How to Become a Surgeon

Surgeons operating on patient

Whatever your reasons for considering to become a surgeon – whether it’s the prestige, pay or intellectual stimulation associated with this highly rewarding and exciting career path, or even being inspired by TV shows like ER and Grey’s Anatomy (ah, McSteamy!) – we’ve put together this little guide to help you get started.

From working hours to useful skills and required qualifications to where to look for opportunities, we’ve got you covered.

Read on to find out everything there is to know about how to become a surgeon!

1. Research the Profession

To ensure that a career in surgery is right for you, it’s essential that you first gain a complete and thorough understanding of what exactly the profession entails. Below is an overview of job duties, skills, working conditions and salary information.

Job Description

A surgeon’s job is not confined to the operating theatre. Their typical day-to-day duties may include:

  • meeting patients (and possibly their families) before the operation to decide on the best course of action for their condition
  • explaining procedures and risks involved
  • taking tests and arranging X-rays
  • performing pre-booked or emergency operations as part of a team (including other surgeons, nurses, anaesthetists and administrators)
  • carrying out ward rounds to check the state and progress of patients in their care
  • writing to GPs about patients’ conditions and treatments
  • performing administrative duties (e.g., completing paperwork).

Essential Skills and Qualities

To succeed as a surgeon, you will need to have specialist knowledge to diagnose a patient's condition accurately. But, you will also need to:

  • have excellent communication skills
  • have the ability to explain choices to patients
  • be able to work under pressure
  • be able to make quick, accurate decisions
  • have excellent hand-eye coordination
  • have strong practical skills
  • have the ability to put people at ease
  • be able to inspire trust and confidence
  • have excellent leadership and management skills
  • work to high professional standards
  • have emotional resilience
  • be able to support your team in difficult circumstances
  • be able to adapt to a changing environment.

Working Hours and Conditions

Working as a surgeon can be highly demanding.

Your working day will be long, with early starts and late finishes, and you’ll also work nights, weekends and public holidays. You will be part of an on-call rota. The EU Working Time Directive limits working hours to 48 hours a week.

You will work with colleagues as part of a team and other hospital departments who will call upon your expertise. You will spend time working in a variety of settings (e.g., operating theatre, wards and consulting rooms) and you will also evaluate patients in outpatient clinics.

Due to the nature of the job, it can be emotionally draining, especially when surgeries don’t go as planned. You’ll also have to deal with patients’ families.

Salary Prospects

Working as a surgeon can be a very lucrative career. Starting salaries for trainee doctors range between £26,350 and £45,750. This then increases to £37,500–£70,000 for experienced speciality doctors and £76,000–£102,500 for consultants. Consultants working in the private sector, meanwhile, are typically paid more.

In the US, surgeons can expect to earn more than $200,000 (£152,172) a year. Paediatricians typically earn an average of $231,637 (£176,245), while general surgeons make about $409,665 (£311,698).

2. Get the Qualifications

Training to become a surgeon takes time – a lot of time. A typical surgical trainee will not qualify until the age of 35-40 or later. It, therefore, requires a lot of dedication on your part, while you also need to be absolutely sure this is the right career path for you.


There are four main stages to becoming a surgeon in the UK. Below is an overview of each stage:

1. Medical School

You’ll first need to complete a medical degree recognised by the General Medical Council (GMC). This usually takes five years, but may take up to six years if you don’t have any qualifications in science.

Some of the best UK universities for medicine programmes include:

  • University of Oxford
  • University of Cambridge
  • Queen Mary University of London
  • University of Dundee
  • University of Exter

Applications are made through UCAS – check out our guide on writing personal statements for university! Make sure that you read your chosen university’s entry requirements before applying, though you will generally need:

  • 5 GCSEs (A-C), including English, maths and science
  • 3 A levels at grades AAB in subjects like chemistry, biology and either physics or maths
  • to take the UK Clinical Aptitude Test (UKCAT) or the BioMedical Admissions Test (BMAT).

