Becoming an Anesthesiologist: Salary Information & Job Description

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An anesthesiologist's mean annual salary is about $246,000, but is it worth the education requirements and debt? Get the truth about the job duties and career prospects to decide if it's the right career for you.
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The Pros and Cons of a Career in Anesthesiology

An anesthesiologist works as the mastermind behind keeping patients unconscious during surgery and helping manage their pain afterward. Read on for more of the pros and cons of the field to see if anesthesiology can be the right career fit for you.

Pros of Being an Anesthesiologist
High paying (roughly $246,000 mean annual salary)*
Job security (expected 18% job growth through 2022 for all physicians and surgeons)*
Make a living by improving patients' lives*
Among the better work-life balances in the medical profession**
Lots of flexibility with job location*

Cons of Being an Anesthesiologist
Over ten years of schooling*
Workdays can still be long (60+ hours per week) and can include evenings, weekends and holidays*
Exposure to blood and internal organs*
Getting residency positions in this specialization can be very competitive**
Requires high level of responsibility and potential stress*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Association of American Medical Colleges.

Essential Career Info

Job Duties

It's an anesthesiologist's job to administer anesthesia to a patient who is undergoing a surgical procedure. Because too much, too little or the wrong kind of anesthesia can be fatal, it's crucial that the anesthesiologist does his or her job correctly. This entails consulting with the patient and surgical team before a procedure, monitoring the patient's vital signs throughout the procedure, adjusting levels of anesthesia as necessary, and creating a plan for pain management afterwards. If you're considering a career as an anesthesiologist, you must be highly detail-oriented and thorough in your examination of a patient's file so that you don't make a potentially lethal mistake. The pressure of having someone's life in your hands can be very stressful, so it's important to think about whether you'd be comfortable with that level of responsibility.

Salary

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, anesthesiologists do tend to earn high salaries (the mean annual salary was around $246,000 in 2014) and have better schedules than other members of the medical profession, but that is after over a decade of expensive schooling and likely over $140,000 of debt, as estimated by the most recent data available from U.S. News & World Report.

Career Paths and Specializations

If you're interested in anesthesiology, but hate hospitals, that's not necessarily a deal-breaker. Although a majority of anesthesiologists work in hospitals, not all of them do. Anesthesiologists may find work anywhere that medical treatment is provided, including private practices, outpatient and home care centers, and military facilities. If you want to pursue a career outside of a traditional hospital, you may need to have specialized experience, training or education to earn that kind of placement. It should be noted that medical residencies will almost certainly entail extensive training in a traditional hospital.

Anesthesiologists can obtain certifications in a variety of specializations through the American Board of Anesthesiology. Some of these are pain medicine, sleep medicine, hospice and palliative medicine, and pediatric anesthesiology. Some anesthesiologists also specialize in critical care medicine, which means working with critically ill and injured patients in the middle of crisis situations. Oftentimes anesthesiologists will be expected to work across specializations, though some may work specifically within one.

What Are the Requirements?

An anesthesiologist is a medical doctor, so you will need to have a strong aptitude for math and science if you want to become one. You will have to be a pre-medical undergraduate student, and a significant portion of your college courses will be in biology, chemistry, physics and advanced mathematics. Admission to medical school is very competitive, so you will need to have excellent grades (especially in your science courses). For example, in 2010 the students admitted to medical school at Harvard had an average 3.8 GPA, while the University of Utah School of Medicine requires a minimum 3.0 GPA. You will also need high Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) scores. (The Princeton Review estimates that an average 30 MCAT score is required, out of a possible 45.) Upon graduation from medical school (which typically takes four years), you will need to earn your medical license and complete a 4-year-long residency in anesthesiology before getting certified by an accredited board.

What Employers Are Looking for

Because anesthesiologists are typically in-demand anywhere that there are hospitals, the main requirement for getting a job as an anesthesiologist is to have the required education and training. Many anesthesiologist job postings tend to specify the kind of working environment the potential hire can expect to find. Below are some examples of jobs postings open during January 2012:

  • A private practice in Iowa is looking for an anesthesiologist to personally provide anesthesia to patients 50% of the time. The job posting also specifies that the position frequently entails cardiac anesthesia, obstetric anesthesia and pediatric anesthesia.
  • A hospital outside of Chicago is seeking a licensed anesthesiologist with 5-7 years of professional experience who can medically direct nurse anesthetists and other members of an anesthesiology care team.
  • A pain clinic in Washington state advertised for an anesthesiologist who can be responsible for both chronic pain management and acute pain service and will never be personally providing anesthesia care to patients.

How to Make Your Skills Stand out in the Field

As medical technology continues to advance, anesthesiologists can stay in-demand by familiarizing themselves with latest techniques, equipment and procedures in their fields. Embracing and mastering the relevant technology can help anesthesiologists earn the most desirable placements and increase their earnings. Improvements to anesthesiology tend to focus around making anesthesia less invasive, risky or otherwise unpleasant for the patient, and is an important part of improving overall patient care. Joining a professional organization like the Society for Technology in Anesthesia could help anesthesiologists stay on top of the latest developments in the field while making professional connections. Additionally, obtaining certifications in the different subspecialties recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties (e.g., critical care, pain medicine, sleep medicine, etc.) can make you a more attractive candidate in the job market.

Other Careers to Consider

If the length of study or the level of debt required to become an anesthesiologist are deterrents, but you're still interested in the field, you can consider becoming a nurse anesthetist. Nurse anesthetists often work on 'Anesthesia Care Teams' or can work independently to deliver anesthesia to patients. The amount of supervision that a nurse anesthetist is required to have while practicing depends upon the state. Nurse anesthetists' education starts with a bachelor's degree in nursing (or a similar field) and licensure as a registered nurse. An additional combination of experience and graduate-level schooling is required to become a nurse anesthetist, which typically takes an additional 3-4 years. According to the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists (AANA), nurse anesthetists are among the best paid nursing professionals, earning around $160,000 a year during 2005. And, like anesthesiologists, nurse anesthetists have the opportunity to work in a variety of patient care settings.

If you're interested in the science of medicine, but don't want a position with much patient interaction, you could consider a career in medical research. Medical researchers are crucial to the development of more effective medications and treatments, including anesthesia, but tend to have less direct involvement with patients. They are less involved in high-stress life-and-death situations than anesthesiologists or other physicians. Medical researchers may have a Ph.D. in a relevant field of science, a traditional M.D. or both degrees. Medical researchers work in hospitals, universities or privately-owned labs, developing and improving medical treatments.

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