Home / Career Guides / Surgeon

Surgeon Career Guide

What is a surgeon?

A surgeon is a medical specialist who performs surgical operations on patients. These professionals tackle various health issues, ranging from complex life-threatening diseases to common health conditions. As the cornerstone of the surgical team, they work collaboratively with other healthcare professionals such as anesthesiologists, surgical nurses, and other medical staff to ensure the best patient outcomes.

Their guidance and expertise are vital in the healthcare industry. Depending on their area of specialization, they can perform different types of surgeries, such as general surgery, cardiovascular surgery, neurosurgery, orthopedic surgery, and so on. Their role is paramount in maintaining the health and well-being of individuals, hence contributing significantly to the quality of life in the community.

Duties and responsibilities

The main responsibility of a surgeon is to perform surgeries to treat various diseases and medical conditions. They are also responsible for evaluating patient’s health conditions, interpreting diagnostic tests, determining the need for surgery, and discussing the surgical procedure with patients and their families.

These professionals must also provide follow-up care, monitor the patient’s recovery, and adjust the treatment plan as required. In addition, they collaborate with other healthcare professionals for comprehensive patient care and engage in peer reviews to uphold medical standards and improve patient outcomes.

Work environment

Surgeons typically work in hospitals, surgical centers, and healthcare clinics. Their working environment is highly demanding and stressful, requiring a high level of mental focus and physical stamina. They constantly deal with critical situations and, therefore, need to be calm, patient, and resilient. They also work with cutting-edge medical instruments and technologies to perform surgeries.

Frequent interaction is usually with patients and their families, other doctors, nurses, and medical professionals. These interactions involve significant decision-making, consultation, and sometimes dealing with anxious or emotionally charged situations.

Typical work hours

Surgeons typically work full time, with long, irregular hours that often extend beyond the typical 9-to-5 shift. As they often need to respond to medical emergencies, their work schedule might include nights, weekends, and holidays.

Additionally, on-call hours are common, especially for those affiliated with hospitals. In these instances, they must be ready to handle emergencies at any time of the day or night. Dedicated and professional commitment is a key aspect of their work life.

How to become a surgeon

This career guide section outlines how to become a surgeon. This medical profession involves significant education, skill development, and dedication spanning multiple years to secure a residency and become fully certified.

Step 1: Obtain a bachelor’s degree

Begin your journey by pursuing a bachelor’s degree, traditionally in a science-related field such as biology or chemistry. Undergraduate studies typically last four years and lay the foundation for medical knowledge and laboratory experience. Admission to medical schools usually involves excellent grades, particularly in science subjects.

Step 2: Pass the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)

Before entering medical school, prospective surgeons must pass the MCAT, a standardized, multiple-choice examination. The test assesses problem-solving, critical thinking, writing skills, and knowledge of science concepts and principles prerequisite to the study of medicine. High scores increase the chances of admission to medical schools.

Step 3: Earn a medical degree

Secure admission to a medical school to start your four-year journey toward earning a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree. Your studies will split into two phases: the first two years generally focus on foundational topics in medicine, such as anatomy and physiology, while the last two revolve around clinical experience.

Step 4: Complete a surgical residency

After graduating from medical school, you must complete a surgical residency, typically lasting between five and seven years. During this period, you will work in a hospital under the supervision of experienced surgeons and gain hands-on surgical experience. Residency programs offer training in various surgical specialties, including general surgery, orthopedic surgery, neurosurgery, or plastic surgery.

Step 5: Obtain licensure

Surgeons must possess a valid license to practice medicine legally. Requirements vary by state, but all doctors must pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) or the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX). This test evaluates medical knowledge and skills.

Step 6: Become board certified

Becoming a board-certified surgeon can increase your employability and professional credibility. To gain this certification from the American Board of Surgery, you must have completed a residency program and pass a rigorous examination. Board certification needs renewal every ten years and requires continuous education throughout a surgeon’s career.

How much do surgeons make?

