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How to Become a General Surgeon in 2023

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by Danielle Pratt in Residency

Do you want to know how to become a general surgeon? Are you interested in a medical career that provides not only patient care but also offers unique opportunities for medical research and a chance to be on the cutting edge of modern medicine?

If so, a career in general surgery may be the perfect choice for you. In this blog post, I will explain what a general surgeon does and how to become one, even if you’re only in high school.


  • General surgeons perform various surgeries all over the body.
  • General surgery residency training is five years, with the option of fellowship training afterward
  • Going to a top medical school will help when applying for residency. But, how you do on your USMLEs (Board) scores and in your med school class ranking will matter more.
  • Non-PhD degrees like MBAs and MPHs appear to have a disadvantage to becoming a general surgeon.

Table of Contents

What Are General Surgeons?

General surgeons have a remarkably challenging job: they must possess a deep understanding of the anatomy and physiology of the human body to perform a wide range of surgeries throughout the entire body. Doing this takes tremendous knowledge and skills since any wrong move could be disastrous.

General surgeons have to understand the human body and its critical functions deeply. They must recognize when a process is not working correctly and fix it in the least invasive way possible. General surgeons must be aware of the risks associated with each type of surgery and be able to explain those risks to their patients. After surgery, the job is not over as the general surgeon may continue to monitor the patient.

Is a General Surgeon a Doctor?

Are general surgeons doctors? The answer to this question is yes; general surgeons are doctors.

A general surgeon is a specialized physician who has completed medical school, usually followed by a five-year residency in general surgery. During this time, the general surgeon trains to care for and manage patients undergoing various types of surgery. This can range from surgeries in the abdomen to surgeries in the endocrine system. A general surgeon is trained to work and ensure their patient’s well-being in various surgical situations.

General Surgeon vs. Primary Care Physician: What’s the Difference?

As it sounds, both of these doctors care for their patients’ overall well-being; however, the way they each do it is very different. A primary care physician treats symptoms through non-invasive means such as medication and therapy. While a general surgeon treats conditions requiring surgical intervention.

How Long Does It Take To Become a General Surgeon?

Becoming a general surgeon is no easy feat and requires considerable time and energy. But if you’re up to the challenge, the results can be gratifying.

At a minimum, it takes a minimum of 13 years after high school to become a general surgeon. That includes four years of undergraduate education, four years of medical school, and five years of general surgery residency. Along the way, you’ll have to take various standardized exams, including the SAT, the MCAT, and the USMLE Step 1 and Step 2 CK.

Undergraduate (4 Years)

The first step to becoming a general surgeon is entering and completing an undergraduate program. This means taking the SATs and doing well enough to be accepted into a college or university. Once accepted into an undergraduate program, you’ll have to complete a minimum of four years of academic coursework. This includes classes in biology, chemistry, physics, English, and other general education courses.

Medical School (4 Years)

The next step is to take the MCAT, a standardized exam that measures your knowledge and skills in biology, chemistry, physics, and psychology. You’ll need to score well on the MCAT for med school acceptance.

You’ll have to complete four years of academic and clinical training during medical school. This includes classes in anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, pathology, and other medical topics. You’ll also have to complete clinical rotations at hospitals and other healthcare facilities to gain hands-on experience.

General Surgery Residency (5 Years)

After you’ve completed medical school, you’ll have to match into a general surgery residency. To do this, you’ll have to take the USMLE Step 1 and Step 2 CK exams. These exams measure your knowledge and skills in the areas of clinical medicine. Once you’ve passed these exams, you’ll be eligible to apply for residency.

Once you’ve matched into a general surgery residency, you’ll have to complete five years of clinical training to become a general surgeon. During this training period, you’ll develop the skills needed to diagnose and manage different conditions surgically. Gradually you will continue to develop more advanced skills and training in various types of surgery.

Fellowship (Optional; Usually 1-3 Years)

After completing your general surgery residency, you may pursue further training in a specialized area of general surgery. General surgery fellowships allow physicians to gain subspecialty expertise. Fellowship choices include plastic, orthopedic and cardiothoracic surgery. Most general surgery fellowships are about one to three years in length, allowing physicians to gain additional experience and hone their skills in a specific area of general surgery.

