Becoming a surgeon is no easy task, and it takes 13 years minimum to become a general surgeon and can take more depending on if you specialize. In this article, we will outline the entire process of how to become a surgeon, from undergraduate studies to residency and beyond. We will also discuss how long each step of the process takes, so you can have an idea of what to expect.
Undergraduate school/Bachelor’s degree
This is generally 4 years, it can be longer or shorter depending on how you complete your degree. For example, if you do a combined program or an accelerated program, it can be completed in less than four years.
This is the time you spend in general college after high school, and completing a undergraduate degree and a list of pre requisite classes is required prior to applying to medical school.
You can have any major that you want for your undergraduate degree, but most students choose to study biology or chemistry because they are relatively easy to do with the list of pre requisite courses you have to take.
This time can be from three years all the way up to five or six years depending on how long you take to get your degree and how many required classes you must complete.
Expect 4 years for this stage though.
Medical College Admission test
The medical college admissions test or the MCAT, is a test you take during your undergrad years. Most students take this test during their undergrad years, but, some choose to spend an additional year to study for the MCAT. This shouldn’t add any more time to your process so long as you take it toward the end of your undergrad years.
This test is made up of four sections and is pretty tough. The first section is Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems, the second section is Chemical and Physical Foundations of Living Systems, the third section is Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior, and the last section is Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills.
The higher you score on this exam, the better your chances of getting medical schools to offer you an interview and more interviews means more chances to get into medical school!
This is the big one, medical school takes four years to complete and is very difficult. The first two years are mostly spent in the classroom and studying, with some clinical rotations thrown in (volunteer ones). The last two years are almost all clinical rotations with only a few classes.
You will learn the basics of surgical procedures, medicine, and start to build your medical knowledge foundation during these four years. You’ll also take a series of exams called the COMLEX and USMLE which are required to become a doctor.
Finishing medical school is tough, but overall the graduation rates are high for US based medical schools. There are only a few instances of students failing out of medical school. Before a medical school would fail a student they may be given more time to complete medical school, or essentially they would be “held back” a year.
After completing medical school, you will be a doctor but will not be able to practice surgery until you finish your residency (explained next).
Up to this point you have spent 4 years getting your bachelors degree, and now 4 years in medical school.
This makes for a total of 8 years from the start of the process up to the graduation of medical school.
Residency and being able to practice medicine
This is the final step, and is how you become a practicing surgeon. General surgery residency is generally five years in length, and this will be your gateway to other surgical subspecialties. This is where/when you will learn how to perform surgical procedures and really where most truly become medical doctors.
After completing your general surgery residency (or any surgical specialty), you will then be able to obtain a license to practice medicine in your state and start working!
So, how long does it take to become a surgeon? 13 years!
This is broken down as:
- Bachelors degree: 4 years
- Medical school: 4 years
- General surgery: 5 years
Fellowship and beyond
Other subspecialty surgical residencies or also called fellowships can add time to the overall picture. Options we will include are, pediatric surgery, vascular surgery, orthopedic surgery, trauma surgery, neurological surgery, and plastic surgery.
Each of these will add a certain amount of time after a general surgery residency (or their own), we list them out and will mention if they add time to a general surgical residency, or if they are there own residency and how long they are.
- Pediatric surgery: 2 years in addition to 5 year general surgery residency
- Vascular surgery: 2 years in addition to 5 year general surgery residency
- Orthopedic Surgery: 5 years, it is it’s own residency (don’t have to do general surgery)
- Trauma Surgery: 1-2 years in addition to 5 year general surgery residency
- Neuro Surgery: 5 years of its own residency, (don’t have to do general surgery residency)
- Plastic Surgery: 1 year in addition to General surgery, or 6 years by itself
As you can see if you decide to become an orthopedic surgeon, or go into other surgical specialties beyond general surgery you will be spending a little bit of extra time to learn the specialty craft.
Is it hard to become a surgeon?
Yes, the process is long, difficult, and expensive. But, if you are passionate about helping people and working with your hands then it may be the perfect profession for you!
