Becoming a Surgeon: Careers, Salary Info & Job Description

About this article
A surgeon's mean annual salary is around $240,440. Is it worth the education and training requirements? See real job descriptions and career prospects to find out if becoming a surgeon is right for you.
View available schools

Pros and Cons of Becoming a Surgeon

Surgeons perform complex medical operations in order to help patients recover from numerous ailments, from wisdom teeth removal to triple bypass heart surgery. Read on to learn of important pros and cons in this field to help you decide if this career is right for you.

Pros of Being a Surgeon
Wages are some of the highest out of any occupation (the tenth percentile earned $130,710 in 2014)*
Much faster-than-average employment expected for physicians and surgeons (18% for 2012-2022)*
Variety of specialties and subspecialties available (orthopedic, cardiovascular, neurological, etc.)**
Favorable job prospects, especially in rural or low-income communities*

Cons of Being a Surgeon
Education and training are lengthy (11-16 years)***
Acceptance to med school is competitive*
Educational debt can be substantial (median debt for the class of 2014 was $180,000)***
Potentially high-stress job since surgeons can be responsible for the life of a patient*
Long workweeks and on-call hours*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), **American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS), ***Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).

Career Information

Job Description and Duties

Surgeons use various medical equipment and techniques to perform operations for treating illnesses or injuries. Depending on their background, surgeons can perform vastly different duties or procedures. They must also keep up-to-date with the latest medical breakthroughs and processes.

Examples of diseases or medical conditions general surgeons might deal with are appendicitis, bowel obstructions, tumors, colon inflammation and more. In addition to performing surgeries, they advise patients on healthcare and look at diagnostic tests. Beyond working as a general surgeon, you have the option to specialize in a particular area. Specialties include, but aren't limited to, plastic, pediatric, cardio and neurological surgery.

Career Prospects and Salary

With a projected job growth of 18% between 2012 and 2022, per the BLS, many factors contribute to the favorable job growth predicted in this field. The aging population is increasing, and many elderly patients need more medical tests and operations than the average person. The rise of healthcare industries also factors into more jobs.

The BLS estimated that as of May 2014, surgeons made a mean annual wage of $240,440. The BLS also noted that the bottom tenth percentile of surgeons still earned a healthy annual wage of $130,710.

What Are the Requirements?

Education Requirements

Aspiring surgeons need to complete a bachelor's degree program that emphasizes subjects like biology, physics, chemistry and English. Volunteering at your local hospital in order to get medical experience and extra-curricular activities can give you a more attractive college application. Most students complete a 4-year bachelor's degree program before going on to completing four years of medical school. While it's possible to apply to med school with only three years of college, the BLS states that it's rare for applicants to have those minimum qualifications. You can look for universities that offer an accelerated medical program in which students can receive a bachelor's and medical degree in seven years (instead of eight years).

Before applying to an accredited medical school, you need to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). Because of the competitive nature of the application process, medical schools might require personal interviews with applicants to see if they have leadership skills, excellent academic performance and sound character. Medical school is comprised of classroom and clinical learning, and subjects range from pharmacology to biochemistry. Students also learn ethical medical practices when working with patients. During the last years of medical school, you participate in rotations and learn how to examine, diagnose and care for patients under the supervision of other physicians. You're also able to choose your surgical specialization in the last years of medical school.

Licensure and Residency

All aspiring doctors are required to be state licensed to practice medicine. Specific state requirements vary, but all physicians and surgeons need to pass a national licensure exam. They have the choice to take the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Exam (COMLEX) or the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), depending on whether they earned a Doctor of Medicine or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine in med school.

You also need to complete a lengthy postgraduate training period that involves a surgical residency and possibly a fellowship in a subspecialty. The American Medical Association (AMA) states that the time it takes to complete a residency can vary widely for each program, though general surgery residencies usually last at least five years. You might also choose to complete a specialized residency like neurological or vascular surgery, though you might want to specialize during a post-residency fellowship program instead.

Required Skills and Traits for Surgeons

When you consider this field, you'll want to make sure you have an interest in medicine and how the human body works. Other qualities that may benefit you are being able to keep calm under pressure, since you'll work long and irregular hours and need to make decisions that can affect a person's life. Communication skills and a good bedside manner can help you connect with patients and be sympathetic. You also need to be willing to continue the pursuit of knowledge in order to keep up with current medical practices.

Job Postings from Real Employers

Employers usually specify if they are looking for a special type of surgeon (general, trauma, etc.) and expect that they have met the expected educational, training and licensure requirements. Many preferred board-certified applicants. Here are some job postings from March 2012:

  • A practice in Kentucky seeks a trauma and orthopedic surgeon to work in an underserved area. A medical degree and graduate or fellowship training orthopedic surgery was required, along with the ability to acquire a state medical license.
  • A hospital in Connecticut requires the skills of a trauma surgeon. The applicant should have completed both a 5-year general surgeon residency and a 1-year trauma or critical care fellowship. The surgeon also needs to be board certified in general surgery.
  • A medical center in Nebraska is looking for a board certified/board eligible vascular surgeon. The surgeon also must have endovascular training and current basic life support certification.
  • A children's hospital in Texas sought a pediatric surgeon who has experience in the areas of neurosurgery, urology or orthopedics. Applicants should be board certified or eligible for board certification in pediatric surgery.

How to Maximize Your Skills

Get Specialized

Though all surgeons must be experienced in general surgery to a degree, you might want to specialize according to your interests. This can help you become a unique asset to a hospital or practice that is looking for a specific kind of surgeon. As mentioned before, you can specialize in the required residency period, but you can also choose an optional fellowship program instead. Fellowships typically last 1-3 years, according to the AMA.

