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How to become a General Surgeon? A guide to a career in general surgery

Posted by Callie Torres
May 23, 2024

Becoming a surgeon is a rewarding and challenging career that combines clinical and surgical medicine to save lives and improve patient outcomes. Surgeons are highly trained medical professionals who perform intricate and lifesaving procedures, addressing a wide range of conditions from traumatic injuries to complex diseases. The path to becoming a surgeon requires a rigorous and extensive educational journey, including undergraduate education, medical school, residency, and often subspecialized fellowship training. This dedication to learning and mastery of surgical techniques equips surgeons with the skills necessary to make critical decisions in high-stress environments, ultimately making a profound impact on the health and well-being of their patients.

Quick Navigation Links + FAQs

         What do general surgeons do? 
  1. What are the most common procedures that a general surgeon does?
  2. What education and training is needed to become a general surgeon?
  3. Is being a surgeon worth it?
  4. What is the career opportunities for general surgeons?
  5. How much do general surgeons make?
  6. What type of surgeons make the most?
  7. What are the subspecialties in general surgery?
  8. Getting started in medicine

What does a general surgeon do?

Surgery involves the study and clinical management of a broad spectrum of disease processes that require surgical care, which includes preoperative, operative, and postoperative care. Surgeons require a wide breadth of medical knowledge notably including: anatomy, physiology, oncology, critical care, wound healing, and trauma injury management. Surgical physicians split their time between operating on patients, seeing patients in clinic, and rounding on hospitalized patients. This includes:

  • Preoperative Care: Surgeons will first begin with preoperative care where they will assess patients to determine the necessity of surgery. This includes reviewing medical history, conducting physical exams, and ordering diagnostic tests (e.g., blood tests, imaging studies). Next, they will develop a surgical plan tailored to the patient’s specific condition. This may involve consultations with other specialists.

  • Operative Care: Next, if indicated, surgeons will operate. General surgeons are trained to handle a wide variety of surgeries which can involve the abdomen (e.g., appendectomy, hernia repair, gallbladder removal), digestive tract, breast, skin, soft tissues, and endocrine system (e.g., thyroidectomy). Surgeons can also perform emergency surgery treating conditions such as trauma, acute abdominal issues (e.g., perforated ulcers, bowel obstructions), and infections (e.g., abscesses).

  • Postoperative Care: Lastly, surgeons will provide postoperative care to their patients, overseeing patient recovery following surgery. This includes managing pain, preventing and treating infections, and monitoring for complications. They will also conduct follow-up appointments to ensure proper healing and address any concerns or complications that may arise.


An example of the continuity of care that surgeons provide is a patient with a new breast cancer diagnosis. For example, the patient will initially present to the surgery clinic. The surgeon will meet with the patient and utilize their clinical skills to develop a treatment care plan that may include surgery. The surgeon will then perform the surgical procedures that are necessary. If the patient requires hospitalization after surgery, the general surgeon will continue to round on and take care of their patient while they are hospitalized. Once the patient is discharged, they will continue to visit their general surgeon for follow-up surgical care visits even years later. 

What are the most common procedures that general surgeons perform?

Some of the most common procedures that general surgeons perform include:

  • Appendectomy: Removal of the appendix, typically due to appendicitis.

  • Cholecystectomy: Removal of the gallbladder, often due to gallstones.

  • Hernia Repair: Repair of hernias, which can occur in various locations such as the groin or belly button.

  • Bowel Resection: Removal of a diseased or damaged portion of the intestines.

  • Mastectomy: Removal of one or both breasts, often as a treatment for breast cancer.

  • Thyroidectomy and Parathyroidectomy: Removal of all or part of the thyroid gland and/or parathyroid glands. This can be due to cancer or hyperthyroidism/hyperparathyroidism among other diseases.

What education is required to become a general surgeon?

The medical education required to become a surgeon is very rigorous and takes many years. First, one must complete a college bachelor degree and obtain all the necessary prerequisite credits. Many students complete a degree in a health sciences related major, although this is not required. This is followed by obtaining a medical degree from either an Osteopathic Medical program (DO degree) or an Allopathic Medical program (MD degree) which takes four years to complete. Upon graduation from medical education, students are officially a DO or MD doctor but their training is not complete. 

