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How to Become a Surgeon

February 21, 2022
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IntroductionHow Hard Is It to Become a Surgeon?Becoming a Surgeon: The TimelineSteps to Become a SurgeonConsiderations for Future SurgeonsFAQs: Becoming a Surgeon

Interested in becoming a surgeon but not sure how? Here’s the complete breakdown of the timeline to become a surgeon.


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

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

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How Hard Is It to Become a Surgeon?

As with any healthcare specialty, the educational process of becoming a surgeon is both challenging and time-consuming. It is worth noting that surgical specialties take the longest of any residency program to complete. A surgery residency can take five to seven years to complete, depending on the complexity of the specialty.

Essentially, the level of difficulty of becoming a surgeon depends on the type of surgery you’re interested in pursuing. 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 areas of interest, you may also want to pursue a fellowship after your residency to subspecialize. A fellowship can add another two to three years onto your education. If you were to become a pediatric neurosurgeon, for example, your schooling may take up to eighteen years to complete. 

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Becoming a Surgeon: The Timeline

Let’s go over each of the major educational steps to becoming a surgeon. Unless stated otherwise, each of these steps is an essential part of training to become a surgeon. It should be noted that you can begin your journey to becoming a surgeon at any age; you do not need to follow the traditional path as long as you complete the necessary educational material. 

Premed years

Before applying for medical school, you must complete the necessary prerequisite courses and have completed a four-year bachelor's degree. Your major doesn’t really affect a medical school’s decision. They’re mostly interested in your prerequisites, extracurriculars, passion, and experience.

This is the time to prepare for your medical school application. During this time, you should thoroughly research your target medical schools and their requirements to ensure you are on track to complete all of the necessary materials. You should also consider building up your profile with volunteerism, medical internships, or related jobs, and anything else you can do to create a stellar premed CV.

You will also have to complete the MCAT exam before most medical schools will consider you for admission. After completing all of their medical prerequisites, 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, finished your CV and all other application materials, you’re ready to apply to medical school

Medical School

Once you’ve gotten into medical school, you’ll learn all of the basics to get you ready for your surgical specialty later on. You can get into a surgical residency no matter which medical school you attend, although some are considered better for students hoping to pursue surgery. Duke, Harvard, and Johns Hopkins are currently considered the best medical schools for surgery, according to U.S. News. 

Medical school generally takes four years to complete and consists of classes, labs, and clinical rotations. Medical school is where you’ll begin taking STEP exams for medical licensure. At the end of your second year in medical school, you should take the Step 1 U.S. Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE). 

You must complete the USMLE Steps 1 and 2 before you can apply for residency in the U.S. The USMLE Step 2 exam should be completed in your fourth and final year of medical school. Your fourth year is also when you can begin branching off into more surgery-specific courses to prepare you for a surgical residency program.

Throughout medical school, you should be gathering information and experience to create your medical CV. Surgical residencies can be competitive, so it’s important not to let your residency application slip your mind during your medical school years. 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. Depending on your program and specialty, this step can take five to seven years to complete. The shortest surgical residencies are typically in general surgery, while the longest are in neurology. 

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 will also be compensated for your years in residency, and your pay will increase with each year of experience you gain. 

After your first post-graduate year of study, you can take your third and final USMLE exam to obtain your U.S. medical license. Upon completing residency, you are ready to practice medicine in the U.S. as a fully licensed doctor. Your performance in residency and  the connections you make can help you find a permanent position once you have finished your training. 

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.”

Here is where 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 only offered to students of the highest caliber. Fellows are compensated similarly to residents and follow a similar educational structure. 

Once you have completed your fellowship, you are more than ready to begin practicing medicine as a fully licensed physician in the U.S. 

Steps to Become a Surgeon

We’ve covered a lot of ground so far. To simplify, let’s break down each major step to becoming a surgeon.

1. High School

To be eligible for most bachelor’s programs, you’ll first have to complete high school. You may want to consider taking every science, math, English, and psych course available to you in this stage to prepare you for your prerequisite courses.

2. Bachelor’s Degree (Premed)

Most medical schools require a bachelor’s degree to be eligible for their programs. Make sure to take all of the necessary prerequisite courses to prepare you for the MCAT exam and to be eligible for your target medical schools. 

3. Medical College Admissions Test

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

4. Medical School

During the four years of 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 begin taking courses that are more specific to your surgery specialty. 

5. Surgical Residency

During your surgical residency, you will begin practicing medicine under the supervision of senior physicians and program directors. Depending on your surgical specialty, this step can take five to seven years to complete. You’ll also take the thirst and final USMLE Step exam to obtain U.S. 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) is not necessary for performing surgery in the U.S. However, it is recommended as it can increase credibility and establish you as an excellent surgeon. 

Considerations for Future Surgeons

As we’ve established, the road to becoming a surgeon is long and challenging. Here are some considerations for students considering a surgical career.


Surgery (specifically neurosurgery) requires the longest educational period of any medical specialty. The material you’ll be learning is complex; it requires an immense attention to detail and a lot of practice. This means there are no shortcuts when it comes to the amount of time 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. Surgery is not a specialty for the faint of heart. You should only pursue a career in surgery if you have a strong, lasting passion for the specialty. 


As you may already know, surgery requires immense precision and accuracy. Stress management, a steady hand, and the ability to focus for long periods of time are all factors that should contribute to your decision to pursue a career in surgery. 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 is completed. Since the nature of surgical procedures requires urgency, you will always have to be ready to go into surgery. Your schedule may be random, and you will have to prepare accordingly for as long as your career lasts.

FAQs: Becoming a Surgeon

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

1. Should I Become a Surgeon?

Surgery is not a specialty for the indecisive or faint of heart. 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?

From the beginning of your bachelor’s degree to the end of your program, becoming a surgeon can take anywhere between 13 to 18 years. The length of your studies depends on what specialty you choose and if you choose to subspecialize. 

3. How Long Is A Surgical Residency?

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

4. What Is The Easiest Surgery Specialty?

Every surgical specialty presents a unique set of challenges. 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 as they require a high level of precision and many years of training. 

Final Thoughts 

If you are passionate about surgery, the long journey to become a surgeon will be worth it for you. Although stressful, surgery can be a fruitful and rewarding career. Every medical profession is challenging; your choice should ultimately come down to how passionate you are about the specialty. Saving lives will never be easy!

Wishing you the best of luck choosing your specialty.

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