Americans in need of surgery may soon find themselves struggling to find a surgeon—especially for operations that require complex care. Today’s surgeon shortage is a wake-up call regarding the increased demand for specialized services to help the growing and aging population. If you plan to pursue a career in medicine, have you considered becoming a surgeon?

Xavier University School of Medicine explores why this is the best time to pursue a medical degree, as well as what it takes to become a surgeon in this demanding—yet rewarding—profession.

Why surgeons are in demand?

According to a 2021 report conducted by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), there will be a projected shortage of between 15,800 and 30,200 specialty surgeons by 2034. A growing and aging population—compounded by the approaching retirement age of the current physician workforce—are among the key findings which drive this shortage.

What is the role of a surgeon?

Surgeons treat a patient’s injury, disease or other condition through either a minimally invasive or open surgical procedure. There are specific types of specialized surgeons that are categorized into four areas, and these are “general,” “critical care,” “orthopedic,” and “neurosurgeons.” Depending on their specialty, their responsibilities and schedules may differ greatly. Surgeons may work in a hospital or private practice and at times will remain on call during their off-hours. As one might expect, some surgeons will spend most of their time in the operating room, and work shifts that last between 12 and 28 hours.

Here are the main responsibilities of a surgeon:

  • Diagnose pre-operative conditions and develop a plan
  • Discuss with patient how to prepare for surgery
  • Lead the surgical team when performing operation
  • Provide post-operative treatment and care, including pain management, wound care, and any follow-up procedures

How to become a surgeon?

Becoming a surgeon is a serious commitment and takes time—13 years to be exact. This is because all aspiring surgeons must complete a residency of at least five years. Some surgeons decide to go even further and pursue a surgical fellowship, which can last from one-to-three years. It is advisable for anyone who’s contemplating this career path to fully consider the scope of the profession and the commitment to the length of the program. Although a career in surgery will be intense at times, the alleviation of a patient’s suffering—and saving his or her life—is rewarding. Here is a snapshot of what is required to become a surgeon:

  • Bachelor’s degree or pre-medical program—It’s recommended—and, to the student’s advantage—to take pre-medical courses such as organic chemistry, microbiology and psychology, in addition to a full schedule of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) classes and humanities courses.

It’s been suggested that students with an interest in becoming a surgeon should gain additional practical hands-on experience through internships, shadowing or volunteering while studying for their bachelor’s degree. And since medical schools look favorably upon applicants with practical experience, taking a gap year between graduating from a bachelor’s program and applying to medical school may give the student a competitive edge to be considered a “serious” candidate. Working in medical assisting, critical care or a clinical internship are great ways to get patient care experience, as well as building character, maturity and professionalism.

  • Submit application, official transcript, letters of recommendation, résumé and essay to the medical school.
  • Attend medical school—To become a surgeon, a medical student must receive a Doctor of Medicine (MD). Students can expect to undertake rigorous schedules of coursework in anatomy and microbiology, biochemistry and pharmacology, along with in-depth medical lab curriculums. This typically happens during the first two years of an MD program.
  • Complete clinical rotations—Medical students must complete clinical rotations under the management of a licensed medical professional. During rotations, students work in different specialties—such as surgery—which gives them glimpses into the different areas of medical care. The clinical rotations typically happen in the third and fourth years of the MD program. Students can conduct their rotations at a U.S. hospital.
  • Pass licensing examinations—Medical students are required to pass all portions of three tests as part of the United States Licensing Examination (USMLE) before they can practice medicine. Once he or she earns their MD, the student is ready to begin a residency—which in this case would be surgical.
  • Complete residency program—Residencies will help aspiring surgeons refine their acute operating skills and decision-making abilities. Surgical residencies tend to be more intense than other types of clinical experiences. Resident surgeons must complete a residency of at least five years, and they can expect to work between 40 and 80 hours per week. Those who choose to practice a subspecialty—such as orthopedic, plastic or cardiothoracic surgery—will take longer, depending on that specialty.
  • Get licensed—Surgeons must acquire a state license before they begin working with patients. He or she must be sure to research the requirements regarding where they will be living, since requirements vary by location.
  • Become board certified—Board certification is a voluntary process and is specific to specialties and subspecialties, each with its own set of requirements. For surgeons, being classified as “board certified” shows that they have taken the extra steps to learn and demonstrate knowledge in the latest advancements in their specialties, and it also enables them to practice at the highest levels of their profession.
  • Fellowship—To gain a higher level of post-residency and clinical experience, each surgeon who is already licensed will pursue a fellowship in a specialized area of expertise—which can last one-to-three years. These specialty areas include:
    • Cardiothoracic surgery
    • Colon and rectal surgery
    • General surgery
    • Gynecology and obstetrics
    • Gynecology oncology
    • Neurological surgery
    • Ophthalmic surgery
    • Oral and maxillofacial surgery
    • Orthopedic surgery
    • Plastic and maxillofacial surgery
    • Urology
    • Vascular surgery

Additionally, fellows tend to earn higher salaries than surgical residents since they have already obtained their licensure.

Qualities that make a great surgeon

It takes a certain kind of person to be a surgeon. Very often, a patient’s life is hanging in the balance. This is an enormous responsibility that can be extremely stressful at times. Do you have what it takes to be a surgeon? Here is a list of important qualities that make a great surgeon:

  • Patient
  • Professional
  • Empathetic
  • Excellent attention to detail
  • Excellent problem-solving skills
  • Excellent dexterity
  • Physical stamina

Benefits of becoming a surgeon

Surgeons are respected for their expertise in specialized fields and their dedication to helping improve a patient’s quality of life through very intricate and specialized procedures. Their 13-plus year commitment to becoming licensed surgeons has placed them as top earners among other medical practitioners—with annual salaries ranging from between $295,000 and $773,000, depending on their surgical specialties and locations. Surgeons save lives and alleviate suffering every day, which is an incredibly important job and one that people are eternally grateful for.

How a medical degree from Xavier can get you there

If becoming a doctor is your passion, Xavier has what every medical student wants—and then some. Located on the beautiful Caribbean Island of Aruba, Xavier offers an exceptional medical education with benchmarks that make this school an attractive choice. Here are but a few reasons as to why students chose Xavier to pursue their medical degrees:

  • An exceptional curriculum that’s modeled on the U.S. system
  • High USMLE Step 1 and Step 2 pass rate
  • More than 30 clinical affiliations throughout the U.S. and Canada
  • 6:1 student-to-faculty ratio
  • 11 different scholarships and grants available
  • Affordable tuition
  • Flexible financing
  • Aruba is beautiful and very safe

Read the inspiring story of two sisters and Xavier graduates—Albertina and Natasha Sebastian, from Montreal, Canada—who are pursuing their residencies in surgery and family medicine.

Not sure about surgery but interested in learning about other medical specialties? You can read our blogs about how to become a general practitioner and ER doctor as well.

Be a part of the next generation of physicians. A degree from Xavier can get you there. Not ready to apply? Schedule a one-on-one appointment with our Director of Admissions and get answers to all your questions. We can’t wait to hear from you!