How Can I Become a Trauma Surgeon?

Research what it takes to become a trauma surgeon. Learn about education, training and licensure requirements to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Surgical Technology degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is a Trauma Surgeon?

Trauma surgeons, also known as critical care and acute care surgeons, are physicians who specialize in performing emergency procedures on critically injured or ill patients. They work in the emergency departments of hospitals and academic medical centers. When an ill or injured patient arrives, they work with a team of medical professionals to diagnose the patient's condition, determine the appropriate course of action and conduct the prescribed operation. After the procedure is complete, they may monitor the patient to evaluate their condition and recommend further surgery or transfer the patient to a non-emergency department for recovery.

The following chart provides an overview about becoming a trauma surgeon.

Degree Required Doctor of Medicine (M.D.)
Training Required 5-year residency followed by 1- to 2-year fellowship
Licensure or Certification Doctors must be licensed in all states; board certification is available
Key Responsibilities Examine, diagnose and treat victims of traumatic injury; perform emergency surgical procedures on critically injured patients
Job Growth (2018-2028) 7% (for all physicians and surgeons)*
Average Salary (2019) $401,031**

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), **

What Kind of Undergraduate Degree Do I Need?

Trauma surgeons are specially trained medical doctors (MDs). The first step to entering this career is attending an accredited 4-year undergraduate pre-med program. Most aspiring medical doctors receive a Bachelor of Science while in a pre-med program. You'll need to complete courses in biology, organic chemistry and physics.

During your undergraduate studies, you'll begin researching medical schools that you want to attend. Achieve good grades and take every opportunity you can to get clinical experience through volunteer work and internships; this will boost your chances of being accepted to medical school. Additionally, you must take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). Your scores on the MCAT will greatly affect your chances of getting into highly competitive medical schools.

What Is Medical School Like?

You'll typically have four years of study in medical school. During this time, you'll learn to integrate basic and clinical science, communicate clearly with patients and apply ethics to your practice. You'll have to pass numerous competencies. During your later years, you might be able to select a clinical elective in surgery through a teaching hospital.

In your fourth year of medical school, you'll begin applying to residency programs. It's important to research and apply to residencies that fit your career goals and to work hard in medical school to set yourself apart from other students. Residency programs are very competitive, with some only accepting ten or fewer applicants every year. Upon graduating from medical school, you'll be a medical doctor but not yet legally able to practice medicine on your own.

What Will Happen During My Residency?

Your residency will take about five years. At this level, you're expected to already have a deep knowledge of the basic core competencies of all medical doctors as well as an understanding of typical surgical practices. Throughout your surgical residency, you'll develop your skills in clinical practices, advanced surgical practices, academic research and working with medical teams. You'll complete a number of clinical rotations. Some of the topics you're likely to study are laparoscopy, bone fixation, knot tying, tissue handling, suturing and surgical biopsy. You'll apply for a fellowship in trauma surgery to develop your specialized trauma skills.

What Does a Fellowship Involve?

Fellowships last 1-2 years. During this component of training, you'll work in a Level I or Level II trauma center, where you can learn to treat both blunt and penetrating traumas, multi-organ and single-organ system injuries, burns and brain injuries. In addition, you can be trained in neurosurgical and cardiothoracic surgery. Instruction in proper follow-up care is also necessary. You'll get experience working in trauma ICUs, surgical ICUs and other intensive care units within hospitals. Depending on your fellowship, you might also learn teaching skills, administrative skills and international trauma skills.

How Do I Earn and Maintain My License?

As you finish your studies, you'll begin taking the 3-step United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). The USMLE is a competency exam that helps individual state licensing boards evaluate your ability to provide safe and knowledgeable care to your patients. You'll need to check with your state's medical licensing board to see if and how they use USMLE results in granting initial medical licenses; ultimately, it's the state board's requirements that you will have to fully meet before being allowed to practice any kind of medicine within your state.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

As a surgeon, you could choose to work in a non-emergency setting. For instance, you could complete a residency in plastic surgery or orthopedic surgery, since the operations that these professionals conduct are usually scheduled well in advance. Alternatively, if you want to focus your career on treating trauma patients, you could pursue another career in the emergency department, such as a job as a physician assistant or an emergency nurse practitioner. Both of these jobs require a master's degree.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

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