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How to Become a Surgeon

Alternate Career Titles:

General Surgeon, Operating Surgeon

Surgeon Job Description: Surgeons treat patients for injuries, diseases, illnesses and deformities through invasive, non-invasive or minimally invasive surgeries

Surgeon Salary (Annual): $252,040

Surgeon Salary Range: $120,000 to $400,000

How Long To Become a Surgeon: 12 years

Surgeon Requirements: Doctor of Medicine Degree

Surgeon Medical Career

Become a Surgeon

Career Description

Surgeons have one of the most rewarding and sometimes, the most challenging careers in healthcare. These professionals treat patients who are ill, or who have diseases, deformities or injuries. They use a mixture of non-invasive interventions and invasive techniques which involve the use of precise surgical methods.

Surgeons must first assess their patients histories, physical condition and laboratory results. Following a careful review of the patient’s data, they diagnose the patient’s disorder and devise a treatment plan that may or may not include surgery. When appropriate, they may refer the patient to another healthcare professional.

“A career in surgery is very rewarding,” Shawn Tsuda, MD FACS, a Minimally Invasive and Robotic Surgeon practicing in Las Vegas, NV, said. “I would describe being a Surgeon as having the privilege to do something extraordinary, technically challenging, intense and deeply personal with another human being, on almost a daily basis. Then, we are able to go home to our families and live a very ordinary life.”

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Education & Training

“Becoming a Surgeon is one of the longest educational and training processes of any career in the world. For this reason, the commitment must be started with open eyes,” Tsuda advised.

The path to becoming a Surgeon usually begins in high school when students pursue the science-specific courses necessary to help them gain admittance to a strong pre-med or basic science bachelor’s degree program at a college or university. A bachelor’s degree typically takes 4 years to obtain and frequently includes classes in anatomy, biology, chemistry, physics, and english. However, some students enter medical school without the typical pre-med undergraduate degree.

“Many might be surprised to find that a degree in the biomedical sciences are not necessary, or even encouraged,” Tsuda explained. “Students have entered medical school with degrees in English literature, music, history, political science – almost anything you can think of. Of course, there are some pre-medical credits that will be required in addition to your degree.”

After completing an undergraduate degree, learners must next prepare for and take their Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT which is a core requirement of applying to medical school. After taking this exam and being accepted to medical schools, learners can expect to dedicate another four years of study obtaining their Doctorate of Medicine (MD) or Doctorate of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree. Again, these programs are science-intensive and will include instruction on human health, disease, anatomy, histology, etc. Typically during the last two years of medical school, students will engage in clinical rotations which will also include exposure to the topic of surgery.

Once a learner has graduated from medical school and passed their final exams, they typically select a specialty and begin additional training in the form of a residency that may last anywhere from 3 to 7 years depending on the specialty. The residents work under the supervision of more experienced professionals in the specialized field.. Surgical residencies last a minimum of five years and may last as long as seven years. Newly graduated doctors must complete one year as an internship or residency before they can apply for a license to practice medicine.

“A Doctorate of Medicine is awarded after successful completion of medical school. However, a license to practice is only achievable by graduating from a qualifying residency program, which varies in length,” Tsuda affirmed.


The most common route for advancement as a surgeon is to become an expert in one particular area of surgery and sub-specialize in a particular procedure. Outside of specific procedures, surgeons also advanced their careers becoming clinical educators, researchers, professors or policy makers. Becoming a clinical leader within a hospital or practice can further increase a surgeon’s reputation and earning potential.

“There are numerous career paths able to be pursued within the specialty of surgery,” Dr. Tsuda noted. “Another advancement option is to enter administrative practice, consulting for insurance companies or industry, consulting for simulation and skills training. These often can be done either with on-the-job experience, a supplemental degree such as a Master’s in Business Administration or a certification possible through online school or night school.”

Experience & Skills

The most common desired experience and skills I have seen among recruiters are an affinity for hard work, attention to detail, resilience, self-awareness of one’s weaknesses and attributes, and most mundanely, an ability for memory and critical thinking that is usually tested by standardized exams,” Tsuda stressed.

