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How to Become a Surgical Assistant

Alternate Career Titles:

First Assistant, Non-Physician Surgical Assistant, Certified Surgical Assistant, CSA, Surgical Assistant-Certified, SA-C

Surgical Assistant Job Description: Surgical Assistants provide assistance to Surgeons before, during and after surgical procedures

Surgical Assistant Salary (Annual): $49,850

Surgical Assistant Salary Range: $27,670 to $103,430

How Long To Become a Surgical Assistant: 2 years

Surgical Assistant Requirements: Post-secondary Non-degree Award or Associate’s Degree in Surgical Assisting

Surgical Assistant Medical Careers

Become a Surgical Assistant

Career Description

The role of the Surgical Assistant is vital to the operating room, as he or she provides immediate support to the Surgeon. Note, a Surgical Assistant is not the same as a Surgical Technician or Surgical Scrub, as they provide different tasks and duties within the operating room and throughout a surgical procedure.

A Surgical Assistant has several responsibilities before, during and after a surgical procedure. Prior to the procedure, the Surgical Assistant verifies that the patient has been consented to surgery and reviews the history and physical exam report. Upon entering the operating room, the Surgical Assistant positions the patient, preps the surgical field and may assist with draping.

Once the operation begins, the Surgical Assistant acts as a direct support to the Surgeon. They will perform a variety of surgical duties, allowing the Surgeon to focus on the procedure. Duties include but are not limited to providing homeostasis, retraction, aiding in exposure of the surgical field, suturing and wound closure. Additional responsibilities may include vein or arterial harvesting for bypass grafting in open heart surgery. At the end of the procedure, the Surgical Assistant will assist anesthesia and nursing staff, such as Anesthesiologists and Registered Nurses, to transport patients to PACU or the recovery unit.

In accordance with state laws, some Surgical Assistants may also help Surgeons to make incisions and close surgical sites, manipulate or remove tissues, implant surgical devices or drains, suction the surgical site, place catheters, clamp or cauterize vessels or tissue and apply dressings to surgical site.

“To me, being a Surgical Assistant has been the most rewarding and yet challenging part of my life,” Hope Rowland, a Surgical Assistant practicing in Wisconsin, said. “I love being a part of a team that makes a difference in patients’ lives. Knowing that I am the Surgeon’s ‘right hand’ gives me a great feeling of accomplishment and pride.”

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Education & Training

To become a Surgical Assistant, learners must earn an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree, depending on their program. Learners can obtain a degree through a Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education-approved program. While the program length may vary depending on the organization, they typically take two years to complete. The learning process will include instruction on anatomy, biology, physiology, pharmacology, medical terminology and surgical techniques.

Students of these programs receive both; didactic and clinical training. Upon completion of school and gaining employment, most Surgical Assistants will be further required to undergo organization-specific on-site training and orientation.

“I began my career as a Surgical Technologist, but then I began assisting with more responsibilities,” Rowland recalled. “That was a huge transition, but by having such direct access to the Surgeons I was able to better learn the proper ways to assist Surgeons.”

Rowland added that she is currently enrolled in a 10-month online course to become a Certified Surgical First Assistant (CSFA-ERC). Although her employer does not require this certification, she is pursuing the continued education to fulfill a personal goal.


To advance in a healthcare career as a Surgical Assistant, professionals may choose to pursue continued education. Surgical Assistants can also work toward more advanced, training, become educators or try to seek out a more managerial role within their current place of employment.

“Becoming certified does expand career opportunities, but experience and expertise in certain specialties will make your resume more appealing in the career market,” Rowland explained. “I started at the bottom and worked my way up to becoming one of the top Surgical Assistants. However, I’ve also known colleagues that have gone on to become sales representatives for certain products due to their extensive knowledge.”

Experience & Skills

To advance in a healthcare career as a Surgical Assistant, professionals may choose to pursue continued education. Surgical Assistants can also work toward more advanced, training, become educators or try to seek out a more managerial role within their current place of employment.

“As a Surgical Assistant, professionals must have solid knowledge of anatomy, especially that of nerves and vessels,” Rowland said. “Ultimately, they stand across from the Surgeons and assist them. We are there in place of another surgeon and we close incisions”


“Surgical Assistants should be calm in nature, especially during emergent situations,” Rowland emphasized. “They should also have strong communication skills, be able to learn and take constructive criticism and deal with the wide range of personalities that can exist in careers in healthcare.”

To be an effective Surgical Assistant, individuals should be organized and detail-oriented to ensure that no errors are made during surgical procedures. Surgical Assistants must be proficient at working both independently and in a team environment. Surgical Assistants have to be proficient at working both independently and in a team environment. They should also be dexterous, allowing them to work with their hands quickly, to effectively deliver and to support the Surgeon as needed. Surgical Assistants should further possess the utmost integrity in performing all assigned responsibilities ethically and honestly.