Surgeon salaries will vary by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. Compensation is particularly influenced by their specialty, such as cardiovascular, pediatric, or orthopedic surgery, which demand different skill sets and have varying market values.

Highest paying industries

  • Offices of Physicians – $255,110
  • Outpatient Care Centers – $230,780
  • Surgical and Medical Hospitals – $224,980
  • Medical and Diagnostic Laboratories – $220,380
  • Medical and Health Services Management – $208,000

Highest paying states

  • Wisconsin – $409,665
  • South Dakota – $408,827
  • Indiana – $408,745
  • New Mexico – $408,068
  • Nevada – $407,682

Browse surgeon salary data by market

Types of surgeons

This career guide section highlights the various career types and areas of specialization for surgeons. Below, we highlight the unique attributes and responsibilities of each job title.

General surgeon

In the broadest of terms, a general surgeon is skilled in the diagnosis and care of patients with diseases and disorders affecting almost any part of the body. They evaluate patient medical histories, perform physical exams, order diagnostic tests, and lead treatments for a wide array of conditions.

Orthopedic surgeon

When a patient is dealing with disease or injury in the musculoskeletal system, an orthopedic surgeon is the specialist they need. They operate on patients struggling with a range of issues from musculoskeletal trauma, sports injuries, degenerative diseases, infections, tumors, and congenital disorders.

Cardiothoracic surgeon

Experts in the surgical care of diseases affecting organs within the thorax, cardiothoracic surgeons focus on conditions of the heart, lungs, esophagus, and other structures within the chest. This includes heart and lung transplantation and minimally invasive surgery.


As experts in the field of neurological health, neurosurgeons treat disorders affecting the nervous system, including the brain, spinal cord, peripheral nerves, and extra-cranial cerebrovascular system. These specialists often work in hospital settings and high-stress environments.

Plastic surgeon

Helping patients improve or restore their appearance and function, plastic surgeons play a critical role in an individual’s self-esteem and overall well-being. They specialize in reconstructive procedures following trauma or disease, as well as elective cosmetic surgeries.

Top skills for surgeons

This section outlines the primary skills and traits needed for career success as a surgeon. In this demanding role, a convergence of complex technical skills, personal attributes, and broad scientific knowledge defines the path to a successful career.

Technical proficiency

A high level of technical proficiency is paramount in the surgical field. This entails mastery in handling surgical equipment, performing complex operations, and having trained hand-eye coordination. Adeptness in minimally invasive procedures and familiarity with technological advancements are also important aspects of this job.

Physical stamina

Performing surgery can be physically demanding, often requiring long hours in high-stress environments. Stamina and resilience become crucial to withstand these conditions, and a level of physical fitness is necessary to maintain the rigorous demands of the surgical role.

Analytical aptitude

An analytical mindset is needed to diagnose patients correctly, interpret medical data, and devise efficient treatment plans. A surgeon’s ability to think critically and solve problems can make the difference between life and death in many cases.

Interpersonal skills

They need strong communication skills, not only for dealing effectively with patient care but also for coordinating with medical staff. The ability to convey information reassuringly to patients and their families and work harmoniously with a team is crucial to this job.

Resilience and emotional stability

Given the intense nature of their work, these professionals must display resilience and emotional stability. They must manage stress effectively, maintain focus during challenging situations, and cope with potential loss while providing the best possible patient care.

Commitment to learning

The fast-paced world of medicine requires a commitment to ongoing learning. Surgeons should actively engage in continuous education and stay informed of the latest research and advancement in their field to provide the best possible care to patients.

Surgeon career path options

Within the complex and demanding field of surgery, there exists a broad scope of opportunities for career maturation. Surgeons, after gaining sufficient experience, can explore several avenues for progression. One common path is pursuing a specialization in a specific area of surgery, which involves further training and certification. Specialties can include neurosurgery, orthopedic surgery, or cardiovascular surgery, among others.

