How to Become a Surgeon

Becoming a surgeon requires certain sacrifices. You’ll be in school for the next decade and a half, and once that’s over you’ll still need to study and train to keep pace with ongoing research and innovation. You’ll probably bury yourself in debt, and you’ll be working 50+ hours a week until the day you retire or die from exhaustion. So I must ask, are you crazy? I certainly hope so, because only the crazy, the noble, and the religiously disciplined deserve to savor the fruits of this elite profession. What fruits, you ask? The doors opened by the impressive income surgeons enjoy. The social status conferred by the title “surgeon.” The excitement and variety offered by surgery. And of course, the sheer wonder of combining your God-given intelligence, creativity, and courage with your hard-won wisdom to beat back the tide of mortality and infirmity. Keep reading to learn how to become a surgeon—glory awaits!

Years of Education

After high school, it takes at least 13 to 14 years to become a surgeon.

Degrees & Licenses

  • Bachelor’s degree (B.A. or B.S.)
  • M.D. (Medical Doctor) or D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine)
  • Certification in surgical specialty area(s)
  • License in the state you wish to practice

Job Availability

Like underclassmen after the prom queen, you’ll be a sought after individual.

Income

Low

$150,000

Average

$220,000

High

404 error: Income too high to comprehend.

Perks

  • Your life won’t have nearly as many lame plot twists as Grey’s Anatomy.
  • You’ll literally never be able to say “I’m bored” . . . no time for that.
  • There will be no doubt as to who carves the turkey on Thanksgiving.

1. First, earn that bachelor’s degree.

Many aspiring surgeons major in a science like biology, but anything will do. Early on, you’ll want to collaborate with a “pre-med” or health professions advisor to create a course schedule that will help you (1) meet all medical school admission requirements and (2) graduate with with a useful degree. Medical school admission requirements usually include a full year of biology, physics, and English, as well as two full years of chemistry. Biology and anatomy would be of particular interest for someone wanting to become a surgeon (or cannibal cuisine chef). But don’t think too far ahead—you may not even be accepted into medical school. In that case, at least you’ll have a valuable degree that you can use to get a job or pursue more education.

2. Dominate the MCAT.

Closeup of surgeon's face with mask and glassesThe Medical College Admission Test will break most normal people. OK, I’m exaggerating, but only a little. This monster of an exam—which most take their junior year—attempts to measure your potential in the medical field—your aptitude to become a surgeon or physician. Because it’s such a big part of getting into medical school, the Association of American Medical Colleges recommends starting an intense study schedule of at least 10 hours a week for a full three months before D-day. You’ll need to download practice tests, find and fix gaps in your knowledge, join study groups, develop a taste for coffee, and maintain a shrine (complete with gifts of sacrifice) to your patron Gods.

3. Apply to medical schools.

Getting into medical school isn’t easy. You’ll need to have a good MCAT score, a high grade point average (think 3.7 or higher), and absurdly positive letters of reference. You’ll also need to write a personal statement (i.e., I want to become a surgeon because . . . enjoy butchering turkeys . . . carve a mean pumpkin, etc.) and interview well. Beyond that, your resume will need to prove that you are the result of a virgin birth, and that denying you would be heresy. Work or volunteer experiences in healthcare, leadership experiences, extra-curricular activities, helping with a professor’s work on campus—these are just a few things that will help you stand out as a candidate.

4. Finish four years of medical school.

To become a surgeon, you must first become a doctor. Those first two years they’ll submerge and nearly drown you in information through classes in anatomy, biology, pharmacology, immunology, and more. You’ll study in classrooms, play with cadavers, and begin to develop important skills like recording patient histories and taking physicals. The final two years involve rotating through “clerkships,” where you’ll spend time training in primary care as well as the different specialty areas of medicine, including surgery. But while you set out to become a surgeon, you may just fall in love with pediatrics, family medicine, anesthesiology, dermatology, emergency medicine or another field. Either way, upon graduation, you’ll be a doctor. Becoming a surgeon will take still more years of training.

5. Earn a residency in surgery.

Team of surgeons working on a patientSurgical residencies are hard to come by. Towards the end of medical school, you’ll begin the competitive process of securing a residency: more applications, interviews, letters of recommendation, submitting transcripts, and other fun things. Some residencies are easier to get than others. Surgical specialties—general surgery, neurological surgery, ophthalmology, orthopaedic surgery, plastic surgery, head and neck surgery, urology, and others—are highly competitive. You’ll either need to destroy your peers (illegal, impossible, and unethical) or simply outperform them. You had to be the cream of the crop to get into medical school. Now you need to be the creamiest of the creamy to attain your choice of residency.

6. Complete the residency in five to a billion years.

Surgical residencies last at least five years. You’ll spend your time in hospitals alongside veteran surgeons, who will give you more responsibility and less guidance as you gain experience. Some surgical specialties will require you to complete one year of a general surgery before moving on, and some aspiring brain or plastic surgeons will do this voluntarily to gain experience. Once finished, you’ll go through the certification and licensing process.

But wait, there’s more. Gluttons for wisdom, many surgeons will apply for a fellowship after the residency to be trained in a “subspecialty” in their area. For example, a graduate of a vascular surgery residency may go on to train in the subspecialty of pediatric surgery. It can add years to your training, but also a nice zero to your paycheck.

7. Get a job; finally become a surgeon.

You’ll be respected, wealthy, and awfully busy. You’ll be highly skilled and sought after. You could open your own practice, join a group practice, or throw in with some behemoth healthcare operation. Either way, the world is your oyster—and considering what you’ve been through, you probably deserve a little sea food.

Keep Digging, Be Proactive

Surgeon in an operating roomThis article is a drastic oversimplification. I took you through a basic, linear, step-by-step guide to becoming a surgeon. But each step in the process deserves a lot more attention. What medical schools to pursue and why, joint degrees, how to pay for it all, alternate career paths, what to do if you don’t get in to medical school . . . there are lots of things you’ll need to investigate in order to make sound decisions. But as daunting as all this sounds, the doctors I spoke with for this piece had nothing but positive things to say about their years of education and training, and there will be many people and resources to help you along this difficult, noble journey.

Further Reading for Aspiring Surgeons

Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science (Atul Gawande). Here is an honest, beautifully written look into the rigors, joys, and pitfalls of the profession you’re pursuing. Gawande explores the human, fallible side of doctors, the ethical problems with advanced technologies, how life or death decisions are made, and other issues important to the occupation.

PreMedLife. This is a magazine on all things “pre-med” for aspiring surgeons. Tips on the MCAT, medical school interviews and essays, choosing a school, planning a career path—it’s a fun, helpful resource written in part by pre-med and medical students. Before you go out and buy a subscription, check your local college library—many subscribe to PreMedLife.

The Official Guide to Medical School Admissions: How to Prepare for and Apply to Medical School This is a must-have (yet boring) resource for when you’re choosing where you’ll apply to medical school. You’ll find vital information on each U.S. and Canadian Medical School: information on school costs and financing options, estimated MCAT and GPA requirements, degree offerings and affiliated hospitals (important for surgeons), research opportunities, and more.