2. Foundation Training

Once you’ve successfully completed your medical degree, you will continue your education by taking a paid training job in a hospital or other medical setting which will cover a range of medical specialities, including surgery. This typically lasts two years.

Applications are made via the Foundation Programme and students are matched to places based on their application form.

3. Core Surgical Training

The next step you need to take to become a surgeon is undergo a two-year surgical training programme in a hospital. This programme covers a variety of surgical specialities and equips you with the required competencies to specialize.

4. Specialty Training

Finally, you will take a paid training job in a hospital, where you will study one surgical speciality. Surgery comprises 10 specialities:

  • cardiothoracic surgery – operating on the heart, lungs and other thoracic organs
  • general surgery – focusing on abdominal contents, including the colon, liver, oesophagus and stomach
  • neurosurgery – diagnosing, assessing and performing surgery to treat nervous system disorders
  • oral and maxillofacial surgery – diagnosing and treating diseases affecting the mouth, jaw, face and neck
  • otorhinolaryngology – diagnosing, evaluating and treating diseases in the ear, nose and throat (ENT) region
  • paediatric surgery – working with young patients, including premature and unborn babies
  • plastic surgery – performing reconstructive surgery after illness or trauma
  • trauma and orthopaedic surgery – diagnosing and treating musculoskeletal system conditions
  • urology – treating problems of the female urinary system and the male genitourinary tract
  • vascular surgery – diagnosing and managing circulation conditions

You may, alternatively choose to become an academic surgeon. This means undertaking research and teaching.

The NHS Health Careers website contains information about the training routes for each speciality.


The education and entry requirements for surgeons in the US are similar to those in the UK.

You will first need to obtain a bachelor’s degree, majoring in a subject like biology, chemistry, English, maths or physics, or even in the humanities or social sciences. During this time, it may be a good idea to volunteer at a local hospital or clinic to gain much-needed experience in a healthcare setting.

This is followed by a medical degree, which usually takes around four years to complete. As getting into medical school is highly competitive, you may be required to submit transcripts, take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and provide recommendation letters.

If you are lucky you may be able to get into a medical school which combines a medical degree and undergraduate study – these programmes typically last between six and eight years.

After medical school, you will enter a residency programme in the speciality you’re interested in. This takes place in a hospital and usually lasts three to seven years.

Upon obtaining a medical degree from an accredited medical school and completing residency training, you will need to become licensed to practice. License requirements vary by state, so you will need to research these. You will also need to pass a standardised national licensure exam.

Certification is not required, though it may help employment prospects.

3. Land Your First Job

The biggest employer of surgeons throughout the UK is the National Health Service (NHS). You will also be able to find job vacancies in the private sector.

You’ll be able to find suitable opportunities online by exploring major job boards like Indeed, Monster and Reed. Our very own jobs area is another great option.

For more specialist websites, check out:

4. Develop Your Career

Working as a surgeon means that you need keep your skills and knowledge up to date throughout your career. Continuing professional development (CPD) is an excellent way to ensure this.

Surgeons in the UK should:

  • Complete 50 hours of CPD every year and a minimum of 250 hours in a revalidation cycle
  • Choose CPD activities that are relevant to the surgeon’s practice and that support his/her current skills, knowledge and career development
  • Achieve a balance between academic, clinical and professional activities – the GMC stipulates that CPD should not exceed 20 hours in a single type of activity
  • Record CPD activities

Surgeons in the US can continue their education throughout their careers by taking classes and regularly reading books and medical journals. This is essential to maintain and improve their skills and knowledge, as well as stay informed of medical advances.


Are you considering a career in surgery or have you already completed the journey to becoming a surgeon? Do you have any advice and wisdom you’d like to impart on future surgeons? Join the conversation below and share your thoughts and experiences with us!

If becoming a surgeon doesn’t like your cup of tea, but you still want to pursue a medical career, why not check out our comprehensive career guides for doctors, pharmacists and dentists, as well as our list of the top 10 countries with the highest salaries for nurses?


The salary information contained in this article is based on data compiled and published by the National Careers Service (UK) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (US). Currency conversions are based on rates supplied by on 30 October 2017.