How Can I Become a Neurosurgeon?

Explore the career requirements for neurosurgeons. Get the facts about education and licensure requirements, salary, and potential job growth to determine if this is the right career for you. Schools offering Surgical Technology degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is a Neurosurgeon?

Neurosurgeons are highly-trained surgeons who specialize in operations that involve the head and brain, spine, spinal cord and nerves. They diagnose and conduct surgery on injuries, disorders and diseases of the central and peripheral nervous systems, including brain trauma, stroke, degenerative spinal diseases and congenital abnormalities. Some neurosurgeons specialize in a particular subfield, such as endovascular surgical neuroradiology. They usually find jobs in hospitals or medical centers, and they work as part of medical teams that can include primary care physicians, psychiatrists, surgical assistants and surgical technicians.

The following chart gives you an overview about a career as a neurosurgeon.

Degree Required Doctor of Medicine (M.D.)
Training Required 7- to 8-year residency in neurosurgery
Key Responsibilities Examine patients with disorders of the head, brain, spinal column and nerves; order diagnostic tests and evaluate results; make diagnosis and prescribe medication and treatment; perform surgery to correct deformities, injuries or abnormalities affecting the brain, spinal column and nerves
Licensure and/or Certification All states require doctors to be licensed; board certification in neurosurgery is available
Job Growth (2014-2024) 14% for all physicians and surgeons*
Median Salary (2017) $564,394**

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Salary.com

What Does a Neurosurgeon Do?

As a neurosurgeon, you would diagnose patients with neurological disorders, devise and implement treatment plans and oversee the recovery of patients. Although the majority of your time probably would be spent in the operating room, you also would need to stay informed about new surgical techniques and technological advances.

What Education Do I Need?

The first step toward becoming a neurosurgeon is earning a bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university. Generally, it takes 3-4 years to complete a bachelor's program. You might consider pre-med or a related major, such as biology or chemistry. You'll then need to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and apply to medical school.

Your medical school education likely will last four years and will train you in a number of areas. Laboratory experience typically is a critical component of the first two years of medical school, along with courses in topics like pharmacology, microbiology, pathology and anatomy. During the final two years, you'll have the opportunity to work closely with doctors and patients in real-life situations. You'll also take courses in specialized areas of medicine, such as family care, neurology, psychiatry, internal medicine and pediatrics.

What Happens After Medical School?

After medical school, you'll enter a residency program in neurological surgery, which typically lasts 7-8 years. The first year involves an internship in general surgery, while the second and third years provide training in neurosurgery, neuropathology and neuroradiology. In years four and five, some programs offer a choice of laboratory research or experience in a subspecialty area of neurosurgery. During the final year or two, your primary duties might include attending to administrative duties for all residents, acting as chief resident in neurosurgery and/or assisting in surgeries.

How Do I Get Licensed and Certified?

You must pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) in order to be a practicing surgeon; licensing is required by all 50 states. Board certification in neurological surgery is offered by the American Board of Neurological Surgery (www.abns.org). Though not mandatory, board certification can be a highly desirable professional credential; you are eligible to apply after meeting minimum educational requirements outlined by the board.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

If you want to become a surgeon, you don't necessarily need to focus on neurological surgery. Instead, you could practice as a generalist, or you could choose a different specialization, such as orthopedic surgery, pediatric surgery or plastic surgery. If you are interested in brain function, you could also think about completing a residency in psychiatry or general neurology after finishing medical school. Another option is to pursue a different surgical care position, such as a job as a physician assistant. For this job, you need a master's degree and a license to practice.

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