Plastic Surgeon Careers: Job Descriptions & Salary Info

About this article
A plastic surgeon's median annual salary is around $350,000, but is it worth the lengthy education and training requirements? Read real job descriptions and see the truth about career outlook to decide if becoming a plastic surgeon is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Plastic Surgeon Career

With a high salary and faster-than-average employment growth outlook, a career as a plastic surgeon may seem appealing. Read on to see pros and cons of this career.

Pros of a Plastic Surgeon Career
High salary (median yearly salary of about $350,000)*
Opportunity to help others**
Faster-than-average outlook is predicted for physicians and surgeons (18% from 2012-2022)**
Many specialties exist within the field (for example, cosmetic surgery, reconstructive surgery and hand surgery)***

Cons of a Plastic Surgeon Career
Education and training are extensive and costly (generally around 14 years of postsecondary education and training are required)**
Hours may be long and irregular**
Entry into medical school is highly competitive**
May stand for long periods**

Sources: *Salary.com, **U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, ***Stanford School of Medicine.

Career Information

Job Description and Duties

Plastic surgeons work in hospitals and private clinics, correcting physical deformities, reconstructing body parts and performing cosmetic surgeries. They use a variety of instruments to perform operations while patients are under anesthesia. As a plastic surgeon, you'll examine and counsel patients, perform tests and conduct follow-up visits. In this field, you'll work with other physicians and medical staff, including nurses, anesthetists and medical assistants.

Salary and Outlook Info

According to data from Salary.com, the median yearly income for plastic/reconstructive surgeons was about $350,000 as of September 2015. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that jobs for physicians and surgeons could grow by 18% from 2012-2022. This outlook was brighter than the national average, according to the BLS.

Career Paths and Specializations

Within the field of plastic surgery, there are many specialties to choose from. Some plastic surgeons work in reconstructive surgery, giving function and beauty to damaged parts of the body. For example, a reconstructive plastic surgeon may reconnect tissues in an injured limb or reconstruct a breast following a mastectomy. Microsurgery is another option within this field. Working as a microsurgeon requires you to reconnect nerves, muscles and tiny tissues.

Some plastic surgeons focus on a specific part of the body. Craniofacial surgeons perform procedures on the face, head and skull. Oral and maxillofacial surgeons deal with matters of the mouth and jaw. Hand surgeons treat hand and limb problems, such as carpal tunnel. Other plastic surgeons specialize in cosmetic surgery and handle aesthetic procedures, such as breast augmentation and liposuction.

Education and Training Requirements

Education and training for plastic surgeons is extensive and generally takes around 14 years to complete. To enter this field, you'll need to earn a D.O. or M.D. after completing your bachelor's degree. There is no designated undergraduate field for plastic surgeons. However, coursework in life sciences, math, communications and physics is necessary. Some students choose a pre-med major. Following undergraduate studies, plastic surgeons must attend four years of medical school. Entry is very competitive and generally depends on undergraduate grades, your Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) score, letters of recommendation and an interview.

Residencies for plastic surgeons usually take six years to complete beyond medical school. You can choose to attend an integrated program, where general and plastic surgery instruction and rotations are combined, or an independent program, which requires you to meet general surgery requirements before beginning plastic surgery rotations. If you plan to specialize in an area such as craniofacial, cosmetic or hand surgery, you might go on to complete a 1-year fellowship program after your residency.

Licensing

Following medical school, plastic surgeons must acquire a license from their state by passing written and practical exams. While state requirements vary, all surgeons must pass either the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination or the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination.

Required Skills

To work as a plastic surgeon, you'll need strong communication skills in order to accurately convey information to your patients. Leadership skills, the ability to solve problems and provide accurate treatment and empathy for your patients are also required.

What Employers Are Looking For

While all employers require plastic surgeons to be educated and licensed, additional qualifications can vary. Take a look at the job postings below from May 2012 to see what employers were seeking.

  • In South Dakota, a fast-growing clinic was seeking an outgoing plastic surgeon to work up to a partnership. Applicants needed to have reconstructive experience and be board certified.
  • A small practice in Iowa was looking for a board-certified plastic surgeon to join its team. Applicants needed to be interested in performing cosmetic surgery and breast reconstruction.
  • In New York, a large, reconstructive surgery practice sought a plastic surgeon to perform hand and skin procedures. Applicants had to feel comfortable working with electronic records.
  • In Minnesota, a diverse practice was looking to hire a plastic surgeon to perform both cosmetic and reconstructive surgeries. Applicants needed an interest in volunteering on medical missions.

How to Beat the Competition

Get Certified

As a plastic surgeon, you can stand out by gaining board certification through the American Board of Plastic Surgery (ABPS). The BLS reports that while certification isn't required, it may be useful when seeking employment. You'll need to demonstrate your expertise by passing a voluntary written and oral exam. To remain board certified, you must stay abreast of industry trends and technology, demonstrate a commitment to safety and display a high standard of ethics and communication.

Alternative Career Paths

If you want to help people by working in the medical field but fear the debt and educational requirements that come with working as a plastic surgeon, you may find appeal in a physician's assistant (PA) career. In this position, you'll provide care to patients under the supervision of a doctor or surgeon. Duties can include performing physical exams, diagnosing ailments, writing prescriptions and counseling patients. To become a PA, you'll need a master's degree and a license from your state. This career has a much faster-than-average predicted outlook of 30% employment growth from 2010-2020, according to the BLS. Outlook is brightest in rural and underserved areas and in the field of primary care. The BLS reported that, as of May 2011, the average yearly salary for a physician's assistant was about $89,000.

If you prefer to work behind-the-scenes, you may choose to work in the field of medical science. Using trials and studies, medical scientists improve technology and treatments that pertain to human health. To work as a medical scientist, you'll need a high level of education. A Ph.D., M.D. or both are typically required. However, outlook is bright for this field. The BLS predicts job growth of 36% from 2010-2020. The average salary for a medical scientist was about $88,000 as of May 2011, according to the BLS.

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