There are many different types of surgeons out there that perform all kinds of different surgeries. If you are interested in becoming a surgeon, do some research on the different types to see which one is right for you.
Whatever type of surgeon you decide to become, the process will be long and difficult but in the end, it will be worth it. You will have the satisfaction of knowing that you help save lives.
As with most things, if it is easy it is likely not worth doing. If you are passionate about becoming a surgeon and can’t see yourself doing anything else, then you should absolutely become one!
Does it take 16 years to become a surgeon?
It can, if you include a bachelors degree, medical school, residency, and then a fellowship. However, if you just want to become a general surgeon it will take 13 years. This is still a very long time! If you are interested in becoming a surgeon, make sure you are prepared for the long journey ahead.
If you want to be a sub specialty surgeon then you can expect to add a few more years on to that. For example, if you want to be an vascular surgeon it will take an additional 2 years for residency and training beyond the 5 years of general surgery.
As you can see, it really depends on what kind of surgeon you want to be, but you should expect a minimum of 13 years to be able to independently practice surgery in the US.
What GPA is required for a surgeon?
This is a common misconception, there is no GPA requirement, but rather it is the entire process of matching into a residency program and how highly you are ranked that will determine if you get in or not.
GPA does factor into matching, but it is one of the many things that matters for getting into a residency position. There is no GPA that will guarantee you a spot, and to be honest grading in medical school is a toss up. Some schools have P/F and some have letter grading.
When it comes to your GPA in undergrad, this matters even less. After you get into medical school your undergrad GPA just doesn’t matter anymore.
Is med school Hard?
Yes, med school is hard. This is because the material is difficult, and the hours are long. You will be expected to put in a lot of time outside of class to study and prepare for exams.
But, if you are passionate about becoming a doctor then it will be worth it. The feeling you get when you help someone as a doctor is unlike any other.
Plus, the more you know about the human body and how it works, the more you will be able to help people. Med school is hard, but it is so worth it.
One more piece of advice here, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that just because you made it into medical school, that you are smooth sailing now. It is tough, and as we talk about below, people can and do fail out. Work hard, and keep the passion alive.
Can you fail medical school?
Absolutely, there are many people who start medical school and do not finish. The main reason for this is that they cannot hack the material, or they simply decide that it is not for them.
If you are struggling in medical school, make sure to reach out for help. There are many resources available to help you succeed. Also, don’t be afraid to take a break if you need to. Your mental health is more important than anything else.
If you are thinking about becoming a surgeon, or are in the process, then kudos to you! It is a long and difficult journey, but it is so worth it. You will be able to help people in ways that most people can only dream of. Keep up the good work and don’t give up! Always remember though, if you need a break then take it. Many students will take a year off to gather themselves and maintain their mental health, or if you don’t want to take time off then please develop a support system and a group of individuals that you can lean on.
What percent of medical students become surgeons?
This is typically about 4%, and this is because the vast majority of medical students choose to go into other fields. This is due to the long hours, high stress, and difficult subject matter that we talked about above.
This also has to do with the fact that there are a limited number of residency positions open in the country for surgery. If you want to get one of those spots then make sure to work hard and know the requirements of matching into a residency position with surgery.
Do residents get paid?
Absolutely, many students wonder this because it is concerning to them to think about going 7+ years without making any money.
Truth is residents get paid a livable wage, and this is because the government understands how important it is for residents to be able to live and not just survive while they are in their residency training.
The amount of money you make will depend on what year you are in your training. For example, first year residents make less than fourth year residents. But, all residents make enough money to support themselves and often their families as well.
This article goes into details about the typical pay you can expect in residency.
That is a lot of information to take in, but we hope that it was helpful! Becoming a surgeon is no easy task, but it is so worth it. The long hours and difficult subject matter are to note as well. Also, peoples lives are in your hands. It is difficult and stressful, but according to those that do it, well worth it.
You will be expected to put in a lot of time outside of class to study and prepare for exams, but if you are passionate about becoming a doctor then it will be worth it. The feeling you get when you help someone as a doctor is unlike any other.
I truly hope this was helpful to you, don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you have any questions about the process, or just comment in the comments below!