Becoming a Surgeon Careers & Salary Outlook

What Is a Surgeon?


A surgeon is a medical professional who has a medical degree that includes a specialty for particular organs or procedures. Their primary function is to conduct invasive, internal operations into a patient's body that correct various problems that arise from disease or injury. They might operate on a diseased heart, excise a brain tumor, or repair badly broken bones, among many other sorts of procedures. To perform these delicate operations, they rely on highly technical diagnostic information, as well as precision operating instruments. Surgeons do not perform routine physical examinations or other duties generally relegated to general practitioners. They do, however, work with patients.

Surgeons offer consultations with patients prior to their procedures, however, and may have their staff, or referred professionals, take diagnostic data from patients. The surgeon will review and analyze the data and imagery to determine how to best proceed when the operation begins.

Healthcare Career Paths


Steps to Becoming a Surgeon


If you wish to become a surgeon, there is a long road ahead of you. First you will need to start out in high school with top grades, and a strong aptitude for math and science. You must also have a passion for medicine and the human body. This passion will help you as you work through four years of an undergraduate degree, three years of medical school, and then your residency and subsequent specialty work. You will work very hard during this entire time, but the ultimate satisfaction of becoming a surgeon will pay off in both financial and personal satisfaction.

Steps to Take:


  • Step 1: Undergraduate Degree in Pre-Med

  • Step 2: MCAT Exam

  • Step 3: Medical School

  • Step 4: Surgical Specialty and Residency

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Step 1: Undergraduate Degree in Pre-Med

During your undergraduate years, you need to focus your work on pre-medical studies. Seek out a program that has the curriculum you need to gain admission and achieve success in medical school. After all, medical school admission standards are quite high, and you also must be prepared for success on the MCAT medical school admissions exam.

During your undergraduate years, one of the toughest courses you will take is Organic Chemistry. This is typically a lab science and is often considered a trial by fire for all future doctors. Your other coursework will likely include courses not limited to:

  • General Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Vertebrate Anatomy
  • Medicinal Chemistry
  • Biochemistry
  • Cellular and Molecular Biology

Step 2: MCAT Examination

As you near the end of your Pre-Medical training, you will start preparations for the Medical College Admission Test, otherwise known as the MCAT. Where lawyers have the LSAT that determines where they attend law school, doctors have the MCAT. It is thus imperative that you do as well as possible on this exam. Typically, pre-medical students take the MCAT following their Junior year. This leaves time to apply for medical school in autumn and then receive admission the following spring.

You will want to start preparing for the exam as soon as you can. There are many preparation materials available online, including at Khan Academy. Their free materials are recommended by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the organization that administers the MCAT. Khan's videos include topics on molecular biology, peptide bonds, Isoelectric point and zwitterions, as well as protein structures and globular proteins.

The MCAT is one of the most difficult admissions tests in the professional world. You might be well served by starting an MCAT study group as soon as you begin a pre-medical program. You can also find outside tutors and tutoring services that can help you prepare. Note that the AAMC maintains ample career resources, including MCAT study materials, on its website.

Step 3: Medical School

No two medical schools are exactly the same. Some offer tracks dedicated to medical technology while others offer a variety of experiential and purely academic enhancements. Your medical school experience will be four years of hard work during which time you will be prepared for your residency. Along the way, you might take courses that include, but are not limited to:

  • Homeostasis, I & II
  • Mind, Brain, and Behavior
  • Professional Development
  • Practice of Medicine
  • Immunity and Disease

Step 4: Surgical Specialty and Residency

You will need to determine your specialty area around the time you complete medical school. If you are determined to be a surgeon, first assess yourself. You must be absolutely certain that you not only have a strong desire to be a surgical professional but that you have the personality that is best suited to that career. This process should begin in your first year of medical school, if not during your pre-medical years.

