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Last Updated: 04/03/15

Surgery Career Guide

Surgery is one of the largest specialties in medicine as there are surgeons that specialize in just about every specific organ and system in the body. If you choose to become a surgeon there are many different subspecialties you can pursue. These subspecialties include, but are not limited to: cardiothoracic surgery, cardiovascular surgery, colon and rectal surgery, obstetrics and gynecology, gynecologic oncology, oncology, neurological surgery, ophthalmaic surgery, oral and maxillofacial surgery, orthopedic surgery, pediatric surgery, plastic surgery, trauma surgery, transplant surgery and vascular surgery.

Surgeons can work in hospitals, surgery centers or private practices, either as part of a physician group or as the owner of the practice. While owning your own practice typically results in the highest salary, it also means you will have to spend some of your time doing administrative tasks. No matter what setting a surgeon works in, they will spend the majority of their time in the operating room in either a hospital or outpatient surgery center. The rest of their time is spent in an office doing pre and post operation visits with their patients or doing consultations. Another portion of their time is often spent rounding to see their patients in the hospital after surgery if it was an in-patient type of surgery. It is common for surgeon to block three days for surgery and the other one or two days for visits, office duties and administrative tasks

Surgeons typically work four to five days a week, but these are usually pretty long days as they work an average of 50 to 60 hours a week. Some surgeons also spend some of their time on-call in case of urgent or emergency situations. The case load can vary greatly depending on which specialty you choose. While the average case load for surgeons is 300-400 surgeries a year, it can range anywhere from 150 to more than 500 a year.

Surgery Training Requirements:

In order to become a surgeon in any specialty, you must first complete a four year undergraduate program, preferably one that focuses on the sciences, and then a four year medical school program. You will then need to complete a 5 to 8 year residency program. The length of time your residency lasts will depend on what surgical specialty you want to practice, however all surgery specialties require a 5 year general surgery residency. The amount of additional training in the form of a residency or fellowship varies from specialty to specialty. Almost all surgery specialties have a set of sub-specialties you can choose to practice. If you choose to practice a sub-specialty you will have to complete additional training which can last anywhere from one to three years depending on the requirements for the sub-specialty that you choose.

Surgeon Salary:

Just like with caseloads, the salaries of surgeons can vary greatly from specialty to specialty. The average annual salary for surgeons ranges from the mid to low $300,000’s to over $1,000,000. Neurosurgeons are by far the highest paid surgeons, making an average of anywhere from $800,000 to $1,000,000 a year. Orthopedic surgeons make around $475,780, plastic surgeons make around $408,065 a year and general surgeons that practice a specialty like vascular surgery, thoracic surgery, cardiac surgery, hand surgery or pediatric surgery make around $330,200 a year. Where you work also plays a role in how much you will make. Those in private practices typically make more than those in hospitals and surgeons who work in the Great Lakes region or the western United States make more than those who work in other areas of the country, according to a 2012 Medscape survey on physician compensation.

Surgery Job Outlook:

The outlook for surgeons, as well as all other physicians, is very good and is expected to get even better in the coming years. In fact, the Beaur of Labor Statistics recently released their projections for physician and surgeon career growth from now until 2020 with an estimated growth of 22%. An increase in development of the health care industry paired with the coming retirement of baby boom generation surgeons means there will be more opportunities for new surgeons. The best prospects for employment opportunities are often in low income or rural areas as they have a difficult time recruiting surgeons to join their medical teams.