After General Surgery Residency: Licensing + Board Certification

Upon completing your residency, you’ll be eligible to apply for a medical license, a requirement for practice. You’ll also be able to take the General Surgery Board Exam to become a board-certified general surgeon. While passing the general surgery boards is voluntary, many employers will see this as important – or even necessary – for you to be employed as a general surgeon.

Becoming a general surgeon takes a minimum of 13 years after high school. It’s a long and arduous process, but if you’re dedicated and passionate about becoming a general surgeon, the rewards are worth it.

How Competitive is it to Become a General Surgeon?

General surgery is one of the more competitive specialties in matching into a residency program. Each year, thousands of hopeful medical school graduates apply for a limited number of positions in their preferred specialty. The Match system, run by the National Resident Match Program (NRMP), pairs applicants with training programs based on their preferences.

But how competitive is general surgery in the US? To answer this question, it is important to look at the unmatched rates of US seniors by specialty. The unmatched rate refers to the percentage of US seniors who applied for a residency program in that specialty but did not get matched. It considers each applicant’s first-choice specialty. So, if you applied to a different specialty as a “backup” but didn’t match because you matched in your first choice, this wouldn’t be included. To learn more about how to maximize your chances at a dream residency through “The Match,” see this article.

In the 2022 Match, graduating US medical school seniors attending MD schools had an 18.4% unmatched rate to general surgery. This makes it one of the more competitive specialties, although not of the same competitiveness as specialties like plastic surgery (unmatched % 37.3%), orthopedic surgery (34.2%), or otolaryngology (sometimes called “ENT” for ear-nose-throat; 30.8%).

For more on the competitiveness of general surgery relative to other medical specialties, see this article.

General Surgeon Annual Compensation

One stereotype of surgeons is that they make a lot of money. General surgeons have an average annual salary of $402,000. However, this can vary dramatically based on practice setting, specialty training, and experience level.

General Surgeon Annual Salary

General Surgeons make $402,000 per year on average

How Much Do General Surgeons Make an Hour?

You may also be wondering, how much do general surgeons make per hour? And how is the balance between time inside vs. outside the hospital for the specialty?

While there aren’t perfect data, we’ve compiled data regarding hours/weeks worked and annual salary for various specialties, including general surgery.

Here are the data:

Average Annual SalaryAverage Hourly SalaryOn-Call ScheduleHours/WeekAvg Weeks Worked/Year
Critical Care$369,000.00$114.9166.9
Diagnostic Radiology$437,000.00$170.46Low5844.2
Emergency Medicine$373,000.00$169.59Medium46.447.4
Family Medicine$255,000.00$101.85Medium52.647.6
General Surgery$402,000.00$141.88High59.447.7
Infectious Diseases$260,000.00$101.44High53.4
Internal Medicine$264,000.00$100.81Medium54.947.7
Interventional Radiology$437,000.00
Neurological Surgery (Assistant Prof. Median)$600,500.00$214.96Medium58.2
Obstetrics and Gynecology$336,000.00$123.26Medium5847
Orthopaedic Surgery$557,000.00$207.91Medium5747
Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation$322,000.00$147.7645.4
Plastic Surgery$576,000.00$230.77Medium52
Pulmonary Med$353,000.00$119.77Medium61.4
Radiation Oncology (Assistant Prof. Median)$393,734.00$158.36Low51.8
Total Average$381,233.35$147.4453.9

And the estimated physician salary per hour by specialty (general surgery highlighted in red):

General Surgeon Hourly Salary

General Surgeons make $141 an hour on average

Note: when data were unavailable for weeks worked per year, 48 weeks was used as an estimate to calculate the estimated hourly salary.

Getting AOA (Med School Honors) Helps in Becoming a General Surgeon

Medical school is one of the most challenging aspects of becoming a doctor. Many medical schools have established Alpha Omega Alpha (AOA) branches to recognize top students’ hard work and dedication.

