Surgery is defined as a medical procedure that involves making an incision on a patient, usually in an operating room and with the aid of anesthesia and respiratory assistance. These procedures are generally invasive and require that the physicians performing them have adequate education and training. 

Surgeons are physicians who have completed a five year surgical residency. They have practiced hundreds, if not thousands, of procedures under the careful supervision of more senior doctors to ensure they know how to perform procedures and keep patients safe. While surgeons may spend significant time in an operating room, they also spend time in hospital rooms and medical offices consulting with patients and providing postoperative care.

There is a wide variety of surgeries surgeons can perform. Most initial residencies cover general surgery, but surgeons can complete an additional fellowship to work in obstetrics, plastics, neurology, orthopedic, pediatrics, transplant, oncology, and emergency care. Often, surgeons work alongside other physicians as part of a larger patient care team. While many surgeons work in hospitals, they can also be found in outpatient clinics, surgery centers, private clinics, and government agencies. 

Although the length of time it takes to become a surgeon and the expense of medical school is significant, this can be a lucrative career. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2020) estimates that surgeons earn $251,650 per year on average—the latest data available as of January 2022. That figure can vary depending on location, place of employment, and specialty. However, new advances in care and treatments are reducing the demand for surgeons, and the BLS estimates that there will be only a 3 percent increase in jobs for physicians and surgeons between 2020 and 2030 (BLS 2021). 

If this detailed-oriented hands-on career sounds interesting, keep reading to learn how to get started in this career.

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Surgeon Specializations & Degree Types

Surgery is a specialty field of medicine. Physicians who complete a residency in surgery are most often general surgeons. Surgeons who want to further specialize can complete a fellowship where they receive additional education and training. The American Board of Surgery offers board certification in the following specializations:

  • Vascular
  • Pediatric
  • Critical care
  • Complex general surgical oncology
  • Hand surgery
  • Hospice and palliative medicine

Admissions Requirements for Surgeon Programs

Admissions to surgical residency programs are highly competitive. Medical school students will apply for residency starting in the fall of their fourth year of medical school. Applications are submitted through the Electronic Residency Application Service (ERAS). 

Students must upload all their documents, including letters of recommendation and statements of purpose. Programs will then review applications and invite students for interviews. In February, both the programs and residents will rank their top choices, and matches are released in March.

Surgeon Program Accreditation

Attending an accredited medical school and residency is essential as both are required for licensure and board certification. Medical schools are accredited by the Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation (COCA) if it is a doctor of osteopathy (DO) program, or the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) if it is a doctor of medicine (MD) program. 

Residencies are also accredited to ensure that doctors receive a high level of training and education. The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) accredits residencies. In order to be eligible for board certification, doctors must complete an accredited residency.

On-Campus Surgical Residency Programs

To become a surgeon, doctors must complete a general surgical residency. Here are some of the top surgical residency programs in the country. 

Johns Hopkins University – School of Medicine

The general surgery residency program at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine is ranked number one in the country by US News & World Report. This program only accepts seven residents each year and takes five years to complete. 

The first two years are focused on the development of foundational surgical skills, while years three through five are to further the resident’s training in a variety of surgical subspecialties, including colorectal, oncology, transplant, trauma, and more. Many residents also choose to complete international clinical rotations to do humanitarian work in underserved countries.

There is a strong research component to this program as well, and residents must complete a research project. These projects can take anywhere from one to four years, and completing a PhD in the process is an option for ambitious residents. While most of the research residents complete is in the surgery department, residents can collaborate with any department at Johns Hopkins.    

  • Location: Baltimore, MD
  • Duration: Five years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME)
  • Pay: Salary of $57,160 to $67,913 per year 

Duke University – School of Medicine

The general surgery residency at Duke University School of Medicine is a comprehensive five year program that prepares doctors to be surgeons or to pursue an additional fellowship and specialization. The types of general surgery residents will learn to perform include cardiothoracic, abdominal transplant, oncology, vascular, endocrine, colorectal, trauma, and pediatric. This is both a clinical and research-focused program, so residents will have a well-rounded background in both upon completion of this program. 