After medical school, DOs/MDs must match into a general surgery clinical residency training program. Most surgical residency programs are five years in duration, which includes an intern/transition year. After residency, individuals have the option of completing a fellowship in a specialty surgical field of study. Most clinical surgical fellowship programs are one to two year and allow individuals to further specialize in a different types of surgery.


How many years to become a general surgeon?

To become a general surgeon, it typically takes a minimum of 13 years of post-secondary education (after graduation of high school) and training. Additional training, termed a fellowship, can be completed after residency. If this is done, training can take up to 16 years or more. The exact duration can vary depending on individual circumstances and specific training programs. Here’s a breakdown of the timeline for all aspiring surgeons to understand:

  1. Undergraduate Education (4 years): Complete a bachelor’s degree, usually with a strong emphasis on pre-medical courses such as biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics.

  2. Medical School (4 years): Attend medical school to earn a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree. This includes components of both classroom education and clinical rotations.

  3. Residency in General Surgery (5-7 years): After medical school, doctors must complete a residency program in general surgery. This period includes intensive surgical training, where residents gain hands-on experience under supervision.

Is being a surgeon worth it?

Deciding whether being a surgeon is worth it depends on various personal and professional factors. Here are some key considerations to help evaluate this career path, split into pros and cons.


  • High Earning Potential: Surgeons typically have high salaries. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for surgeons was significantly higher than the average for all occupations.

  • Job Satisfaction: Many surgeons find their work fulfilling as they can make a significant impact on patients’ lives, often saving lives or dramatically improving the quality of life.

  • Prestige and Respect: Surgeons are highly respected in the medical community and society due to their extensive training and the critical nature of their work.

  • Career Opportunities: Surgeons have various subspecialties to choose from, such as cardiovascular surgery, neurosurgery, orthopedic surgery, and more, allowing for tailored career paths.

  • Intellectual Challenge: The field of surgery is intellectually stimulating and involves continuous learning and adaptation to new technologies and techniques.


  • Lengthy and Demanding Education and Training: Becoming a surgeon requires extensive education and training, typically including four years of undergraduate studies, four years of medical school, and 5-7 years of residency. Some specialties require additional fellowship training.

  • High Stress and Responsibility: Surgeons often deal with life-and-death situations and must make critical decisions under pressure. The job can be emotionally and physically demanding.

  • Long and Irregular Hours: Surgeons frequently work long, irregular hours, including nights, weekends, and being on call, which can impact work-life balance.

  • Physical Demands: The physical demands of surgery can be significant, requiring stamina and dexterity to perform procedures that can last several hours.

  • Liability and Risk: The potential for malpractice suits and the inherent risks associated with surgery add to the stress of the profession.

Whether being a surgeon is worth it depends on your personal values, career goals, and willingness to commit to the extensive training and demands of the profession. It’s a career that offers significant rewards but also comes with substantial challenges. Reflecting on your motivations and long-term aspirations, and possibly seeking advice from practicing surgeons, can help you make an informed decision.

What is the job outlook for general surgeons?

The job outlook for future surgeons is excellent and there may even be a potential shortage in the future. According to data collected from a longitudinal study published by the Archives of Surgery and by the Center for Workforce Studies: AAMC Data Workhouse, while the general population continues to rise by one percent per year, the number of general surgeons nationwide has remained constant since 1994. Additionally, the ratio of general surgeons to a population of 100,000 individual continues to decrease. In 1981 there were 7.68 general surgeons per 100,000 while in 2005 there were 5.69 per 100,000 individuals. To compound this, up to 1/3 of currently practicing physicians will reach retirement within the next decade. All of these factors contribute to a rise in demand for surgeons and great job security in the future.

General surgeon salary - How much do general surgeons make?

There are several reports that collect information about physician salary and the numbers vary. According to Medscape’s annual report, general surgeons make an average of approximately $432,000. According to AAMC Careers in Medicine Report general surgeons that work in academic medicine with an assistant professor role make $344,000, while general surgeons that work in academic medicine with an associate/full professor role make $435,000. Doximity’s annual report indicates that the average salary for general surgeons in the United States is around $421,000. No matter the source, it is obvious that general surgeons make a good income that represents all of the hard training they have undergone.