Alpha Omega Alpha (AOA) is the medical school honors society for students who excel in their studies and demonstrate an exemplary commitment to professionalism and leadership. Each medical school may elect up to 20% of their graduating class to be inducted into AOA.

Induction into AOA is a prestigious honor that carries with it a variety of benefits. AOA members may be eligible for special scholarships and fellowships and can often receive priority consideration for residency positions.

The AOA advantage is particularly notable for the most competitive fields and/or residency programs. The 2022 Match data showed that the match rate for US medical school seniors with AOA membership was 18% greater than that of US seniors without AOA membership in general surgery. In other words, AOA membership provided a moderate advantage to matching into a general surgery residency.

AOA Membership Advantage for General Surgery 2022

AOA membership correlated with an 18% match rate advantage for General Surgery in the 2022 Match

See this article for more on AOA medical schools and the importance of class rank for matching.

Do You Need to Attend a Top School to Become a General Surgeon?

When pursuing a career in general surgery, attending a top medical school can make a difference in matching into your desired specialty. According to a survey of program directors, over half of those surveyed reported considering applicants’ med school reputation when considering whom to interview, giving it an importance score of 3.6 out of 5.

Moreover, graduating from a school in the top 40 for NIH funding is associated with an 11% increase in the likelihood of matching into general surgery as a field. This is potentially because top medical schools have more resources and access to clinical experience, which can help prepare students for the rigors of the specialty.

That said, it is important to remember that the name of the school alone does not guarantee success in any field. While attending a top medical school may have advantages, it is ultimately up to the individual to make the most of the opportunities presented. And while there is an advantage to being from a more prestigious institution, one’s record at the school will matter much more, including things like USMLE scores, class rank, and letters of recommendation.

Top 40 med school General Surgery match 2022

Graduating from a medical school ranked in the top 40 by NIH funding correlated with an 11% match rate advantage for General Surgery in the 2022 Match

Does an MPH or MBA Help You Become a General Surgeon?

Medical training is long and arduous. Remarkably, many students consider completing other degrees before, after, or even while pursuing their medical studies. Degrees such as Master of Public Health (MPH) and Master of Business Administration (MBA) may seem attractive to potential general surgery residents due to their additional qualifications. But do these other degrees give applicants an edge in the residency application process?

The truth is that having an additional degree may not matter as much as one thinks. We crunched the numbers on the match rate for graduating students from MD schools for those with non-PhD other degrees vs. those that did not have a second degree. In general surgery, the match rate was 12% lower for those with degrees like an MPH or MBA. This implies that having a second degree that isn’t a Ph.D. doesn’t appear to help your chances of matching into general surgery and may even hurt them.

General Surgery other degree MBA MPH advantage 2022

Having another degree like an MBA or MPH correlated with a -12% match rate disadvantage for General Surgery in the 2022 Match

It’s important to note that this study only looked at the overall match rates of medical students with another degree. The data doesn’t look at the type of degree, the school it was obtained from, and the quality of the applicant’s experience and credentials.

Having a second degree could open up some additional career opportunities. For instance, having an MPH or MBA may prove beneficial for those looking to go into healthcare administration or research.

Concluding Thoughts

Becoming a general surgeon is a challenging but rewarding career path. It is perfect for those who love working with their hands, problem-solving, being decisive, and being a part of a team in intense situations. With hard work, dedication, and a desire to help others, a general surgeon can make a real difference in the world of healthcare.

Looking for a General Surgery Residency Advisor?

Looking for a general surgery residency advisor? Want help writing your personal statement? Need effective strategies for interviewing? Do you have things on your application – e.g., low USMLE scores, failed USMLEs, no research, IMG status, or others – you need help overcoming?

Be sure to check out our Residency Advisor service.

Want FREE Cardiology Flashcards?

Cardiology is key for impressive USMLE scores. Master cardiology from a Harvard-trained anesthesiologist who scored USMLE 270 with these 130+ high-yield flash cards. You’ll be begging for cardio questions - even if vitals make you queasy.