As a Surgical Assistant, most professionals secure full-time employment. Yet, they may be required to be placed on-call or work evenings, nights, weekends and holidays. Depending on the employer, Surgical Assistants may be assigned regularly-set hours or work varied shifts throughout their workweek.

“In this healthcare career, days can be long depending on the specialty you are working in,” Rowland said. “You have to be able to stand long hours in one position, and most employers do require taking call.”

Rowland further explained that, in her experience, Surgical Assistants need to be available at all hours, even in the middle of the night for emergencies. They also need to be prepared, and on their “A game”, to assist in procedures that can take over 12 hours to complete.

Alternatively, Surgical Assistants regularly experience very high-stress scenarios.


Now is a great time to begin working toward a career as a Surgical Assistant! Over the next decade this career in healthcare is projected to grow 9 percent, which is a rate much faster than the average for all occupations. This growth can largely be attributed to technological and health service advances allowing more procedures to be performed in a given day. Also, the aging baby-boomer generation now requires greater health treatments, further increasing the need for Surgical Assistant services.

Currently, the top employing facilities of Surgical Assistants are hospitals, Surgical Assistant groups, Physician offices, outpatient care centers and ambulatory services. Worthy of note, the states employing the greatest number of Surgical Assistants are Texas, Illinois, Florida and Michigan. California and New York do not use Surgical Assistants in the first assist role. Furthermore, California law requires two Surgeons or a Surgeon and a Physician Assistant (or Registered Nurse First Assistant) oversee each procedure.

“As Surgical Assistants are slowly taking the place of assisting Physicians during basic surgeries, Surgical Assistants with experience and strong skill certifications will have a very good future.”


The median annual wage for Surgical Assistants is $49,850. While the lowest 10 percent earn less than $27,670, the highest earning 10 percent make over $103,430 annually. Earning well over $100,000 in this career is not unusual. The highest paying employers of Surgical Assistants are Surgical Assistant groups, outpatient care centers, physician’s offices and hospitals. Meanwhile, the highest paying states for this occupation are Texas, Georgia and Maryland.

Unions, Groups, Social Media, and Associations

The Association of Surgical Assistants (ASA) represents a broad coalition of Surgical Assistant practitioners, who share several common goals, including optimizing surgical patient care, promoting the recognition of all Surgical Assistant codes, advancing legislative strategies and providing relevant continuing education experiences.

The American Board of Surgical Assistants (ABSA) is a national Privately-owned credentialing company organization, for Surgical Assistants. The ABSA administers a national and international certification examination and covers all surgical disciplines and all areas of perioperative medicine.

The National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA) is a certifying agency for surgical technologists and Surgical Assistants. NBSTSA is solely responsible for all decisions regarding certification; from determining eligibility to maintaining, denying, granting and renewing the CST and CSFA designation.

The National Surgical Assistant Association (NSAA) was established in 1983 and was the first membership organization in the country to establish standards of professionalism and proficiency for Non-Physician Surgical Assistants. It is the most widely recognized professional organization for Surgical Assistants in the country with a current membership of over 1600 members. NSAA’s primary purpose is to ensure that Surgical Assistants have the knowledge and skills to administer patient care of the highest quality.

The National Commission for the Certification of Surgical Assistants (NCCSA) is the certifying agency for the Certified Surgical Assistant (CSA). NCCSA is solely responsible for all decisions regarding certification; from determining eligibility to maintaining, denying, granting and renewing the CSA designation.

Getting Started

  • Enroll in a CAAHEP-approved program
  • Join professional networks
  • Become a Certified Surgical Assistant/Certified Surgical First Assistant
  • Apply to Surgical Assistant positions

All statistics are provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Surgical Assistant Hope RowlandMeet the professional: Hope Rowland

Age: 47
Practice: Luke’s Medical Center
Location: Milwaukee, WI

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

“The biggest suggestion I would give to someone wanting to be a Surgical Assistant would be to be ready for a mentally and physically demanding career. If you’re dedicated, the career can also be extremely rewarding.”

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

“The number one mistake people make when entering this career is that the work is easy. When you’re not in a position as a Surgical Assistant, you have no idea how challenging the work can actually be.

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

“‘How stressful can the career be?’ You have a patient’s life in your hands, and one wrong move could permanently harm that patient.”

Why did you choose to become a Surgical Assistant?

“I observed Surgical Assistants when I was a Surgical Technician and I thought the career was fascinating. Once I started working as a Surgical Assistant, I knew the career was for me. I love every minute of the work.”

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


Credentialing organizations: The American Board of Surgical Assistants

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