Surgeon salaries can vary significantly depending on their specialty and surgical fields. Some of the highest-paid surgical specialties include:

  • Neurosurgeons: Neurosurgeons perform surgery on the brain, spinal cord, and other parts of the nervous system, and are often at the top of the salary scale. Their average annual income is typically among the highest in the medical field.

  • Orthopedic Surgeons: Orthopedic surgeons, particularly those specializing in spine surgery or joint replacement, also earn very high salaries. They treat musculoskeletal conditions, including bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, and muscles.

  • Cardiothoracic Surgeons: Cardiothoracic surgeons perform surgery on the heart, lungs, and other organs in the chest. Their expertise in complex procedures like heart transplants and coronary artery bypass grafting contributes to their high earning potential.

It is important to note that there are a variety of different variables that can affect salary. This includes location, experience, practice setting, and type of surgery practice. Salaries can vary based on the cost of living and demand for specialists in different regions. More experienced surgeons and those with a strong reputation in their field may earn higher incomes. Lastly, surgeons in private practice may have different earning potential compared to those employed by hospitals or academic institutions.

What are the general surgery subspecialties?

General surgery encompasses a broad range of surgical procedures and treatments. However, many general surgeons choose to further specialize in specific areas, known as subspecialties, to gain expertise in particular types of surgeries or patient populations. This additional training is called a fellowship. Some of the common subspecialties within general surgery include:

  • Trauma Surgery: Focuses on the treatment of patients with traumatic injuries, such as those resulting from accidents, falls, or violence. Trauma surgeons are often involved in emergency and critical care settings.

  • Critical Care Surgery: Involves the management of critically ill surgical patients, including those in intensive care units (ICUs). Critical care surgeons handle complex, life-threatening conditions that require intensive monitoring and treatment.

  • Surgical Oncology: Specializes in the surgical treatment of cancer. Surgical oncologists perform procedures to remove tumors and work closely with other oncology specialists to provide comprehensive cancer care.

  • Colorectal Surgery: Focuses on diseases of the colon, rectum, and anus. Colorectal surgeons perform surgeries for conditions such as colorectal cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, diverticulitis, and hemorrhoids.

  • Endocrine Surgery: Specializes in surgeries involving the endocrine glands, such as the thyroid, parathyroid, adrenal glands, and pancreas. Endocrine surgeons treat conditions like thyroid cancer, hyperparathyroidism, and adrenal tumors.

  • Bariatric Surgery: Focuses on surgical procedures for weight loss and the treatment of obesity-related conditions. Bariatric surgeons perform surgeries like gastric bypass, sleeve gastrectomy, and adjustable gastric banding.

  • Hepatobiliary Surgery: Specializes in surgeries of the liver, bile ducts, gallbladder, and pancreas. Hepatobiliary surgeons treat conditions such as liver tumors, pancreatic cancer, and bile duct obstructions.

  • Pediatric Surgery: Involves the surgical treatment of infants, children, and adolescents. Pediatric surgeons address congenital malformations, pediatric tumors, and other childhood surgical conditions.

  • Transplant Surgery: Focuses on organ transplantation, including kidney, liver, pancreas, and heart transplants. Transplant surgeons perform surgeries to transplant organs from donors to recipients.

  • Vascular Surgery: Specializes in surgeries of the vascular system, including arteries and veins outside of the heart and brain. Vascular surgeons treat conditions such as aneurysms, peripheral artery disease, and varicose veins.

  • Minimally Invasive Surgery: Focuses on performing surgeries using minimally invasive techniques, such as laparoscopy and robotic-assisted surgery. These techniques reduce recovery times and minimize scarring.

  • Breast Surgery: Specializes in the surgical treatment of breast diseases, including breast cancer, benign breast conditions, and reconstructive surgery after mastectomy.

Getting started in Medicine

Now that you know more about general surgery, you may want take the next step by enrolling in an accredited medical school like the University of Medicine and Health Sciences. You can learn more about our medical school here and apply for admission here.


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Posted by Callie Torres

Callie Torres is a resident physician working at a top tier institute in the Midwest. She is a freelance health and medical writer as well as an author of many peer reviewed medical articles. She additionally serves as a Captain in the United States Air Force.

Topics: Feature Medical Practice

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