Board Certification

Board certification is an optional but important process in which surgeons can demonstrate their proficiency in their field of interest. Many employers and patients prefer surgeons who are board certified, though certification requires extensive examinations from qualified specialists. Board certification also must be renewed every 6-10 years. Renewal of certification must be maintained through additional education and exams.

Other Career to Consider

If the cost and time involved with becoming a surgeon does not appeal to you, then here are some other medical careers you might want to consider.

Registered Nurse (RN)

Registered nurses are involved with a variety of duties like administering drugs, checking intravenous (lines, recording patients' medical histories and working under the supervision of doctors or surgeons. Like surgeons, RNs can work in many settings and specializations; one type of specialized nurse (perioperative nurse) works with surgeons in the operating room. And unlike surgeons, who have to earn a doctorate, RNs have several choices in their level of education. They can attend programs leading to a diploma, associate's degree or bachelor's degree. However, advancement opportunities usually are reserved for RNs who have a bachelor's or even a master's degree.

Aspiring nurses need to enter an accredited nursing program and pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) to practice as licensed nurses. Once they do, the BLS reports that nurses enjoy an expected job growth of 26% for 2010-2020. However, their wages were significantly less than a surgeon's income. In May 2011, the BLS stated that most RNs earned annual wages ranging from $45,000-$97,000.

Physician Assistant (PA)

Like doctors, physician assistants examine patients and take down their medical histories; however, they do so under surgeon and physician supervision. PAs tend to have more forgiving workweeks (40 hours per week) than surgeons. They usually need to earn a bachelor's degree and attend a physician assistant education program, which leads to a master's degree. PAs must become licensed by passing the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants' Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination. They also must pursue additional education to maintain their certification status.

The BLS states that employment opportunities for PAs were expected to increase 30% from 2010-2020 and that their job prospects would be good. According to the BLS, annual wages for most PAs ranged from $61,000-$120,000 in May 2011.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. Purdue University Global

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MS in Nursing
      • Master of Healthcare Admin
    Bachelor's
      • Bachelor: Health Science
      • Bachelors of Science in Nursing - RN to BSN (RN License Required)
      • Bachelor: Healthcare Admin
  • Online Programs Available
    2. Grand Canyon University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • EdD in Organizational Leadership - Health Care Administration
    Master's
      • MBA: Health Systems Management
      • MS in Health Care Administration
    Bachelor's
      • BS in Health Sciences: Professional Development & Advanced Patient Care
      • Bachelor of Science in Behavioral Health Science
      • BS in Health Care Administration
  • Online Programs Available
    3. The George Washington University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MSHS Medical Laboratory Sciences
      • MSHS in Immunohematology and Biotechnology
      • MSHS in Molecular Diagnostic Sciences
      • MSHS in Translational Microbiology
  • Online Programs Available
    4. Regent University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • Doctor of Strategic Leadership - Healthcare Leadership
    Master's
      • Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership - Healthcare Management
      • Master of Business Administration - Healthcare Management
  • Online Programs Available
    5. Herzing University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MBA Dual Concentration: Healthcare Management and Public Safety Leadership
      • MBA Dual Concentration: Healthcare Management and Project Management
    Associate's
      • Associate of Science - Medical Assisting Services
    Certificate
      • Diploma: Medical Assisting
  • Online Programs Available
    6. Abilene Christian University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MBA - Healthcare Administration
      • Master of Science in Management - Healthcare Administration
  • Online Programs Available
    7. Northcentral University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MS - Organizational Leadership: Health Care Administration
  • Campus Locations:
    8. Altierus

    Program Options

    Certificate
      • Surgical Technology
  • Campus and Online Programs
    9. South College

    Program Options

    Bachelor's
      • Bachelor of Science in Health Science with a Concentration in Magnetic Resonance Imaging
      • Bachelor of Science in Health Science with a Concentration in Computed Tomography
    Associate's
      • Associate of Science in Health Science
  • Online Programs Available
    10. Indiana Wesleyan University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Business Administration - Health Care Administration
    Bachelor's
      • B.S. General Studies - Life Sciences
      • B.S. Healthcare Administration
    Associate's
      • A.S. General Studies - Life Sciences

Featured Schools

Purdue University Global

  • MS in Nursing
  • Master of Healthcare Admin
  • Bachelor: Health Science
  • Bachelors of Science in Nursing - RN to BSN (RN License Required)

Which subject are you interested in?

Grand Canyon University

  • EdD in Organizational Leadership - Health Care Administration
  • MBA: Health Systems Management
  • BS in Health Sciences: Professional Development & Advanced Patient Care

What is your highest level of education?

The George Washington University

  • MSHS Medical Laboratory Sciences
  • MSHS in Immunohematology and Biotechnology
  • MSHS in Molecular Diagnostic Sciences

What is your highest level of education?

Regent University

  • Doctor of Strategic Leadership - Healthcare Leadership
  • Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership - Healthcare Management
  • Master of Business Administration - Healthcare Management

What is your highest level of education completed?

Herzing University

  • MBA Dual Concentration: Healthcare Management and Public Safety Leadership
  • Associate of Science - Medical Assisting Services
  • Diploma: Medical Assisting

What is your highest level of education?

Abilene Christian University

  • MBA - Healthcare Administration
  • Master of Science in Management - Healthcare Administration

What is your highest level of education completed?

Northcentral University

  • MS - Organizational Leadership: Health Care Administration

What is your highest level of education?

Altierus

  • Surgical Technology

What is your highest level of education completed?