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What Type of Degrees Do You Need to Be a General Surgeon?

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A career in surgery guarantees substantial earning potential, but it comes at a price. Training for surgeons typically takes a minimum of 13 years, and can be longer for surgeons who specialize. For general surgeons, training includes two four-year degrees and an additional five years or more in residency.

Undergraduate Degree

The first four years of a medical education are spent in undergraduate education, completing a bachelor's degree that meets the requirements for admission to medical or osteopathic college. Each school has its own prerequisites, but emphasis is on the sciences. Aspiring surgeons must take basic physics, chemistry and biology, and usually more advanced classes in organic chemistry, microbiology and similar subjects. Most schools also require calculus or statistics, and a modest number of humanities courses. Students can choose any major, though degrees in the sciences are most common.

Doctoral Degree

The second degree needed for a career in surgery is a doctorate from a medical or osteopathic college. These are usually four-year programs as well. Typically the first two years are spent in the laboratory and classroom, learning the scientific and theoretical basis of medical practice. This includes instruction in immunology and epidemiology, anatomy and physiology, pharmacology, psychology, medical genetics and many other topics. Practical considerations such as medical law and ethics are also part of the curriculum. During the second two years, students gain hands-on exposure to the major branches of medicine in supervised clinical rotations. Aspiring surgeons try to spend as much time as possible in surgical rotations.

After the Degrees

Although these degrees are necessary for a career in surgery, they're only the preliminary steps. New medical school graduates must spend five or more years in a surgical residency before they're eligible for board certification in the profession. During those five years, they'll learn diagnostic, clinical and surgical skills from more experienced practitioners, including senior residents and attending physicians. As they gain experience and skill, they'll exercise more independence and responsibility, eventually becoming senior residents, themselves, and helping train newer graduates. At the end of residency, new surgeons are eligible to take the American Board of Surgery's two-part exams and to become board-certified as general surgeons.


General surgeons perform most procedures that don't require the specialized skills of their neurological, orthopedic, cardiac or urologic colleagues. This primarily includes surgeries of the abdomen and breasts, and non-specialized surgeries of the skin, neck and veins. A 2008 study published in the Archives of Surgery showed that the number of general surgeons per capita has been declining in the U.S. since 1981, and demand is correspondingly high. Although general surgeons can't command the salaries their more specialized colleagues enjoy, a 2012 review of physician incomes by "Modern Healthcare" magazine found their average salaries to range from $310,000 to $410,115 per year.