Types of Surgeons: Which Specialty Is Right For You?

April 25, 2024


Reviewed by:

Akhil Katakam

Third-Year Medical Student, Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University

Reviewed: 4/25/24

If you’ve decided you’d like to spend your career in an operating room, read on to learn more about the types of surgical specialties you can pursue.

Whether you’re a huge fan of Grey’s Anatomy, or have always had a passion for medicine, you may be considering a career as a surgeon. But, given the fact that there are more than 10,000 diseases that affect the human body, various types of surgeons exist to treat these illnesses.

Perhaps you’re unsure of the types of surgeons there are, or which one you’d be best suited for. Regardless, this guide can offer you some clarity! Below, we’ll go over the most common and recognized surgical specialties and what they involve.

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Types of Surgeons and What They Do

Picking a specialty will be one of the most important and difficult choices you’ll have to make during your medical journey. To help you come to a decision easier, here are the 13 types of surgeons and what they do:

General Surgeons

Surgical residents are all trained in general surgery. General surgeons are able to perform a broad-range of operations. The most common operations they perform relate to the abdomen, endocrine system, alimentary tract, and soft tissues. 

General surgery is the only specialty on this list that does not require a fellowship. Students can begin working as general surgeons right after their surgical residencies are complete.

Cardiothoracic Surgeons

One of the most well-known specialties you can pursue is cardiothoracic surgery. These surgeons are responsible for operating on all the organs inside the chest, including the heart, lungs, diaphragm, and esophagus.

Cardiothoracic surgeons perform a range of operations, from minimally invasive catheter angioplasties, to highly complex heart and lung transplants. 


For all you Grey’s Anatomy fans, you’re probably familiar with the saying, “it’s a beautiful day to save lives!” This iconic saying belongs to Derek Shepherd, a renowned neurosurgeon. 

Neurosurgery is one of the most competitive and challenging surgical specialties. These professionals treat issues that affect the nervous system, brain, spine, and nerves. The majority of these surgeries involve delicate structures that can easily be injured, resulting in severe impairments!

Trauma Surgeons

For aspiring surgeons that are able to handle high pressure, aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, and can quickly think on their feet, trauma surgery might be the perfect specialty for you! These experts perform emergency surgeries on critically injured patients. 

Trauma surgeons are always in for a surprise in the ER and must be able to quickly adapt and react as they encounter new injuries. 

Plastic Surgeons

Plastic surgery is the most competitive surgical specialty. While you may assume these surgeons only perform nose jobs and tummy tucks, they also perform far more advanced surgeries.

These surgeons repair severe scars, facial deformities, and even nerves. For instance, people who lose salvageable limbs or digits in accidents require plastic surgeons to reattach these body parts and help regain function in them!

Colon and Rectal Surgeons

Also known as colorectal surgeons, these specialists operate on the lower digestive tract, including the colon, anus, and rectum. The most common diseases they treat are hemorrhoids, abscesses, anal fissures, pelvic floor conditions, and colon cancer.

Obstetrics and Gynecological Surgeons

OB-GYNs treat conditions that affect the female reproductive system. For med students interested in dealing with more life than death, a large part of this specialty involves delivering babies through C-sections. 

These specialists also perform procedures such as hysterectomies, ovarian cyst removals, egg retrievals, and pelvic organ repairs.

Orthopedic Surgeons

With over 200 bones in the human body, these specialists are required to care for all of them! Orthopedic surgeons are responsible for operating on the entire musculoskeletal system, which includes bones, ligaments, joints, tendons, and muscles. 

These types of surgeons typically further specialize in treating particular parts of the body, like the hands or feet, because of how vast the field is.

They also play a large role in the rehabilitation process and help people with severe injuries gain back mobility and function.

Ophthalmic Surgeons

Ophthalmic surgeons perform operations on the eye, and most commonly treat refractive errors, glaucomas, and cataracts. 

Many ophthalmic surgeons pursue other specialties in order to widen their range of surgical abilities. For instance, oculoplastic surgeons perform cosmetic and reconstructive surgeries on the eye socket, tear duct, eyelids, and face.

Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons

These types of surgeons are trained to treat a large spectrum of diseases, defects, and injuries in the face, neck, head, jaws, and tissues around the facial region.

Oral and maxillofacial surgery is technically considered to be a dental specialist. These surgeons must go to dental school and potentially also medical school, depending on their residency program.

Pediatric Surgeons

Pediatric surgery is considered to be the most intense medical specialty. These surgeons perform all the operations that other specialists do, only they do so in children!

Many pediatric surgeons specialize in treating a particular age group or disease. The four main pediatric surgery subspecialties are:

  • Prenatal: diagnosing problems while the child is still in the womb and operating on them while they are still fetuses
  • Neonatal: performing surgeries on newborns to repair congenital defects or disabilities
  • Trauma: performing emergency surgeries on critically injured children
  • Oncology: focusing on treating children with cancer

An important part of being a pediatric surgeon is making children and their worried parents feel comfortable! If you choose to pursue this career, you must have great interpersonal skills, compassion, and patience.

Otolaryngology Surgeons

Otolaryngology surgeons specialize in treating the ears, nose, and throat. This specialty is often less heard of, yet it is the oldest medical specialty in the nation!

