How to Become a Plastic Surgeon

October 11, 2023
7 min read


Reviewed by:

Jonathan Preminger

Former Admissions Committee Member, Hofstra-Northwell School of Medicine

Reviewed: 10/11/23

If you’re looking into how to become a plastic surgeon and don’t know where to start, we’ve got you covered! We’ll review the requirements and steps to take on your path to becoming a plastic surgeon. 

If you’re looking for a career in medicine and have a keen eye for aesthetics, a medical specialty in plastic surgery may be for you. When we think of plastic surgery, we often think about cosmetic procedures associated with the glitz and glam of Hollywood. In reality, plastic surgery encompasses a wide variety of complex procedures.

Becoming a plastic surgeon can be a long process, but it’s well worth it for those interested in the specialty. We’ll review the steps you’ll need to take, how long it takes to become a plastic surgeon and more!

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Steps to Becoming a Plastic Surgeon

You might be wondering: how can I become a plastic surgeon? The answer isn’t always one that aspiring professionals want to hear. Becoming a plastic surgeon is one of the longest roads to a medical career you can take – but it doesn’t come without worthwhile rewards. 

This section will cover a plastic surgeon’s education requirements, beginning with your college career and continuing all the way to the end of your residency.

Step 1: Completing Your Undergraduate Degree

Just as any aspiring med school student, graduating college is a must. While there are pre-med majors that can best set you up for med school, your major doesn’t matter that much. Just remember there are mandatory prerequisite courses you need to take to qualify for medical school

In addition to prerequisite courses, there are other components med schools want to see in your application. During college, ensure you participate in meaningful extracurriculars. Some examples include: 

  • Clinical experience; 
  • Shadowing a physician; 
  • Research experience; 
  • Volunteer work;
  • Community service projects; and,
  • Meaningful hobbies.

You should also strive for a high GPA. Ensuring you set yourself up for success before applying to med school gives you a competitive edge and the opportunity to stand out.

It’s also strongly recommended that you research different schools while completing your undergraduate degree. This way, you can figure out which schools are the best for a surgery specialization and then cater your undergrad course selection to that school’s specific requirements. 

Step 2: Your Med School Application

Your next step to a career in plastic surgery is to get admitted into med school. This can be daunting due to all the components the application process requires. 

The first step is to ace your MCAT. While not all med schools require you to take the MCAT, getting a great MCAT score can make you more competitive. 

The second step is to complete your AMCAS application. The AMCAS application is the centralized application portal for allopathic medical schools. Your application will consist of primary and secondary components. 

Pay attention to the med school application timeline and submit your documents on time!

Step 3: Completing Medical School

Once you’re accepted, your next step is to get through four years of medical school. Completing your plastic surgeon schooling is a crucial step in this process. To get to graduation, it’ll help to know what to expect on this journey. This section will cover just that!


In terms of curriculum, your learning experience is often divided into pre-clinical and clinical training. For the first two years of med school, you’ll learn about basic medical concepts, structural and functional anatomy, and protocols and concepts for diagnosing and treating various diseases. 

The final two years of your degree typically focus on clinical training, which incorporates clinical rotations, giving you hands-on experience with patients and doctors in various medical specialties. 

Choosing Your Specialization and Applying for Residency 

Though the two take place at various points in your med school career, choosing your specialization and applying for residency training often come hand-in-hand. If you’re set on becoming a plastic surgeon, you should seek residency opportunities early in your med school career. 

What is a medical resident? Graphic

You’ll want to begin your residency application in the third year of med school. Before submitting your application, you’ll have to complete the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), making you a licensed physician in the U.S.

Ensure you take advantage of the many resources your medical school provides to help you find the right residency. You should actively network with career advisors and mentors to get you on the right track.

Step 4: Residency Interview and Acceptance

Becoming a plastic surgeon is considered one of the most competitive medical specialties. Additionally, it’s also one of the longest medical residencies to complete, taking up to six years. 