In addition to clinical practice, many professionals venture into teaching or research roles in medical schools, merging their practical knowledge with academic pursuits. In such roles, they can significantly influence the next generation of medical practitioners and contribute to scientific advancements in their field.

Surgeons with solid experience and leadership qualities may also progress into administrative roles. These roles might include serving as chief of surgery or medical director within a hospital or healthcare organization. In these positions, they can shape policies and standard practices within their department or institution and have a broader impact on patient care and health outcomes.

Lastly, they often become members or leaders of professional associations related to their specialty. This involvement offers the chance to influence the field more broadly, shape standards and regulations, and contribute to the advancement of the profession as a whole.

The medical field continues to advance rapidly, and with that, the role of a surgeon experiences significant changes. Technological innovations have created new types of surgical procedures and improved the efficiencies of existing ones. Robots, for instance, are becoming commonplace in the surgical suite, assisting these professionals in performing complicated procedures with greater precision, less invasiveness, and faster recovery times for patients.

We’re also seeing a growth in the specialization of surgeons. Rather than focusing broadly, many are opting to specialize in specific areas, such as orthopedic, cardiovascular, or neurological surgery. This trend of super-specialization is driven by advancements in medical knowledge and the increasing complexity of certain medical conditions needing specialized interventions. Adapting to these trends requires an ongoing commitment to learning and mastering new techniques and technologies.

These professionals now have a wider variety of workplaces to choose from. While hospitals remain the predominant place of employment, outpatient clinics, specialty hospitals, and ambulatory surgical centers are becoming more common places to practice. This change in the work environment brings with it a shift in their actions and responsibilities. For instance, working in an outpatient center may require greater involvement in patient consultations and follow-ups, as opposed to solely focusing on the act of surgery itself.

Employment projections

According to the latest available data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of surgeons is projected to grow by 3 percent through 2032. The expansion of healthcare-related services is expected to drive this growth, necessitated by an aging population and the rise of chronic diseases requiring surgical interventions. However, these estimates do not consider the potential impact of healthcare legislation changes on the demand for surgical services.

Surgeon career tips

Stay updated with medical advancements

Given that the field of medicine is constantly evolving, every surgeon should commit to ongoing education. Regularly reading medical journals, attending conferences, and enrolling in courses can ensure you’re always informed about the latest surgical techniques and best practices. Staying well-informed can make a significant difference in your patients’ outcomes and enhance your reputation within the medical community.

Train in new surgical technologies

Technological advancements have profoundly affected the field of surgery. From robot-assisted surgeries to minimally invasive procedures, new technologies are constantly emerging to make surgeries more effective, safer, and easier to recover from. To stay competitive in this field, you should take the initiative to learn about and train in these new techniques as they become available.

Maintain your physical and emotional well-being

Working as a surgeon can be highly stressful and physically demanding. Long hours, high-pressure situations, and the emotional toll of dealing with critical illnesses can all pose considerable challenges. To manage such challenges and continue delivering high-quality care, it’s essential to prioritize self-care. Regular exercise, a balanced diet, sufficient sleep, and stress management techniques can all contribute to your physical and emotional well-being.

Build a professional network

Establishing a strong professional network can lead to learning, collaboration, and career progression opportunities. You can build meaningful relationships by attending industry events or participating in online forums and social media groups.

  • American College of Surgeons
  • Society of American Gastrointestinal and Endoscopic Surgeons
  • American Society of Plastic Surgeons
  • Association of Women Surgeons

Commit to continuous learning

Lifelong learning is a fundamental part of being a successful surgeon. Embrace additional learning opportunities, maintain your education around medical advancements, and continually evolve your skills to remain at the forefront of your field. Here are some avenues for continuous learning:

  • Earn additional certifications in areas like advanced trauma life support or advanced cardiovascular life support
  • Attend webinars and workshops dedicated to the latest surgical technologies
  • Participate in research studies to contribute to the medical field and develop a deeper understanding of certain conditions and treatment methods
  • Pursue a fellowship in a specialized area of surgery to become an expert in that field

Where the surgeon jobs are

Top employers

  • Mayo Clinic
  • Cleveland Clinic
  • Johns Hopkins Hospital
  • UCLA Medical Center
  • Massachusetts General Hospital

Top states

  • California
  • New York
  • Texas
  • Pennsylvania
  • Florida

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • Monster
  • Simply Hired
  • LinkedIn


What would be a typical workday for a surgeon?

