Surgical Careers: Requirements, Responsibilities, and Other Key Information

FT Contributor
A portrait shot of a young female surgeon.
Reading Time: 5 minutes

A surgical career is one of the most rewarding careers a person can have, but it certainly isn’t one of the easiest. With up to 15 years of schooling and training required, it is an expensive career, as well.

With the average surgeon making over $200,000 each year, the medical field is overcrowded with wide-eyed, ambitious students anxious to enter the demanding field of medicine. Not everyone makes the cut, however; medical school is incredibly competitive, and the exams are even more taxing.

It takes years of meticulous study and careful practice to become a qualified surgeon, so is it worth it?

We take a deep dive into the demanding, fast-paced world of surgical medicine.

What Does a Surgeon Do?

A surgeon can practice all sorts of medicine. Some may practice general care, while others may zero in on a specialty. The kind of medicine you practice will also determine whether you perform mostly simple, quick procedures or whether you specialize in extended operations.

Regardless of what kind of surgeon you are, there are some essential job responsibilities that all surgeons perform:

  • Treat injuries, diseases, deformities through operation.
  • Diagnose patients through examination and testing.
  • Counsel patients and their families through life-changing and potentially life-ending situations.

Types of Surgeons

Many types of surgeons

 exist today, some with more generalized specialties and others who work within a finely developed niche.

These are some of the most popular types of surgeons:

  • General surgeon, who performs basic procedures based on the everyday needs of patients.
  • Cardiothoracic surgeon, who specializes in the heart, lungs, and other chest organs.
  • Neurosurgeon, who deals with not just the brain but also the central and peripheral nervous systems.
  • Obstetric and gynecological surgeon, who concentrates on matters of the reproductive system.
  • Otolaryngology surgeon, who specializes in the ears, nose, and throat.
  • Oral and maxillofacial surgeon, who handles mouth and jaw surgeries.

Regardless of whether you are having a nose job, fighting pediatric cancer, removing cataracts, or suffering from a heart attack, you will still need a surgeon for each of these.

Surgery itself requires the careful use of medical instruments to repair damages or perform preventative and elective surgeries. From the surgeon, it requires meticulous care with steady hands, extreme patience, and laser-sharp focus, as surgery can often stretch on for hours without so much as a break.

This is why it is crucial that surgeons strongly develop both their hard skills and soft skills in the workplace so they can meet employer needs and survive in an ever-evolving workplace.

What Is the Annual Average Income of a Surgeon?

There is no doubt about it — surgeons are handsomely paid. The average American surgeon makes $255,110 per year, according to a 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics report.

Many factors contribute to a surgeon’s salary. The amount of education and experience are massive determinants, as well as one’s specialty and employer. A specialist tends to make more than a general surgeon because there is additional training required in the form of a specialty fellowship.

This is what the average surgeon makes each year based on specialty:

  • General surgery — $362,000;
  • Plastic surgery — $471,000;
  • Otolaryngology — $461,000;
  • Urology — $408,000.

The average salary may vary depending on where you live, too.

State Average Annual Salary
Texas $337,500
Arizona $125,00
Minnesota $500,000
New York $245,000
New Hampshire $450,000

Requirements to Become a Surgeon

The road to becoming a surgeon is long and arduous, and it remains demanding from start to finish. With someone’s life on the line, a surgeon must be proficient and knowledgeable and confident — and these are all things that come with study and experience.

Few make it the whole way, with an average 3.8% acceptance rate for the most selective schools and only 41% of medical school applicants gaining acceptance into medical school. With the grueling curriculum, few will go on to enjoy fulfilling careers in some form of surgery. That brings up a serious question of whether medical school is really worth the cost.


According to the BLS, there is a specific learning path that is required to become a surgeon. Most budding surgeons graduate from a bachelor’s program in biology, chemistry, physics, math, or English before mak their way into medical school.

Top applicants boast impressive transcripts with high MCAT scores of around 520 and praiseworthy letters of recommendation. Schools tend to favor candidates with strong leadership skills and a proven record of work and community service. In-person interviews are also commonly conducted to ensure that the candidate will be a good fit at that particular institution.

In all, surgeons end up spending a minimum of 13 years in some sort of schooling, whether it be college, medical school, or residency.


It’s not enough just to study the material; you must also learn how to apply it. Real-world application for a surgeon is far different from studying tissues and cells on a page, so on-the-job training is a critical part of a surgeon’s tutelage under established doctors.

The body is an intricate system that winds and weaves and connects into one big machine, so to diagnose a single part, you have to understand the greater whole.

Surgeons perform several residencies and training programs to become well-versed in a wide array of medical topics beyond just their specialty. A residency is usually based out of a hospital and can last anywhere from three to seven years, depending on your specialty. This allows the student to become exposed to a whole host of medical issues and ailments, making for a more well-rounded surgeon upon completion.


An important part of becoming a surgeon is earning the licenses required to do the job. Both federal and state guidelines require that all surgeons hold an active medical license, although the exact requirements vary by state and specialty.

Licenses are only awarded to those who have successfully graduated from an accredited medical school and who have satisfactorily completed their residency. You must also pass the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) or the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA).

A Surgeon’s Job Outlook

A surgeon’s life isn’t for everyone. The long hours spent on your feet and away from home are taxing on many a home life, and the constant emotional ups and downs eventually take a toll on your own psyche.

You have to be strong and sure in your choices, committed to your career, and mentally sound enough to find the strength and dedication it takes to become — and remain — a surgeon. You hold life and death in your hands every day, and while it is certainly fulfilling, it is also a heady responsibility you must shoulder.

Job Security and Growth

Medicine is always expanding and growing, changing with us as humanity evolves and new mysteries present themselves. There will always be a need for surgeons — it’s one service that we simply cannot go without.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that physicians and surgeons will experience a combined 13% job growth rate through 2026, with surgeons alone expecting to see a 14% job growth rate.

A rising population only further guarantees job security in this sector, showing that while you will pay dearly to get there, once you attain your licenses, there will always be a demand for you as a surgeon.

Work Environment

We tend to think of the frantic, whiplash frenzy of an emergency room when we imagine a doctor, but there are many different work environments for a surgeon. It just depends on what you do.

Some surgeons have private practices, allowing them to enjoy the comfort of a private, custom office for their daily endeavors. You will still see them in your local hospital’s operating rooms, however, because they remain affiliated with local hospitals for major surgeries and procedures.

Some surgeons don’t work in a medical office at all but rather out in the field. There are many doctors who choose to work with federal and non-profit organizations, and that can mean working in barren conditions in remote areas away from modern luxuries.

The kind of surgeon you become will largely dictate the kind of work environment you will experience each day.

Should You Become a Surgeon?

Life as a surgeon is not for the faint-hearted, and that’s because of more than just the constant blood and guts. The schedule is unyielding and heartless, giving no regard to your kid’s recital or your best friend’s wedding. Death knows no schedule, and so neither will you.

As a surgeon, you hold a patient’s life in your hands, and one mistake could have unimaginable and irreversible consequences. Therefore, budding surgeons must undergo a rigorous curriculum that lasts many years and is then followed by several years of on-the-job training.

For all its trouble and expense, the career of a surgeon can be very rewarding. You are often well-compensated financially for your work, and it is a highly coveted career that is respected the world over. It’s only a matter of whether this career is right for you.

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