Though finding the right match can be challenging, there are a few components of your application that can help you stand out. According to the Journal of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, there are two things that strengthen your application and help you match with a residency: 

  1. High-quality letters of recommendation from plastic surgeons you’ve interacted with throughout your med school career show the program that practicing professionals can vouch for your character and work ethic, among other things.
  1. Completing your rotations at the programs you’re hoping to apply for allows you to get to know the residents and faculty, building a connection with them as you start applying for residencies. 

Focusing on these aspects of your application and maintaining a great GPA during medical school will lead you one step closer to an interview with your desired program. 

With that said, you’ll want to work diligently throughout med school, practice strategic networking, and prepare thoroughly for your residency interview to find the right placement. 

Step 5: Getting Licensed 

You have one last step to fulfill your dream of being a certified plastic surgeon! This final stretch requires you to take a final exam facilitated by the American Board of Plastic Surgery (ABPS) to ensure you’re adequately trained and ready for professional practice. 

This exam has two parts: a written and an oral exam. The written exam tests your education, training, and knowledge, ensuring they’re up to par with practicing plastic surgeons. The oral exam assesses your ability to adequately and ethically perform complex and diverse cases. 

Each exam consists of the following:

Exam Structural Components
Written Exam Optional 15-minute tutorial
Three blocks of 100 multiple-choice questions
One block of 50 unscored questions
60-minute optional break
Total six-hour time limit (not including optional break)
Oral Exam Presentation of five case reports from the candidate’s case list
One 45-minute-long case report session
Two theory and practice sessions at 45 minutes each
Assessment to take place over the span of two and a half days

Source: ABPS Written Examination, ABPS Oral Examination

Ensure you take the time to prepare for these exams!

Top Skills for Plastic Surgeons

Academic requirements aside, there are many other skills plastic surgeons need. These range from interpersonal skills to physical abilities. Keep reading to learn more about what non-academic assets plastic surgeons should have. 

A Steady Hand and Good Vision 

While it may seem obvious, surgeons require a steady hand and top-notch vision if they are going to succeed in their profession. Considering that plastic surgeons' work often deals with minute attention to detail, perfection is the goal, thus, steady hands are a must. 

Communication Skills

Doctors, surgeons included, need to be able to communicate with their patients in a kind, calming, yet informative manner. This is critical because poor bedside manners or a lack of empathy can upset patients or make the idea of going under more daunting. This will make a surgeon's job harder and the patient’s experience worse. 

Active Listener

Perhaps less obvious but plastic surgeons need to be active listeners. This will provide surgeons with the necessary understanding of their patient’s needs, goals, and desires. Active listening also creates comfort and trust; people feel at ease when they feel heard and understood. This dynamic is invaluable between doctors and their patients.  


When working in reconstruction, beyond just aesthetics, there needs to be a degree of creativity to create beauty or perfection. Creativity is a great skill to have as a plastic surgeon so that you can create, recreate, or mould the body to your patient’s desire.  


Another less obvious skill but one that is truly important - resilience. Plastic surgeons need to be able to handle long, physically demanding hours. Standing on your feet for extended periods of time while holding small utensils and remaining hyper-focused is very draining. Be prepared to work hard.

Types of Plastic Surgeons

Plastic surgeons can subspecialize in cosmetic or reconstructive plastic surgery: cosmetics focus on altering appearance for aesthetic reasons, while reconstructive surgery is used to improve function or restore a “natural-looking” appearance. 

Plastic surgeons can pursue fellowships to subspecialize in areas such as

  • Body contouring;
  • Microsurgery;
  • Craniofacial or craniomaxillofacial surgery;
  • Gender affirmation surgery;
  • Cosmetic surgery;
  • Hand surgery; and,
  • Burn surgery.

Whether you’re interested in cosmetic or reconstructive plastic surgery, pursuing a fellowship allows you to gain a deeper understanding of one of these areas.

