How to Become a Surgeon

October 12, 2023


Reviewed by:

Jonathan Preminger

Former Admissions Committee Member, Hofstra-Northwell School of Medicine

Reviewed: 10/11/23

Wondering how to become a surgeon? Here’s the complete breakdown of the timeline to become a surgeon.

Are you considering a surgery specialization? Becoming a surgeon is challenging, but it’s certainly worth the hard work. Surgeons are some of the highest-paid and most in-demand medical professionals globally.

So how do you become a surgeon? Here’s the complete breakdown, including the timeline, steps, and more. Let’s get started!

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Steps to Become a Surgeon

We’ll cover all the prerequisites to become a surgeon, simplified first. Read on to learn more in-depth about each step! 

1. High School

The first step is to finish high school. You may want to consider taking every science, math, English, and psych course available to you at this stage to prepare you for college.

2. Bachelor’s Degree (Premed)

Before med school, it takes four years of college to become a surgeon. Ensure you take prerequisite courses to prepare for the MCAT exam and be eligible at your target medical schools. 

3. Medical College Admissions Test

The MCAT is required for most medical schools. You should prepare for the MCAT three to five months before taking it to achieve a competitive MCAT score

4. Medical School

You’ll have to take the USMLE Step 1 & 2 exams (or the COMLEX-USA Level 1 for DO students) and prepare your medical CV to apply to surgical residencies. During the second half of medical school, you can take courses specific to your surgery specialty. 

5. Surgical Residency

During your surgical residency, you’ll practice medicine under the supervision of senior physicians and program directors. Depending on your surgical specialty, this step can take five to seven years. You’ll also take the final USMLE Step exam to obtain medical licensure. 

6. Surgical Fellowship (Optional)

If you wish to subspecialize, you can participate in a medical fellowship to further your knowledge in a specific area of surgery. 

7. State Licensing

State licensing is often satisfied by passing all steps of the USMLE (MD) or  COMLEX-USA (DO) exam, although it may require periodic renewal. 

8. Board Certification (Optional)

Board certification by the American Board of Surgery (ABS) isn’t necessary for performing surgery in the U.S. However, it’s recommended as it can increase credibility and establish you as an excellent surgeon. 

Education Requirements to Become a Surgeon

Let’s review the education requirements for surgeons so you know precisely what to expect. 

Pre-Med Years

Before applying for medical school, you must complete the necessary prerequisite courses and have or be on track to complete a four-year bachelor's degree. Your major doesn’t really affect a medical school’s decision. They’re mostly interested in your: 

  • Prerequisite courses
  • Extracurriculars
  • Passion for medicine
  • Medical-relate experiences

While filling out your application, you should research your target medical schools and their requirements to ensure you’re on track. You should also consider building up your profile with volunteerism, medical internships, related jobs, and anything else you can do to create a stellar pre-med CV.

You’ll also take the MCAT exam. After completing all medical prerequisite courses, most medical students give themselves about three to five months to study before taking the MCAT. Once you’ve received your MCAT score, completed your prerequisites, and other application materials, you’re ready to apply to medical school

Medical School

At medical school, you’ll learn the basics to get you ready for your surgical specialty. Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and the University of California--San Francisco are currently considered the best medical schools for surgery, according to U.S. News.

picture of Harvard Medical School building.
Source: The Harvard Crimson

Medical school generally takes four years to complete and consists of classes, labs, and clinical rotations. You’ll begin taking USMLE exams for medical licensure. You should take the USMLE Step 1 at the end of your second year and the USMLE Step 2 in your final year.

Your fourth year is also when you can begin branching off into more surgery-specific courses to prepare for a surgical residency. Surgical residencies can be competitive, so it’s important not to let your residency application slip your mind. Once you’ve completed medical school, you can apply to be matched into a surgical residency. 


Once you’ve started a surgical residency, you’re more than halfway to becoming a surgeon. How long your surgery residency is depends on your program and specialty, but they typically take five to seven years to complete

Residency is where you’ll start working with real patients in a clinic or hospital alongside senior physicians, more experienced residents, and program directors. You’ll be compensated during residency, and your pay will increase with each year of experience you gain. 