A surgeon’s workday can be quite variable, depending on the type of surgeon and the specific work setting. Generally, the workday may begin early in the morning with rounds, visiting patients in the hospital who are recovering from surgery. Then, they may head to the operating room for scheduled procedures. The afternoon may consist of administrative work or office hours with patients. Emergency surgeries may also be a part of the workday, depending on their specialty.

Can surgeons maintain a balanced lifestyle given their demanding job?

While the professional life of a surgeon is demanding and involves long and intense work hours, it is still possible to maintain a balanced lifestyle. Prioritizing time management can help create room for personal time and family life. Advanced planning and self-care activities, like regular exercise, socializing, and rest, are important. Many professionals acknowledge that their work is not only a job but a lifestyle, and while the commitment is great, the rewards can be equally so.

What personality traits are beneficial for a surgeon?

Being a good surgeon extends beyond exceptional technical abilities. They also need excellent communication skills to explain complex medical concepts to patients and their families, as well as to collaborate with other healthcare professionals. They should have strong decision-making abilities and be able to work well under pressure. Attention to detail is crucial to avoid errors and ensure patient safety, and they must also have a strong sense of integrity and a dedication to lifelong learning.

What are some risks or challenges associated with being a surgeon?

The job of a surgeon is highly demanding and stressful, both mentally and physically. They often deal with life-and-death situations and must make decisions quickly. There is also the risk of litigation and malpractice suits. The long work hours can take a toll on physical and mental health, affecting personal relationships as well. Maintaining up-to-date knowledge and skills is critical and requires continuous learning and adaptation to advancements in medical technology.

What specific skills should a surgeon have?

Surgeons require a combination of intellectual and practical skills. From an academic perspective, a deep knowledge of human anatomy, surgical techniques, and medication is essential. They must also have the technical expertise to operate various surgical instruments and technology. Equally important are problem-solving skills, decision-making skills, and the ability to stay calm under pressure. High levels of physical endurance and manual dexterity are also necessary due to the nature of the surgical procedures.

Does a surgeon always work in an operating room?

While a significant portion of a surgeon’s time is spent in the operating room, there are other areas where they work as well. They often meet with patients in their offices or hospital rooms for pre-surgical consultations and post-operative follow-ups. They may also conduct rounds and visit their patients outside of surgery. Additionally, these professionals might spend time in their offices or hospitals’ administrative areas dealing with paperwork, research, and staff meetings.

How does a surgeon interact with other hospital staff?

Surgeons work closely with various hospital staff members, including nurses, anesthesiologists, medical assistants, and specialist doctors. They work collaboratively with these individuals during surgeries and patient care. They rely on the support and expertise of these professionals to ensure patient safety and effective delivery of medical services. Regular meetings, discussions, and consultations among these professionals are common in hospitals.

What kind of physical demand is there for a surgeon?

The work of a surgeon is physically demanding. It often involves standing on the feet for long hours during surgical procedures. They also need to maintain a high level of precision and control for small and intricate movements, particularly during delicate or complex procedures. Therefore, manual dexterity, eye-hand coordination, and physical stamina are important. Remaining fit, healthy, and having good general well-being is beneficial for this demanding profession.

What kind of decision-making is typically involved as a surgeon?

As a surgeon, critical thinking and rapid decision-making skills are essential. They make decisions regarding patient diagnosis, treatment options, and surgical procedures on a regular basis. Some situations may require quick, on-the-spot decision-making, such as unforeseen complications during surgery. In such scenarios, they must rapidly analyze the situation and decide the best course of action to ensure patient safety and successful outcomes.