Additionally, surgeons should possess great knowledge about the vast range of surgical tools, sterilization methods and safety protocols, and should remain up-to-date on industry advancements and topics of interest. They should also have strong physicality and dexterity, enabling them to be on their feet performing surgeries sometimes lasting over 24 hours, and to be using their hands to create precise incisions and pursue operational methods.

“While one might assume that technical dexterity, the ability to perform under pressure, and a nonchalant towards blood and dissection may be innate requirements for surgery, these are all things that can be learned,” Tsuda emphasized. “Usually a week in the gross anatomy lab in medical school desensitizes students enough and opens their eyes to all of the wonders of the human anatomy.”


“There really is no one desirable personality type for becoming a Surgeon,” Tsuda noted.

However, given the high stress environments encountered during surgery, surgeons should be critical thinkers who work well under pressure. Those in careers in medicine should also be very focused and detail oriented as the slightest error during a surgical procedure can have vast and potentially fatal effects.

Furthermore, surgeons should be Strong communicators, as they need to explain surgical procedures to patients and healthcare staff members, including Registered Nurses, Nurse Practitioners and Physician Assistants. They must also provide clear and precise instructions to staff members assisting with a procedure, such as a Surgical Assistant or Surgical Technologist. Lastly, professionals in this role should be resourceful, dedicated to the profession, honest and committed to improving the lives of their patients.

“The typical belief is that a surgeon has a Type A personality, is gruff, harsh and even egotistical,” Tsuda shared. “This is far from the truth, as there are surgeons of all dispositions. Some of the best and most successful surgeons are known to exhibit patience, compassion and a quiet, listening demeanor.”


Most Surgeons are employed full-time and work more than 40 hours per week. Those who work in emergency settings, such as hospitals, may find themselves needing to work evenings, nights, weekends or holidays to meet patient demand. However, Surgeons who are employed in settings where procedures are scheduled are able to work a more typical 40-hour workweek.

“Another misconception of surgery is that this field creates a busy lifestyle without time for a personal life,” Tsuda said. “While this may have been historically true, today a surgeon’s lifestyle can molded by their wants and needs.”

While employment as a surgeon may be considered one of the most prestigious careers in healthcare, this role can obviously be one of the most stressful. During a typical day in this career, professionals are expected to analyze patient data, perform the necessary and scheduled operations, follow all safety and regulatory protocols and provide instruction to other healthcare team members. The demands of such leadership and high-stakes performance requirements can be very stressful.

Those interested in this career should be aware that the responsibilities of the profession will be physically demanding, requiring great manual dexterity, focus and potentially long hours on one’s feet. The career can also be intellectually exhausting. In addition to focusing on intense surgical demands, surgeons also have to deal with a daily barrage of emails, phone conversations, strict deadlines, stressed patients and staff members who need important decisions made about care plans each day.

“Note, there is growing evidence that burnout happens more often than was previously thought in this career,” Dr. Tsuda warned. “Most Surgeons would consider an ideal lifestyle one where they work 5 days per week, 8 hours per day, perhaps needing to be on-call once every four to six weekends, and taking a 24-hour on-call shift at the hospital 3 to four times per month.”


Employment of Surgeons is on the rise, and the career is expected to grow 7 percent over the next decade. This growth can largely be attributed to an aging baby boom population which will more often require surgical procedures. Also, there is an increased awareness regarding many chronic conditions and many patients now choose to seek out surgical remedies made possible through healthcare advancements.

The top employers of surgeons are the offices of Family Physicians and Pediatricians, general medical and surgical hospitals, outpatient care centers, the offices of other health practitioners and specialty hospitals. The state which employs the greatest number of surgeons is California, followed by Texas, Massachusetts, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

“I recommend finding a surgeon, either through family, friends, word-of-mouth or a simple internet search, and shadowing them prior to employment,” Tsuda advised. “This will allow prospective students to see what their life is like and to get their perspectives before entering this career in healthcare.”


The median annual wage for surgeon’s is approximately $252,040. While the highest earning 10 percent was recorded to have made more than $400,000, the lowest 10 percent earned less than $120,000. In this healthcare career, wages are typically dependent on a surgeon’s experience, their specialty and where they choose to practice in terms of demographic and employment setting.