After your first post-graduate year of study, you can take the USMLE Step 3 exam to obtain a medical license. Upon completing residency, you’re ready to practice medicine. Your performance and network in residency can help you find a permanent position after. 

Fellowship (Optional)

If you wish to subspecialize after surgical residency, you can apply for (or be invited to attend) a two to three-year fellowship program. 

The ACGME defines a surgical fellow as:

“a physician in a program of graduate medical education accredited by the ACGME, who is beyond the requirements for eligibility for initial board certification in a surgical discipline.”

You’ll learn how to apply your surgical knowledge to a specific type of patient or illness. Attending a fellowship program is considered an honor and is generally offered to students of the highest caliber. Fellows are compensated similarly to residents. 

How Hard Is It to Become a Surgeon?

As with any healthcare specialty, it takes many years of school to become a surgeon. Surgical specialties are one of the longest residency programs. A surgery residency can take five to seven years, depending on the specialty’s complexity.

The shortest surgical residencies are in general and orthopedic surgery, while plastic surgery, neurosurgery, and other more intricate types range from six to seven years. 

Depending on your interest areas, you may also want to pursue a fellowship after your residency to subspecialize. A fellowship can add another two to three years to your education. For example, if you were to become a pediatric neurosurgeon, your schooling may take up to eighteen years to complete. 

How Much Does a Surgeon Make? 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a surgeon’s mean annual salary is $347,870. This works out to an average hourly wage of $167.25. Surgeons make the most in medical and diagnostic laboratories and physicians’ offices.  

Considerations for Future Surgeons

Now that you know how to become a surgeon, you should consider these factors.


Surgery (specifically neurosurgery) requires the longest educational period of any medical specialty. The material you’ll learn is complex. There are no shortcuts to how long it’ll take to retain the information you’ll need for your career. 

Level of Difficulty

Surgery is widely considered the most challenging of any medical specialty. It requires long hours, heavy reading, plenty of practice, and a ton of mental energy. You should only pursue a career in surgery if you have a strong, lasting passion for the specialty. 


Surgery requires immense precision and accuracy. Stress management, a steady hand, and the ability to focus for long periods should contribute to your decision. If you have a tremor or difficulty focusing, it may negatively impact your career success as a surgeon. 

Long Hours

Unlike some other medical specialties, surgery will have you working intense hours long after your residency. Since the nature of surgical procedures requires urgency, you’ll always have to be ready to go into surgery. Your schedule may be random, and you’ll have to prepare accordingly. 

FAQs: Becoming a Surgeon

Here are some answers to the most frequently asked questions about becoming a surgeon. 

1. Should I Become a Surgeon?

You should pursue a career in surgery if you have a strong passion and determination for the specialty. 

2. How Long Does It Take To Become A Surgeon?

How long it takes to become a surgeon varies, but it usually takes 13 to 18 years. The length of your education depends on your specialty. 

3. How Long Is A Surgical Residency?

Depending on the specialty, a surgical residency can take 5-7 years to complete. 

4. What Is The Easiest Surgery Specialty?

Every surgical specialty presents a unique set of challenges, but none are easy. The shortest and most common surgical specialty is general surgery, which takes five years to complete. 

5. What Is The Hardest Surgery Specialty?

While every surgical specialty is challenging, neurosurgery, pediatric, and onco surgery are considered some of the most challenging. They require precision and many years of training. 

6. What Degree Do You Need to Become a Surgeon? 

There are two degrees you need to be a surgeon before entering residency. You need a bachelor’s degree and an MD. 

Final Thoughts 

If you’re passionate about surgery, the long journey to becoming a surgeon is worth it. Although you must meet many requirements to become a surgeon, it can be a rewarding career. 

Every medical profession is challenging; your choice should ultimately come down to how passionate you are about the specialty. We wish you the best of luck choosing your specialty.

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