Duke has a strong commitment to inclusivity and diversity and has made a pledge to increase the diversity of each incoming group of residents. They also have a mission to provide services to the best care to patients, no matter their socioeconomic status, religion, race, sex, gender, or sexual orientation. 

  • Location: Durham, NC
  • Duration: Five years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME)
  • Pay: Salary of $56,880 to $66,456 per year 

University of Michigan Medical School

In addition to an outstanding general surgical residency program, the University of Michigan Medical School has five specialty fellowships. General surgery residents will have the opportunity to observe many of these more specialized procedures, which can help them determine if they also want to specialize. This department has over 7,000 surgical cases each year, so residents will benefit from the varied caseload. 

While most of the clinical rotations are at the University of Michigan hospital, students will also rotate through the VA, St. Joseph Mercy Chelsea and Brighton Center for Specialty Care, and Hurley Medical Center.

After their third year of residency, residents receive protected academic development time in order to propose, develop, and complete their own research. During this time, residents do not have clinical responsibilities. Instead, residents work closely with a designated mentor who can assist with grant applications and study plans.  

  • Location: Ann Arbor, MI
  • Duration: Five years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME)
  • Pay: Salary of $64,101 to $77,915 per year

Stanford University – School of Medicine

While the general surgical residency program at Stanford University School of Medicine is rigorous, they have also prioritized resident well-being with a strong support network and generous benefits. In 2011 Stanford implemented the Balance in Life (BIL) program, which addresses residents’ physical, psychological, professional, and social needs. 

By the time residents complete this program, they will perform an average of 1,170 surgeries in various specialties, including plastics, pediatric, endoscopic, trauma, breast, thoracic, and more. In fact, during the first year alone, residents will handle between 100 and 300 cases. In addition to hands-on training, residents participate in conferences, grand rounds, didactic courses, and research. 

  • Location: Palo Alto, CA
  • Duration: Five years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME)
  • Pay: Salary of $64,459.20 to $81,827.20 per year

Weill Cornell Medicine

The surgery department at Weill Cornell Medicine has three surgical residency programs. Residents can apply for either a general surgical residency, oral and maxillofacial surgery residency, or plastic surgery residency. The general residency takes five years, while the oral and maxillofacial one takes four, and plastic surgery takes six. All three programs have robust simulation training before residents ever perform surgery on patients, ensuring they are well prepared to take care of their patients. 

The overarching mission of this program is to create surgeons who are not only skilled in their field but also have strong leadership skills and a background rooted in science. Compassionate care is of the utmost importance, and residents are trained to put patients first.  

  • Location: New York, NY
  • Duration: Four to six years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME)
  • Pay: Salary of $74,000 to $81,000 per year

Ohio State University – College of Medicine

The general surgery residency at the Ohio State University College of Medicine is an outstanding program and is ranked in the top 10 by Doximity’s 2021-2022 Residency Navigator. 

Each year, nine students are selected to be a part of this program. Six of those students are admitted to the categorical surgical residency program, which takes six to seven years to complete, as residents must finish an extensive research project in addition to the five years of surgical training. Most of the categorical students earn a master’s degree in addition to completing their residency. 

During the fourth year of this program, residents have the opportunity to participate in international clinical rotations. Through these international rotations, residents are exposed to new and different clinical settings as well as a varied patient load. These rotations are at collaborating teaching hospitals, so residents are able to also further their training. 

  • Location: Columbus, OH
  • Duration: Five years or more
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME)
  • Pay: Salary of $57,953 to $63,720 per year

Baylor College of Medicine

There are four surgical residency training programs at Baylor College of Medicine. Residents can choose from general, plastic, and vascular surgery. There are also several fellowship programs at Baylor that residents can pursue should they want to continue their education and training. While clinical rotations for these programs are primarily at Baylor’s St. Luke’s Medical Center, residents will also rotate through the VA and five other area hospitals.  

