neurosurgeons earned the most at $773,201.

Orthopedic and plastic surgery also draw top salaries. In the broader medical field, surgeons also out-earn other types of medical practitioners including family physicians, pediatricians, and internists, according to the BLS.

Surgeon Salaries by Specialty and Experience Level

Source: Payscale

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Surgeon

What degree do I need to be a surgeon?

Surgeons require a medical degree to become licensed medical practitioners. Before applying to medical school, they must first complete a bachelor's degree and take the MCAT. Most aspiring surgeons choose an undergraduate major in biology, biochemistry, or human physiology.

Aspiring surgeons learn about broad medical practice and policies during their first two years of medical school. Then, they focus on clinical surgical experience in the final two years. Medical degrees prepare surgeons to begin their surgical residency after graduation.

How long does it take to become a surgeon?

Aspiring surgeons can spend up to 13 years meeting the requirements necessary to practice surgery in their desired specialty. Students must complete a four-year bachelor's degree, followed by four years of medical school. Surgeons also spend at least five years in a required residency program after earning their medical degree.

Students may extend the time between earning their bachelor's and medical degrees to accumulate field experience, which can add 1-2 years to the time it takes to become a surgeon. Additionally, surgeons must pursue a fellowship of 1-3 years after completing their residency if they plan to specialize in a particular area of expertise.

How much does it cost to become a surgeon?

The process of becoming a surgeon includes the cost of earning multiple degrees and hundreds of dollars in MCAT and medical school application fees. A 2018 BizFluent article estimated the total cost of becoming a surgeon between $250,000 and $500,000.

Specifically, earning a bachelor's costs $8,500-$38,000 per year, taking the MCAT costs at least $325, applying to med school costs $170 plus $43 per additional school, and earning a medical degree requires annual tuition ranging from $33,000 to $57,000.

How many different types of surgeons are there?

The American College of Surgeons recognizes 14 surgical specialties:

Surgeons may also focus on performing open or minimally invasive surgical procedures. They may operate in a large medical facility such as a hospital or private practice. Some of these specialties require longer residencies or fellowships depending on their intensity.

What does surgeon training look like?

Many aspiring surgeons gather general medical experience after graduating from a bachelor's program and before applying to medical school. However, students officially begin their hands-on training in the final two years of medical school. Here, they undergo supervised training with surgeons treating patients in a clinical setting.

Upon graduating with a medical degree, aspiring surgeons enter into at least five years of surgical residency, assisting surgeons as trainees. Training may include preparing patients for surgery, acting as "first assist" during operations, and providing post-operative care. Fellowships can offer 1-3 years of additional specialized surgical experience.

How much does a surgeon make?

Surgeons can earn annual salaries between $295,000 and $773,000. The average salary of surgeons depends on multiple factors including their surgical specialty, location, and experience. Neurosurgeons top the list, earning $773,201, while colon and rectal surgeons earned $445,730.

Surgeons may earn more or less than their colleagues in other specialties. But, all surgeons earn more than most other types of clinical practitioners, excluding only anesthesiologists and obstetricians and gynecologists, according to the BLS. Even surgeons with the lowest relative incomes earn exponentially more than the average national income of $68,000.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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