Becoming a fully qualified surgeon isn’t easy. In fact, it’s one of the most demanding medical disciplines, requiring years of dedication, personal sacrifice, and resilience. The first thing you’ll need is a good high school education, ideally with top grades in biology, chemistry, and other sciences. After high school, it's time to get your bachelor's degree, which takes around three years. Again, you'll need to focus on the sciences, including biology and chemistry.
Then it's medical school, where you'll start to learn about what it really takes to become a surgeon. Medical school training lasts between four and five years and combines classroom learning with practical experience in a clinical setting. The first two years provide a general overview, including modules on human structure, normal function, principles of disease, and body systems. The third and fourth years move onto the clinical applications in medicine, general surgery, and other specialties, and you will also complete your first placements. You will then need to pass a licensing exam before finally beginning residency training in a hospital to learn all about your specialty and sub-specialties. These can include emergency surgery, pediatric surgery, reconstruction and plastic surgery, transplants, and many more. Then, after over a decade of education and practical training, you will finally be able to call yourself a fully qualified surgeon!
Surgeons deal with life and death situations daily. As such, you'll need to develop some very specific personality traits. If things don't go to plan during a procedure, then it's up to you to make the right call, so you'll need to feel comfortable, or even thrive off, working under extreme pressure. Surgeons need to be excellent problem solvers, confident, decisive, and willing to take full responsibility for every decision they make. But they also need those soft skills.
As well as performing the procedures, surgeons also carry out pre-op and post-op consultations with patients and their families. Part of their job is to put other people’s minds at ease or simply manage their expectations. This includes some difficult conversations and a large amount of emotional resilience. If you want to find out if you've got the right stuff, then try an online personality test. The Myers-Briggs is a scientifically valid test, and many websites correlate your results with specific career options. But don't panic if you're not a perfect match. These tests are great for highlighting people's strengths, but they are equally as useful for pointing out what areas you need to work on in regards to your long-term career ambitions.
Don't worry if you're feeling overwhelmed. Qualifying as a surgeon is one of the hardest things anyone could do, and a certain amount of nerves (or even apprehension) is a sure sign that you understand the size of the commitment you are about to make. And remember, it will all be worth it in the end. Surgeons are highly respected members of any society and receive large financial and personal rewards for their hard work and dedication.
So with all that in mind, here are three reasons to become a surgeon.
A stable and rewarding career
Surgeons are always in high demand. Aging populations in the West, emerging economies in developing countries, and advancements in medicine and surgery mean there are plenty of opportunities for surgeons all over the world. In fact, between now and 2022, the BLS predicts the demand for surgeons will rise by 24%, providing long-term job security for anyone entering the profession. The job market is highly competitive in major cities like New York and London, but there are plenty more opportunities to work in rural or lower income areas. And because such communities often struggle to attract top surgeons, many hospitals and government schemes offer some very substantial remuneration packages to tempt the best in the field.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for a surgeon is $204,950, although the actual earning potential is much higher depending on where you practice, level of experience, and your area of expertise. Those looking to earn the top salaries should focus on cardiology, orthopedic surgery, and plastic surgery. The best surgeons in these fields can command over $500,000 a year. Urology is another one of the highest paying surgical specialties - experienced urologists make around $490,000 per annum.
Although surgeons appreciate the large salaries that provide financial security, many are drawn into the profession by the immense emotional and personal rewards of helping other people and serving their wider community. When asked why they opted for such a high-pressure and challenging career, the majority of surgeons refer to their profession as a calling, rather than a way to make a lot of money. C. Everett Koop is Pediatric Surgeon and former U.S. Surgeon General. He said, “Medicine is a calling. It is more than a business. One can make money doing other things. But I chose medicine -– surgery -- because it combined a quest for knowledge with a way to serve, to save lives, and to alleviate suffering.”
Others thrive off the pressure, taking personal satisfaction and a sense of self-worth from the knowledge that what they do is extremely difficult and often life-changing. One person who enjoys such a challenge is Renee Hartz, a cardiothoracic surgeon. She says, "Stepping into the operating room to perform heart surgery on a sick patient, being fully in control of the large team of people who are required to do the procedure, and feeling totally prepared to perform the task at hand is an unbelievable feeling that can barely be described”
Many surgeons work hand in hand with academics, universities, and big tech companies to expand the boundaries of medical care. Surgeons come up with new surgical techniques, write important academic papers, as well as testing and providing feedback on the latest surgical technologies. A six-year collaboration between NASA, the Skull Base Institute, and a select group of brain surgeons has led to the MARVEL (Multi-Angle Rear-Viewing Endoscopic tool), a tiny camera that creates a full 3D picture of a brain tumor. This new technology will enable the next generations of brain surgeons to perform intricate yet minimally invasive brain surgery, resulting in fewer complications and faster recovery times. Another major innovation is smart glasses. These smart glasses are essentially mini-computers fitted with a head-mounted monitor and video camera. They are now used for remote observation of surgeries and to provide essential information to surgeons during an operation. Surgeons are also playing a vital role in the development of AI and robotics, which are set to revolutionize patient care in the next few decades
An exciting career
Like all aspects of medicine, surgery is continuously evolving. Learning never really stops as surgeons keep up with new developments in patient care, and you'll witness some amazing changes throughout your career. It's a perfect option for high-achievers who thrive off fresh challenges and constant self-improvement, providing an almost daily opportunity to test yourself to the very limits.
General surgeons often work an intense residency of 30-hours on call followed by a much needed four-day break. This type of work can be exhausting and extremely stressful. However, it also creates a unique workspace where you never really know what will happen next. For some people, this sounds like a nightmare. For others, it's a chance to put all their skills and experience into practice in a dynamic, fluid environment that requires them to work to the best of their abilities during every minute on shift.
Working in a busy ER room provides a similar challenge. Trauma surgeons evaluate, diagnose, and operate on severely injured patients in need of emergency care. This can include those involved in assaults, car crashes, and work accidents, as well as patients suffering from shock, fractures, and burns. Again, this will be extremely stressful at times, but it will certainly never be dull!
A few things to consider
Surgeons often work long hours, including grueling nightshifts. They deal with life and death situations regularly, where the margins for error are extremely small. Conversations with patients and their families won't always be pleasant and can involve some very bad news that will profoundly impact people's lives. Unsurprisingly, all of these pressures can lead to what's commonly referred to as burnout. It's prevalent throughout the medical professions and surgeons are generally considered to be most at risk. The symptoms of burnout include emotional and physical exhaustion, disruptive behavior, absenteeism, depression, and strained personal relationships.
None of this should deter you from pursuing your dreams of becoming a surgeon, but it's crucial to be aware of the professional risks and what you can do to manage them. Regular exercise, a healthy diet, meditation, and things such as counseling, therapy, or even just talking to friends and family will help lower your stress levels. So remember, even though a surgeon saves other peoples lives, taking care of yourself will be just as important.
Your journey to become a surgeon will be long, testing, but ultimately one of the most rewarding things you’ll ever do. You’ll use all of your hard-earned expertise to help people lead better and fuller lives, as well as improving the surgical profession for generations of patients to come.