Once you are certain that you wish to be a surgeon and know precisely which area you wish to focus on, you should find the right residency program that will support your goals. Not only should you find programs that cover your specialty, but you should also find the mentors that will help mold your residency experience in precisely the way you wish.

Once you have completed your residency, you can move onward to find a job as a fully-fledged surgical specialist.

What Does a Surgeon Do?


On a day-to-day basis, your surgical practice will involve a great deal of time in your office, preparing for surgeries. You might spend several hours per week consulting with patients to discuss their case and what they should expect from the surgery. You might discuss potential outcomes, probabilities for success, as well as practical matters such as how much to eat or not eat prior to surgery.

You might spend a good deal of time in consultation with other doctors who have worked on the patients in your caseload. This background information may help you uncover details that are pertinent to their surgical care. You may also need to discuss matters with other surgeons in your specialty area or studying various surgical techniques that may be pertinent to upcoming operations. You also need to stay current with contemporary surgical technologies such as imaging systems, nanotechnology, and other exciting medical advances.

Later in your career, you might work with surgical residents, budding professionals like you are now. Your role as a mentor will be invaluable to them, as they will likely seek you out based on papers you've published or your knowledge of certain surgical techniques.

Skills to Acquire


Surgeons need a wide array of skills in their toolkit. You will need a deep background of knowledge of the human body and its biology. In particular, you must be an absolute expert regarding the part of the body that comprises your practice. Thus, if you are a heart surgeon, you must have an intimate knowledge of that organ, just as a neurosurgeon must know the brain.

One of the foremost skills or abilities you must have is a steady hand. You must be able to make very precise cuts into the human body so that you don't accidentally nick an artery, or puncture a lung, for instance. You should also be able to communicate clearly with the nurses and other professionals you work alongside. Lightning-fast decision making is also imperative, as is a highly nuanced strategic mind that understands how to best open a surgery so that it closes as neatly as possible.

You should also have great skill in diagnosing and analyzing your patients' conditions. While some may seem routine, each individual will present their own particular anomalies that you must know how to address and work with. In general, you should be able to read diagnostic images such as x-rays, ultrasounds, and MRIs, etc.

Finally, you must be highly skilled in the tools of the operating theater. Items such as scalpels, clamps, and drills, among many others, must be as familiar to you as your own hands. However, your specialty might require more high-tech procedures where you might operate a cutting device by virtual remote control.

Alternative Paths


Though medicine is highly standardized, that does not mean you can't discover new ways of approaching the field and becoming a surgeon. For instance, you could work though medical school, a non-surgical residency, and practice for several years before hearing a calling to surgery. You might be a general practitioner who discovers a deep fascination with your patients' cardiac issues and then desire to help others with your surgical acumen.

You can also receive your training in a number of ways. For instance, if you have a desire to both be a surgeon but also serve in the military you can enlist after completing your pre-medical degree. If you qualify, you might have the military foot the bill for your medical school. In return you will probably need to work as a surgeon in a VA hospital, or otherwise serve the military for a certain period of time.

Surgeon Career & Salary


Where Might You Work?


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Surgeons most frequently are affiliated with a hospital that houses their surgical theater. You might have your own offices either inside the hospital or nearby, but your employer is likely to be the hospital itself.

On the other hand, you could have a private surgical practice. This is more common for surgeons who perform outpatient procedures. Oral surgeons, plastic surgeons, and ophthalmic practitioners frequently have stand-alone offices. These might be affiliated with larger health systems or hospitals. On the other hand, special circumstances might require that you use a hospital's special facilities.

While some surgeons perform operations on set schedules, many are called into operate on a moment's notice. No matter your specialty, you might have patients who experience emergencies and thus call you into surgery immediately. Your gastrointestinal practice might have a patient whose ulcers become inflamed and infected, requiring you to appear, ready to operate, in the middle of the night.