Plastic Surgeon Salary & Career Outlook

Many debating going into plastic surgery often wonder how much plastic surgeons make. Well, with the recent boom of aesthetic procedures in Hollywood, the business of plastic surgery is at an all-time high. 

In fact, according to US News, in 2021, plastic surgeons were the highest-earning medical professionals. The average salary of a plastic surgeon is $368,750 annually.

Now, let’s break down the top 10 highest-paying states for plastic surgeons.

No. State Average Salary
1. Minnesota $403,953
2. Nevada $403,513
3. Massachusetts $400,057
4. Oregon $397,254
5. Hawaii $391,044
6. Iowa $385,755
7. Washington $382,400
8. Alaska $381,654
9. New York $378,596
10. Ohio $377,312

Source: ZipRecruiter

While these numbers represent the general highest average, many factors influence how much you make as a plastic surgeon, such as geographic region of practice, specialty, board certification, experience, and, unfortunately, gender wage gaps.

Is Becoming a Plastic Surgeon Right for You? How to Decide

If you’re still debating whether you should specialize in plastic surgery, there are a few additional things you should consider. 

If you want variety in your career then plastic surgery may be the field for you. It’s a huge discipline with many subspecializations, like craniofacial or micro-surgery. Plastic surgery is much, much more than just vanity procedures. It’s an expansive field in which surgeons help manipulate, construct, and reconstruct various parts of the human body. 

Finding your subspecialization can be hard though. During your time at med school, try to shadow plastic surgeons who specialize in different fields. This way you can figure out which sub-specialization, or plastic surgery in general, is right for you. 

Medical shadowing info

Another thing to consider is whether you are someone who enjoys meticulous attention to detail. This is an important trait for plastic surgeons. So, if being hyper-attentive is something you enjoy, then this may be the career for you. 

We said it earlier but it bares repeating, plastic surgeons work long and arduous hours. If you decide to specialize in plastic surgery then you need to be prepared to work hard. This can be incredibly rewarding, both personally and professionally. However, it’s not always everyone’s desired work hours so consider the lifestyle you want to lead. 

Figuring out if plastic surgery is the right career path for you takes time. You do not have to do it alone, however. There are a myriad of resources available to help you figure out which surgery specialization is right for you.

FAQs: How to Become a Plastic Surgeon

Now that we’ve discussed the various plastic surgeon requirements and the steps you need to take in order to enter into this specialization, we’ll address some common FAQs you might have. 

1. Is Becoming a Plastic Surgeon Hard?

While it can be extremely challenging, it’s attainable with the right drive and preparation. Ensure you follow the right steps to set you up for success on your path to becoming a licensed plastic surgeon.

2. How Long Does it Take to Become a Plastic Surgeon?

Including your undergraduate degree, medical school, and residency, becoming a fully licensed plastic surgeon can take 14 years or longer.

3. How Much Does it Cost to Become a Plastic Surgeon?

On average, it costs nearly $361,000 to become a plastic surgeon in the US. This includes the cost of an undergraduate degree. Keep in mind that this amount will vary per state. 

4. How Much Do Plastic Surgeons Make?

On average, plastic surgeons make $368,750 per year. However, specialty, practice location, experience, and many others can contribute to one’s earnings as a plastic surgeon. 

5. What Degree Do You Need to Be a Plastic Surgeon? 

To become a plastic surgeon, you must complete college, medical school, and a plastic surgery residency. 

6. Is Being a Plastic Surgeon Stressful? 

It can be; while 40% of surgeons experience burnout, a survey conducted by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) found that more than 25% of plastic surgeons display signs of burnout. While the percentage is lower, it’s important to be mindful of your mental and physical health.

Final Thoughts

Though the path to becoming a plastic surgeon is long, it can be a worthwhile endeavour. As one of the highest-earning and most diverse medical specialties, practicing plastic surgery provides opportunities for your professional and personal life. 

If you think this is the right path for you, don’t give up and keep your eyes on the prize. Best of luck!

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