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Last Updated: 03/17/15

General Surgery Career Guide

Job Description

Being a general surgeon means having expertise in the surgical techniques and interventions necessary to treat disorders of the digestive tract, abdomen, blood vessels, skin, breast and endocrine system as well. These well-versed surgeons also often perform surgery and procedures on pediatric patients as well as those with cancer or those who have any of a wide range of injuries or critical illnesses. Some of the surgeries you might commonly perform as a general surgeon might include bowel obstructions, appendicitis, pancreatitis, hernias, breast tumors or colon polyps or tumors. Minimally invasive laparoscopic techniques are becoming much more popular in medicine today, so these doctors must also undergo training in various surgical techniques.

If you choose to specialize in one particular area rather than encountering a much wider range of conditions you need to perform surgery for, you could choose from hand wrist surgery, hospice and palliative medicine, pediatric surgery, surgical critical care (could include trauma victims and multiple organ dysfunction) or vascular surgery (the blood vessels).

As a general surgeon you will most often work in a hospital, but there are also opportunities in private practices, surgery centers and different government agencies. Most general surgeons generally spend one to two days a week in their offices doing consultations and follow up appointments with their patients. They then spend about two or three days a week performing surgeries. The average caseload for a general surgeon is somewhere between 40 and 50 cases each month. Being this type of physician means that your skills can be needed at a moment’s notice so you will be on call at times.

General Surgeon Lifestyle

Outside of the work place, general surgeons don’t seem to be as happy with their lives as physicians who practice other specialties. In a 2012 lifestyle survey conducted by Medscape, general surgeons, on average, rated their happiness with a score of 3.89 on a scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being the happiest. This rating was fourth from the bottom when compared to all the other specialties.

Training Requirements

After completing a 4 year medical school program, you will need to complete a general surgery residency program, which is intense training that lasts usually about five years. This is one of the longest residency programs in the medical field. However, it is necessary because these surgeons perform such a wide range of procedures in various body systems. On the plus side, many of these residency programs also fulfill the requirements needed to obtain board certification. Before you can practice as a general surgeon, or any type of physician, you must pass the Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). If you want to obtain training in one of the specialties mentioned earlier, you will need two additional years of training in that subspecialty.

General Surgeon Salary

According to a 2010 compensation survey published in Modern Health Care, the annual salary for general surgeons was from $284,642 to $383,333. In a more recent CNN Money report, it was found that the top paid general surgeons in the United States are making upwards of $412,000. Of course what you make can depend on what type of facility you work for, what specialties you are certified for and the area of the country you live in.


The outlook for general surgeons, just like specialized surgeons, is very good. In fact, the projected job outlook for surgeons shows a 24% increase in job growth. Whether this is due to the significant increase in the elderly population we will be seeing or a continuing shortage of doctors, it is still too early know. However, keep in mind that the best prospects are often in rural or lower income areas, as these hospitals have a harder time attracting new physicians.

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