Within the general surgery residency, there is either a traditional, research, or global track to choose from. The programs vary in length from five to seven years. While completing the general surgery program, residents will receive basic training in the subspecialties of neurosurgery, otolaryngology, urology, and plastic surgery. This can help prepare them to move on to a fellowship, should they so choose. 

  • Location: Houston, TX
  • Duration: Five to seven years
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME)
  • Pay: Starting at $62,083 per year

Online or Hybrid Education Options Related to Surgery

Aspiring surgeons have to complete in-person medical school and residency. There are online education options to become a surgeon. 

However, board-certified surgeons must complete continuing medical education (CME), and there are several options for earning these credits online. Here are a few:

American College of Surgeons

Surgeons who are members of the American College of Surgeons can complete online learning courses for CME credit. There are a variety of options of types of courses, from recorded forums to best practices overviews and new skill development. Courses vary in length and the number of CMEs they represent. 

Surgeons can log into their account to see how many courses and CMEs they have completed, as the ACS logs these for them. The ACS also has in-person conferences and seminars that surgeons can attend for CME. 

  • Location: Chicago, IL
  • Duration: 30 minutes on up
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education 
  • Tuition: Memberships dues are $0 to $659 

Hospital for Special Surgery

The Hospital for Special Surgery is located in New York City and specializes in orthopedic surgery and treating rheumatological conditions. In addition to providing exceptional patient care, they also offer outstanding CME courses for surgeons. 

Courses are available on-demand and online through their eAcademy. In addition. HSS offers webinars, conferences, and symposiums that are a combination of online and in-person. They also provide CME credits for HSS Journal-related activities. Topics covered included anesthesiology, radiology and imaging, orthopedics, rehabilitation, and more. 

  • Location: New York, NY
  • Duration: Varies
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education 
  • Tuition: Varies

Columbia University – Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons

Surgeons can complete CMEs through Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons. The majority of the events they have are live, and surgeons can join live through a webinar link. Routine weekly Ground Rounds are broadcast on a regular basis as well as off-campus one-off symposia. The format of these courses ranges from board reviews to new discovery presentations, clinical and scientific updates, and novel treatment applications. 

  • Location: New York, NY
  • Duration: Varies
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education
  • Tuition: Varies

How Long Does it Take to Become a Surgeon?

Surgeons must complete a bachelor’s degree, medical school, and a surgical residency. In total, it takes at least 13 years post-high school to complete the required education and training to become a surgeon.

How To Become a Surgeon – Step-by-Step Guide

Step 1: Graduate from High School or Obtain a GED (Four Years)

A high school diploma or GED is the first step towards becoming a surgeon. Students should focus on science and math classes to prepare them for additional studies. 

Step 2: Complete a Bachelor’s Degree Program (Four Years)

A bachelor’s degree is required in order to apply to most medical schools. Students can choose from a number of majors, including biology, biochemistry, pre-med, public health, and even psychology. Many medical schools have prerequisite coursework requirements, so students should ensure they take the appropriate classes for the schools they want to attend. 

Step 3: Take the MCAT (Timeline Varies)

The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is a standardized exam required for admission to many medical schools. Students should take this test in the spring of their junior year in order to have the results in time to apply for medical school. 

Step 4: Apply for Medical School (Timeline Varies)

Medical school applications are typically due in the late fall or early winter of a student’s senior year of a bachelor’s degree. Applications are highly competitive, so students should ensure they have the best recommendations, extracurriculars, and letters of intent. 

Step 5: Attend Medical School (Four Years)

It takes four years to complete medical school. During this time, students will participate in lecture classes, labs, and clinical rotations. Aspiring surgeons should strive to complete one or more rotations in surgery in order to boost their chances for a surgical residency.

Step 6: Apply for a Surgical Residency (During Medical School)

During the final year of medical school, students will apply for residency. This is additional training in a chosen specialty. Aspiring surgeons will need to apply to and interview at several surgical residency programs in order to improve their chances. 