“There is a wide distribution of salaries, as many surgeons make under $100,000 by choice, while others earn over $1,000,000 annually,” Shawn explained. “Salary is not a competition, and a lifestyle should be considered first, before targeting or negotiating a salary.”

Wages among surgeons are some of the highest throughout all occupations. The highest paying employers of surgeons are specialty hospitals, ambulatory healthcare services, medical and diagnostic laboratories, the local government and the offices of physicians. The top paying states for this occupation are Wyoming, West Virginia, South Dakota, Oregon and New Hampshire.

Unions, Groups and Associations

The American Surgical Association (ASA) is a prestigious surgical organization. The organization is designed and dedicated to advocating and promoting excellence, innovation and integrity in science, education and patient care throughout the surgical care specialty.

The American Society of General Surgeons (ASGS) is an organization which advocates for the voices of all General Surgeons. This organization does so through helping to enhance the quality of care provided by General Surgeons in the spirit of compassion and empathy. Additionally ASGS seeks to serve as a knowledgeable and respected advocate for these professionals, while remaining dedicated to maintaining the highest standards of practice and of quality care throughout the specialty.

The Association of Women Surgeons (AWS) is an organization committed to supporting women surgeons at various stages in their career. This support starts in medical school and lasts through retirement. This organization’s mission is to engage current and future women surgeons to realize their professional and personal goals, empower women to succeed and to offer mentorship, education and a networking community that promotes their contributions and achievements as students, surgeons and leaders.

The Association for Surgical Education (ASE) is designed to promote, recognize and reward excellence, innovation and scholarship in surgical education. The organization works to achieve this goal through developing innovative teaching aids and programs, maintaining an educational clearinghouse, designing effective faculty development programs and promoting surgical support and research.

Getting Started

  • Apply to and enroll in a Bachelor’s Degree program
  • Upon entry, contact a Career Counselor at the college or university
  • Converse with this Counselor about the pathway to entering medical school
  • Take the Medical College Admissions Test
  • Apply to medical schools
  • Network with Surgeons and other healthcare professionals
  • Graduate from medical school and begin a residency

All statistics are provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Surgeon Shawn TsudaMeet the professional: Shawn Tsuda, MD, FACS

Age: 42
Practice: VIP Surg
Location: Las Vegas, NV

What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?

“I have a very personal take on this. One of my best friends who was the same age as me had always wished he had gone into a career in medicine, and possibly surgery. When he was 32 years old and had already had a 10-year career in a different field, he contacted a Career Counselor and began the journey. He is now about a year away from graduating from medical school, after having completed 2 years of college credits to fulfill prerequisites. My suggestion is this: if becoming a Surgeon is something that you really want to do, have always wanted to do, but the only thing that has held you back is taking the first step…take the first step tomorrow. If a career in surgery does not work out, you will never regret at least trying.”

What’s the number one mistake people make when trying to get into this career?

“Don’t go into surgery for money. Although the average salary may seem like a lot, the pay comes at a price of extreme training. (In my case, this took 14 years, after high school). The current trend in medicine is for reimbursements to go down. Therefore, average salaries will also decrease. Ultimately, this is a career that has to be done for the love of surgical medicine, otherwise the motivation will not outlast in the delay in gratification.”

What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?

“Prospective surgeons should ask what the alternatives are, because there are many. If being in the operating room environment and interacting with patients is desired, but the extensive training is not, Physician’s Assistant (PA) school may be a better option. There are other medical fields that have the same technical aspects of surgery, but a residency that is not as long. These sub-specialties include gastroenterology, interventional radiology or cardiology, podiatry, dermatology and more.”

Why did you choose to become a Surgeon?

“Surgery encompassed everything that I was seeking in a career. This includes a challenge that would take my academic abilities to their furthest extent, a feeling that I was doing something with gravity and importance on a daily basis, an ability to cross-participate in other fields ( such as device development), research, teaching, administration and entrepreneurship.”

If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?


Credentialing organization: The American Board of Medical Specialties

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