While these healthcare professionals are trained to perform invasive and complex procedures, they do their best to first treat conditions with medications and non-invasive procedures, such as laser resections or image-guided surgeries.  

Urology Surgeons

The final specialty you can pursue as an aspiring surgeon is urology. Urology surgeons treat disorders that affect the urethra, ureters, bladder, kidneys, adrenal glands, epididymis, prostate, penis, seminal vesicles, and testes.

The most common surgeries urologists perform include the removal of tumors or the entire bladder, prostate, or other parts of the urinary system, the breaking up or removal of kidney stones, and partial or full kidney removals and transplants.

Choosing the Best Surgical Specialty For You

Now that you know your options, you still might be wondering how to choose the best specialty for you. Consider the following factors when making your decision:

Your Interests

The first factor to consider is what you’re most interested in learning about. Regardless of the specialty you choose, you’ll be expected to continue researching and learning about it throughout your career, so it’s important you have a passion for it!

Your Other Goals

If you have other life goals you’d like to pursue by a certain age, you may want to consider becoming a general surgeon, as it requires the least amount of training.

All surgeons must complete a five-year surgical residency program. General surgeons do not require any additional training beyond this, but other specialties do! 

These other specialties may require additional residency programs and fellowships, which typically take at least one to two years to complete.

Consider what your goals are and how long you’re willing to dedicate to your training. It will be difficult to pursue other major aspirations while you’re still completing these rigorous programs!

Your Money Goals

While all surgeons are well-paid, some specialties make more than others. For instance, cosmetic plastic surgeons have a high earning potential as they generally set their own prices and can gain a large clientele. 

Dr. Miami is one such plastic surgeon that has not only proved to be an excellent healthcare provider, but has also created a reputable media presence for himself. He makes over $25 million a year!

Neurosurgeons are also among the highest paid surgeons.

Your Skillset

Each surgical specialty requires different skills to succeed. As mentioned, to become a pediatric surgeon, you must have excellent communication and interpersonal skills because comforting parents and children is one of the most important and hardest parts of the job.

On the other hand, to become a neurosurgeon, you’ll need strong motor and critical thinking skills. You’ll be dealing with some of the most delicate systems and organs in the body, like the brain. 

Since the brain is required to move, think, speak, form and retain memories, and even breathe, it’s essential that these surgeons have steady hands and know how to correctly address situations as they arise.

If you’re considering becoming a trauma surgeon you must be able to work well under pressure and handle loss. Trauma surgeons experience death regularly, which can be difficult to cope with when you’re in the people-saving business!

Your Fellowship Eligibility

In order to join a surgical specialty, you’ll have to complete a fellowship. These fellowships are often highly selective and competitive! You should have a realistic idea of your chances of joining a particular fellowship during your residency. 

For instance, pediatric surgery is the most competitive fellowship to enter. You should partake in important and meaningful projects and develop strong connections with the surgeons you work with during your residency, especially pediatric surgeons, if you want to apply to this type of fellowship.

FAQs: Types of Surgeons

We’ve answered the main question “what types of surgeons are there?” and provided you with explanations of what each surgeon’s job entails.

For any remaining questions about surgical specialties, read on to find your answers.

1. Which Type of Surgeon Is Best?

When choosing the best surgery to specialize in, several factors should be considered. You should choose a specialty that you have a high chance of getting into, that you have a genuine interest in, and that aligns with your other life goals, your money aspirations, and your skillset.

2. What Surgical Specialty Is Paid the Most?

Neurosurgeons are generally paid the most, with an average salary of around $788,313 a year. However, many cosmetic plastic surgeons go on to make millions of dollars when they open their own practices. 

3. What Is the Most Specialized Surgery?

While the majority of these specialties require the same education, the completion of a surgical residency followed by a fellowship, pediatric surgery involves the most intense training. These professionals must learn how to perform all the procedures the other specialties do, but in children, which is much more difficult!

4. What are the Different Types of Surgery?

Around 40 to 50 million surgeries are performed every year in the United States. These millions of surgeries generally fall into the following categories:

  • General surgery: typically involves the abdomen or endocrine system
  • Cardiothoracic surgery: involving the heart, lungs, esophagus, and diaphragm
  • Neurosurgery: operations performed on the nervous system, brain, and spine
  • Trauma surgery: emergency procedures to treat critically injured patients
  • Plastic surgery: involves cosmetic or reconstructive procedures
  • Colon and rectal surgery: surgeries on the lower digestive tract
  • Obstetrics and gynecological surgery: to maintain women’s reproductive health
  • Orthopedic surgery: involving the musculoskeletal system
  • Ophthalmic surgery: any operations relating the eye 
  • Oral and maxillofacial surgery: a dental surgical specialty that focuses on the jaw, facial structures, and facial tissues
  • Pediatric surgery: operations performed on children
  • Otolaryngology surgery: to treat the ears, nose, and throat
  • Urology surgery: operations performed on the urethra, bladder, kidneys, and other organs related to the urinary tract

The surgeons that specialize in these fields are highly trained and capable of performing a wide range of procedures.

Final Thoughts

After exploring the types of surgeons that make up the healthcare system, you should have a better idea of the options that are available to you and which ones sound the most interesting. Remember, this decision will determine your entire career, so choose wisely!

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