How to Become a Surgeon in 5 Steps

Surgeons treat illnesses, deformities, and injuries by using a variety of instruments to operate on patients. Continue reading to learn the steps to becoming a surgeon, information about general surgeon schooling, and how to become a surgical intern. Schools offering Surgical Technology degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Surgeon Career Information

Surgeons operate on patients when non-invasive means of treatment have failed or are not possible. Surgeons diagnose patients, decide upon treatment, communicate diagnosis and treatment information to the patients, perform the operation, and provide postoperative care. Surgeons supervise the team of technicians and nurses involved in the operation. They may also collaborate with other surgeons and with physicians.

Degrees Required Bachelor's degree
Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.)
Licensing and Certification U.S. Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) or Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Exam (COMLEX-USA)
General Surgery certification through American Board of Surgery or American Osteopathic Board of Surgery
Projected Job Growth (2018-2028) 1%*
Mean Salary (May 2018) $255,110 *

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

How Long Does it Take to Become a General Surgeon?

It can take 13-18 years to complete the following:

  • Bachelor's degree: 4 years
  • Medical school: 4 years
  • Residency: 5-10 years

A general surgeon residency is 5 years. Additional subspecialty residencies can add 1-5 years, depending upon the residency. Due to the importance and the stressful nature of the career, candidates must meet many rigorous qualifications to become a surgeon.

Steps to Becoming a Surgeon

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

The first step towards becoming a surgeon is to earn a bachelor's degree. A pre-med program and majoring in a degree related to medicine, such as chemistry or biology, is recommended. Medical schools require that applicants have taken a sufficient number of specified science courses. Students must submit letters of recommendation and the scores from Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) with their medical school application. Finally, students should participate in activities that demonstrate their motivation to help others, ability to work with others, and leadership skills.

Step 2: Medical School

General surgeon schooling begins with earning a medical degree. Aspiring surgeons must earn either a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.). M.D's and D.O.'s receive similar education, but D.O.'s are more focused on preventive care and the musculoskeletal system. The first two years of medical school are focused upon coursework, which will include a thorough study of the human body, medical practice, and medical ethics. The third and fourth years will be focused upon supervised clinical practice, in which the students participate in supervised patient care and collaboration with other medical professionals in a variety of settings.

Step 3: How to Become a Surgical Intern

Some residency programs will refer to those in their first year of their residency as interns, while other institutions will refer to them as residents.

1) Winter of third year of medical school

Students should work closely with their advisors to determine which residency programs will be the best fit for them.

2) Application

  • Apply through the Electronic Residency Application Service (ERAS).
  • This requires letters of recommendation.
  • Recommended that students take the second section of their licensure exams (see Section 5) prior to applying to their residencies.

3) Qualities of Competitive Students

  • Elected to Alpha Omega Alpha
  • Scores in the upper 10% on the licensure exams
  • Ranked in the upper 10% of their class
  • Have research publications
  • Excellent letters of recommendation

Students will find out which residencies they matched with on Match Day, which happens on a Friday in mid-March.

Step 4: Residency

Surgical residencies can take five to ten years, depending upon the institution and the subspecialties being studied by the resident. Students will begin with developing basic surgical skills and will continue to develop more advanced skills throughout the residency. Students will observe and work with experienced surgeons in a variety of settings. They will also attend classes and complete assignments.

Step 5: Licensure and Certification

Candidates are next required to take a standardized national license exam. M.D. candidates must pass the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE). D.O. candidates must pass the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Exam (COMLEX-USA). Both exams contain three sections. The first two sections are generally taken during medical school. Candidates will take the final part of the exam during their residency.

It is recommended that surgeons become board certified, as this will make them more attractive to employers and to patients. Candidates with an M.D. or a D.O. can certify in general surgery and several subspecialties through the American Board of Surgery (ABS). The American Osteopathic Board of Surgery offers a general surgery certification and certifications for surgical subspecialties for candidates with a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine.

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