If you enter the military your professional life is bound to be quite different. Surgeons stationed in combat zones face a wide range of injuries that demand immediate attention and sometimes multiple cases arrive all at once, necessitating 24 or more hours in surgery. The television show M*A*S*H might come to mind.

Potential Career Paths


If you decide that you wish to become a surgeon, you will soon discover a myriad of options for your future career. Each choice involves highly specialized training and if you later decide to change your specialty you will need to undergo a whole new residency, which is among the most grueling professional training experiences. To begin the decision process, consider the brief list below, but also take time to discover what part of the body, or what sort of disease, calls to you. Whether your initial motivation comes from a heartfelt emotional story or pure scientific fascination, they are all equally valid. The most important thing is that you be dedicated to your specialty and your patients.

Neurosurgeon:
Frequently called brain surgeons, neurosurgery can involve delicate operations in the brain, but also on the spinal cord or elsewhere in the nervous system. For instance, you could specialize in disorders related to the more peripheral nerves in the legs or hands. Other neurosurgeons specialize in oncology, vascular nerves, epilepsy, or pediatrics.

Plastic Surgeon:
Most often, we think of plastic surgeons as performing elective, cosmetic procedures, such as nose jobs or mole removal. However, if you pursue this field you may also perform reconstructive procedures on patients from dramatic car wrecks, burn victims, or people born with problematic abnormalities that may restrict breathing.

Heart Surgeon:
This field's surgical procedures are commonly discussed, since heart disease is one of the most common causes of mortality in the United States. You will help people overcome a variety of problems including blockages or murmurs.

Orthopedic Surgeon:
If you broke your arm as a child you might have had an orthopedic surgeon take a look at your case. Most patients require a simple cast, but as an orthopedic surgeon you might be tasked with piecing together bones shattered by high-velocity projectiles, or which have been crushed. Orthopedic surgeons help piece the skeleton back together after injury or replace joints with much-needed prosthetics.

Pediatric Surgeon:
This is an umbrella term for surgeons who operate on children for a variety of reasons. If you are a cardiac specialist, you could further specialize in immature hearts. The same applies to oncology, ophthalmology, and neurology.

Oral Surgeon:
Though you won't need full medical training for this specialty area, it is worth noting. Your practice will help create healthy mouths for your patients. You could spend your time extracting wisdom teeth, repairing badly damaged mouths after an accident, or replacing teeth with implants.

Ophthalmic Surgeon:
If you are fascinated with one of our most delicate organs, the eye, this is the field for you. You could make a strong practice from restoring vision through the Lasik procedures or you might help patients suffering with cataracts or glaucoma, among a wide range of issues.

Surgeon Career Salaries


OccupationEntry-LevelMid-CareerLate-Career
Cardiac Surgeon$250,900$257,000$397,800
General Surgeon$254,368$258,794$284,515
Neurosurgeon$341,250$406,012$486,363
Oral Surgeon$208,300-$221,300
Orthopedic Surgeon$336,205$377,563$408,276
Pediatric Surgeon$199,400$268,700-
Plastic Surgeon$243,900$268,000$308,200

**Salary info provided by PayScale

Career Outlook


As long as the human race is subject to injury, disease, and old age, we will have a need for surgeons. Given that our population is rapidly aging, the need for surgeons is on the rise. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the need for Physicians and Surgeons will increase by 13% through 2026.

After you endure the rigors of pre-medical school, medical school, and then your residency, you will be happy to find that your pay is quite handsome. In 2017, median pay for physicians and surgeons was $208,000. On top of a fine salary, you and your family will surely enjoy great health benefits, and you might also receive bonus money or other financial incentives though your employer.

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Advancing from Here


Once you establish a strong surgical practice your career will have pretty well reached its peak. However, you could take on other responsibilities on a hospital's board. You could also open your own private practice that can generate healthy incomes for yourself and your partners. Doctors also frequently become investors in various business ventures. For instance, you might put your expertise to use as a consultant to medical equipment manufacturers.