Many dream of being surgeons, and there’s no surprise why. The role is challenging, rewarding and varied, not to mention well-paid.

However, the road to becoming a surgeon isn’t easy, and is not one for the impatient, requiring hard work, time and dedication. Here’s everything you need to know about the demanding yet exciting path from school to surgery.

What do you need to study to become a surgeon?

As you can probably imagine, training to become a surgeon is hard work. As is a general rule of thumb, you are required to undergo an extensive learning process. This begins with medical school to first qualify as a doctor, and then progresses through several training courses until you become a surgeon. Overall, this process can take up to 16 years.

Medical school

The first educational step on your path to a career in surgery is studying for a medical degree at university. According to the National Careers Service, candidates are typically required to have least five GCSE grades at levels 9 to 7 (A* or A), including English, Maths and Sciences, along with three A-levels, or equivalent, including Biology and Chemistry.

However, completing this is not enough — most universities also require separate admissions exams like the BMAT or UCAT. These are notoriously difficult, and test your knowledge and aptitude, helping universities decide your potential as a medical student. It’s worthwhile looking at courses to help you prepare for these tests and maximise your chances of getting into your first choice university. They don’t have to be long — some companies such as 6med even offer one-day courses.

Medical degrees recognised by the General Medical Council usually take five years to complete, although there are some four-year graduate entry programmes available to students who have already acquired a BSc degree in a similar field. Once you receive your degree, you will have achieved the status of ‘junior doctor’.

Foundation training

After completing medical school, you will embark on a two-year foundation programme of general training. At this time, junior doctors gain experience across different fields, as well as basic clinical skills and the “managing of acutely ill patients”, according to the NHS. Trainees will have the opportunity to practice surgery, general medicine and psychiatry under senior supervision.

Core surgical training

On the completion of their foundation, trainees will progress onto another two year programme. Core surgical training or CST involves a paid training job in a hospital setting, where they will work across a range of specialities. This includes but is not limited to: cardiothoracic (heart and lungs), general surgery, plastic, trauma and orthopaedic (muscular and skeletal) and otolaryngology (head, neck/throat and ears).

Specialised training

As mentioned above, once CST is finished, trainee surgeons will choose their specialty. There are ten of these in total, usually taking five or six years to complete. Besides practical training, you will be required to take an examination which will lead to a fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons (FRSC).

Which specialty is right for me?

In terms of choosing a surgery pathway, there are numerous sub-specialties which can be suited to their personality and temperament. While we have discussed the general traits required for an effective surgeon, individuals that prefer procedure-oriented surgery may want to work in orthopaedics, plastic and neurosurgery. These are, however, the more competitive professions to gain residency in. General surgery is considered the most accessible practice, though it is less well compensated than other specialties as a result.

Career paths

A qualified surgeon who has passed the FRCS exam will officially be part of the surgical community. Beyond this, in future they will be eligible applicants for more senior posts in the profession, such as a consultant surgeon or a surgery fellowship, the latter involving further specialised training. The opportunities are varied and challenging, but also exciting.

What does being a surgeon involve?

The average day in the life of a surgeon involves making lots of decisions made under immense pressure, with recourse to a large body of scientific knowledge in order to perform operations on patients effectively. A surgical procedure involves the investigation and hopefully conclusive treatment of a range of injuries, diseases and degenerative conditions.


The day-to-day responsibilities of surgeons can involve performing a team-based surgical operation, consulting with patients preceding the operations to outline what they will involve along with any risks that they may carry. Surgeons often conduct tests and perform X-rays, and also manage administrative duties such as paperwork, ward rounds, as well as the training and supervision of recently qualified doctors.

Knowledge and skills

The knowledge that a surgeon possesses will vary depending on their speciality, but CST will provide every surgeon with a basic understanding of surgical specialties, as part of their general training.

Of the personal qualities required, Health Careers NHS claims that in general, effective surgeons will have traits including “strong hand-eye coordination, manual dexterity, vision and spatial awareness”. Surgeons are also organised and capable of making effective decisions, as well as communicating expertly with colleagues, patients and their families. A good surgeon will be emotionally resilient, calm, diligent, and proficient enough to work under pressure too. They will possess the stamina and fortitude to not just handle the intense demands of surgery, but to show leadership and team management simultaneously.

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