Step 7: Fulfill Residency Requirements (Five Years)

During residency, doctors will learn all the necessary skills to become surgeons. The first year is a general residency followed by four years of intensive surgical training. 

Step 8: Sit for the National Licensing Exams (Timelines Vary)

Doctors must pass a national exam in order to practice medicine. Students who have completed an MD will take the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE), while those who have completed a DO must take the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination of the United States (COMPLEX-USA). These exams evaluate skills and education from both medical school and residency. 

Step 9: Obtain State Licensure (Timelines Vary)

In addition to a national licensing exam, doctors must also apply for and receive a license to practice medicine in their state. More details are found below in the licensure and certification section. 

Step 10: Become Board Certified (Timelines Vary)

All surgeons must receive board certification from the American Board of Surgery. More details are found below in the licensure and certification section.

What Do Surgeons Do?

Surgeons operate on patients to treat illnesses, diseases, trauma, and more. They must work somewhere where they have access to an operating room. Typical places of employment include hospitals, outpatient clinics, ambulatory surgical centers, private offices, and government agencies. Some surgeons work regular hours with scheduled surgeries, while others are on-call and respond to emergencies. Day-to-day duties can include:

  • Consulting with patients on the surgery they may require
  • Educating family and patients on a procedure and aftercare
  • Scheduling surgical procedures
  • Performing surgeries
  • Evaluating patients after surgery to ensure the procedure went well
  • Providing postoperative care
  • Following up with patients to ensure healing went appropriately
  • Maintaining careful client records

Surgeon Certifications & Licensure

Surgeons must obtain both a state license and board certification in order to perform surgeries. Requirements for licensing vary by state, so doctors should contact their local board to ensure they have the necessary qualifications. For example, in Washington, the requirements are:

  • Graduate from an approved or accredited medical school
  • Pass the United States Medical License Examination (USMLE) 
  • Complete a residency
  • Provide work history
  • Write a statement about mental health status and any red flags such as convictions, disciplinary actions, or liability claims. 

Board certification for surgeons is through the American Board of Surgery. There are seven certifications that they offer, including one in general surgery for those who have just completed a residency. To earn this certification, physicians must:

  • Complete medical school
  • Attend a residency in surgery
  • Obtain extensive surgical experience
  • Hold a valid medical license
  • Pass both the written (qualifying) exam and the oral (certifying) exam

How Much Do Surgeons Make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2020), surgeons earn $251,650 per year on average. Currently, there are 37,900 surgeons working in the US. The percentiles for wages are:

  • 10th percentile: $77,240
  • 25th percentile: $188,170
  • 50th percentile (median): >$208,000 per year
  • 75th percentile: >$208,000 per year
  • 90th percentile: >$208,000 per year

Please note that the BLS does not give specific figures for ranges in excess of $208,000.

Surgeon Career Alternatives

Here are some alternatives to a career as a surgeon. 

Become a Pathologist

Pathologists are physicians who can interpret lab tests and tissue samples as well as perform post-mortem exams to determine cause of death. Typically, they do not work directly with patients but rather spend their time in labs or morgues.  

  • Typical Education: Doctor of medicine or doctor of osteopathy
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Board of Pathology (ABP) 

Become a Neurologist

Physicians who care for patients with neurological concerns are called neurologists. They can address everything from head injuries to headaches, stroke, sleep disorders, memory loss, and epilepsy.  

  • Typical Education: Doctor of medicine or doctor of osteopathy
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (ABPN)

Become a Pediatrician 

Caring for infants, children, and teens takes special training. Pediatricians have completed a residency in pediatrics and understand how kids’ bodies function differently from an adult. They can provide primary care to kids or perform surgery, provide developmental care, or administer anesthesia. 

  • Typical Education: Doctor of medicine or doctor of osteopathy
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Board of Pediatrics (ABP)
Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson


Kimmy is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about healthcare careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.

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