How to become a general surgeon

July 25, 2014

Article by Global Pre-Meds
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Gap medics students observing surgical procedures. A general surgeon is a physician who specializes in evaluating and treating a variety of conditions and diseases that may require surgical treatment. General surgeons primarily operate on the torso region of the body, including the large and small intestines, stomach, esophagus, spleen, gallbladder and liver.

Role of a general surgeon

A general surgeon’s responsibility may start with diagnosing a patient who has a condition that requires surgery. The surgeon may perform a physical exam and order various tests, such as an ultrasound or CT scan, in order to confirm a diagnosis.

When the surgeon determines surgery is needed, the physician must also decide if a patient is a good candidate for surgery. This means determining if the patient is healthy enough for surgery. Pre-operative tests, including blood work and an EKG, are often ordered to rule out health problems that may make surgery too risky to perform.

The types of surgeries a general surgeon may perform are quite varied and may include an appendectomy, hernia repair and gallbladder removal. General surgeons may also remove or repair parts of the abdominal organs, operate on breast tumors or skin cancers.

In addition to caring for patients pre-operatively and performing surgery, general surgeons also monitor patients post-operatively. Surgeons may examine patients’ incisions, monitor their recovery and manage any post-operative pain.  

Administrative work, including managing the practice, charting and paperwork, is also a general surgeon’s responsibility. Educating other doctors, including residents, often becomes part of the job of a surgeon.


Becoming a general surgeon is not the easiest or quickest medical specialty. After earning a four-year undergraduate degree and graduating from medical school, years of training are still ahead for general surgeons.

A minimum of a five-year general surgery residency will need to be completed. The residency must be accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education. During that time, at least 750 operative procedures most be performed. In addition, a resident must complete a minimum of 25 cases in surgical critical care during their training.

During the five-year residency, surgical experience must be gained in areas including the abdomen, endocrine system, vascular surgery and solid organ transplant. In addition, experience in pediatric surgery, trauma, emergency surgery and critical care surgery must also be gained. After completing the residency and obtaining the required number of operative hours, physicians can apply to take an exam in order to become board certified in general surgery. General surgeons also need to become licensed in the state they wish to practice. State licensing requirements may vary.

Traits needed

Not everyone is cut out to be a doctor, and not all doctors can be surgeons. You need to be someone who works well under pressure and can solve problems quickly. Complications, which can be life threatening, can develop during surgery and surgeons need to determine the cause and act quickly.

A general surgeon also needs to work well as part of a team. Surgeons don’t work alone. In the operating room, there will be assisting surgeons, nurses and possibly surgical technicians. Having good communication skills and being able to lead effectively are also required skills for surgeons. 

Surgeons also need to have stamina. Surgeries can take several hours. You will be standing on your feet and need to stay focused for hours at a time. Surgery also requires a steady hand, excellent eye-hand coordination and dexterity.

Working conditions

General surgeons work in hospitals and medical centers of all sizes. They may also work in outpatient surgery centers. Although some surgeries are scheduled, general surgery can also be an emergency. Surgeons may be required to work all shifts, including overnight, weekends and holidays. In some cases, general surgeons may need to be on-call in case of surgical emergencies.

Although they spend a lot of their working hours in the operating room, surgeons also make rounds in all areas of the hospital. They will also usually spend some time seeing patients in their offices.

Salary and opportunities

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for general surgeons in the United States in 2012 was between $300,000 and $400,000 a year. Many factors determine a general surgeon’s salary. A physician’s length of experience in addition to the number of surgeries the doctor performs each year affect salary. Geographic location and the type of surgery practice also play a role in salary.

Some general surgeons decide to branch out and continue with their training in order to specialize in an additional type of surgery. After becoming board certified as a general surgeon, some doctors choose to complete an additional fellowship in a surgical subspecialty, such as thoracic, cardiac or pediatric surgery.

Benefits and disadvantages 

General surgery can be an interesting medical specialty to pursue. General surgeons often perform a wide variety of surgeries, which can make the job interesting and challenging.

Additionally, there are plenty of opportunities for surgeons to learn new things.  New equipment and techniques are continually developing, which creates lifelong learning opportunities. For instance, advances in laparoscopic and robotic surgeries are areas general surgeons can study and learn to perform. 

Another perk of working as a general surgeon is knowing what a difference you are making. General surgeons can save someone’s life with a procedure or improve a patient’s level of functioning or quality of life. Having the opportunity to greatly impact another person’s life is often very rewarding.

As in all areas of medicine, there are some negative aspects of working as a general surgeon. Some patients may not survive surgery, or it may not improve their condition, which can be emotionally tough to handle. Surgical emergencies can be very stressful and patients’ lives may literally be in your hands. That type of responsibility can be overwhelming at times.

Another possible disadvantage is general surgeons often work a lot of hours. As medical specialties go, surgery is often unpredictable, and days can be extremely long. It can be difficult to plan other activities if you don’t know when you will get finished with surgery and be able to leave the hospital.