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Picture of a plastic surgeon during surgery.

How to Become a Plastic Surgeon

January 17, 2023
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Steps to Become a Plastic SurgeonWhat Does a Plastic Surgeon Do? Types of Plastic SurgeonsPlastic Surgeon Salary & Career OutlookFAQs: How to Become a Plastic Surgeon

”Jonathan

Reviewed by:

Jonathan Preminger

Former Admissions Committee Member, Hofstra-Northwell School of Medicine

Reviewed: 5/13/22

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 also encompasses various procedures, such as reconstructive surgery.

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 Become a Plastic Surgeon

You might be wondering: how long does it take to 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 educational requirements from your college career 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: 

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.

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 for consideration, 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. To get to graduation, it’ll help to know what to expect on this journey. This section will cover just that!

Curriculum 

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. 

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: 

ABPS Exam components
Source: ABPS Written Examination | ABPS Oral Examination

Ensure you take the time to prepare for these exams!

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What Does a Plastic Surgeon Do? 

Schooling for plastic surgeons teaches them the necessary skills to improve function, restore or alter appearances, and treat injuries. Here are some more specific examples:

Table outlining what plastic surgeons do
Source: Cleveland Clinic

Plastic surgery is a versatile specialty, offering opportunities for sub specialization in specific areas. 

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

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

With the recent boom of aesthetic procedures in Hollywood, business for plastic surgeons has been at an all-time high. While this doesn’t cover every subspecialty of plastic surgery, you can be assured your 14 years of hard work will reap substantial rewards regardless of which subspecialty you choose. 

Based on the 2022 Average Annual Physical Compensation Report, plastic surgeons are the second-highest-earning medical professionals. The average salary of a plastic surgeon is $479,000 annually.

While these numbers represent the general 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.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that overall employment of all physicians and surgeons is estimated to grow by 3% from 2021 to 2030, slower than the average for all occupations. 

FAQs: How to Become a Plastic Surgeon

Now that we’ve discussed the steps you can take toward becoming a plastic surgeon, we’ll address some 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, time in medical school, and residency, becoming a fully licensed plastic surgeon can take 14 years or longer.

3. How Much Do Plastic Surgeons Make?

On average, plastic surgeons make $479,000 per year. However, specialty, practice location, experience, and many others can contribute to one’s earnings as a plastic surgeon. 

4. 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. 

5. 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 endeavor. As one of the highest-earning and most diverse medical specialties, practicing plastic surgery provides a world of 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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