Embarking on the path to becoming an orthopedic surgeon is a significant commitment suited for those with dedication and a readiness to face challenges. It’s a profession that offers the unique and rewarding opportunity to profoundly improve people’s lives through treating injuries and illnesses.

Are you considering a career in orthopedic surgery? This guide will take you through the essential education and training, highlight the skills you’ll need to develop, and prepare you for the challenges ahead, giving you a clear picture of what to expect on your journey to becoming an orthopedic surgeon.

What Is an Orthopedic Surgeon?

Orthopedic surgeons are specialized medical professionals who focus on treating injuries and conditions of the musculoskeletal system. This includes bones, tendons, muscles, nerves, cartilage, and joints. They address a wide range of issues, from arthritis and scoliosis to broken bones, hip and back pain, dislocated joints, and degenerative changes in joints. Their work is crucial in improving the quality of life for their patients by providing effective treatments for these conditions.

What Does an Orthopedic Surgeon Do?

Orthopedic surgeons are key in treating musculoskeletal conditions, performing surgeries and treatments to relieve pain, restore function, or slow bone degeneration. Their responsibilities are diverse, including:

  • Conducting patient consultations to assess conditions and identify issues.
  • Ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests such as MRIs, X-rays, and CT/CAT scans.
  • Performing a range of surgical procedures like joint replacements, fracture repairs, arthroscopies, and soft tissue repairs.
  • Prescribing medication and overseeing post-surgery rehabilitation.
  • Collaborating with other healthcare professionals to provide comprehensive patient care.
  • Educating patients about their conditions and treatment options.
  • Being on call for emergency situations.

Orthopedic surgeons balance their time between surgery, patient consultations, and collaborative care, making their role crucial in both clinical settings and operating rooms.

How Long Does It Take To Become an Orthopedic Surgeon?

The journey to becoming an orthopedic surgeon is long and can take 13-15 years after finishing high school. Below, we will explore each of these prerequisites in detail, providing a comprehensive overview of the educational path to becoming an orthopedic surgeon.

Get a bachelor’s degree

The first milestone in your educational journey is earning a four-year bachelor’s degree. While there isn’t a specific requirement for what major to choose, you’ll need a strong biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics foundation for medical school. 

Take and pass the MCAT

Following your bachelor’s degree, the next milestone is the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). This seven-and-a-half-hour exam is crucial for medical school admission. It evaluates your understanding of natural, behavioral, and social sciences, as well as your problem-solving and critical-thinking abilities.

The MCAT is a standardized, multiple-choice test organized into four distinct sections:

  1. Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
  2. Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
  3. Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
  4. Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills

Complete medical school 

After passing the MCAT, the subsequent step is to complete a four-year medical school program, where you will earn either a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree. Medical school is typically structured with the first two years dedicated to classroom-based didactic courses covering subjects like anatomy, physiology, neurology, and pharmacology. The final two years are focused on clinical rotations across various medical specialties.

Complete medical residency

Upon graduating from medical school, the next crucial phase is a five-year residency program in orthopedic surgery. During this residency, you’ll gain hands-on experience in various facets of orthopedic care under expert supervision. This includes developing diagnoses, prescribing medications, performing clinical procedures, and ordering and interpreting imaging scans. Additionally, the residency offers opportunities to rotate through different orthopedic surgery subspecialties, broadening your expertise and exposure.

Secure a fellowship

After completing your orthopedic surgery residency, you have the option to specialize further through fellowship training. A fellowship typically spans one to two years, allowing you to deepen your expertise in a specific area of orthopedics. This field encompasses a wide range of subspecialties, including:

  • Foot and ankle orthopedics
  • Hand surgery
  • Sports medicine
  • Adult reconstructive orthopedics
  • Musculoskeletal oncology
  • Trauma
  • Pediatric orthopedics

Become licensed

To be able to practice medicine as an orthopedic surgeon, you need to obtain a medical license. Although requirements vary by state, to become licensed, you need to pass the three United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) steps for MDs or the three levels of Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensure Examination (COMLEX-USA) for DOs. You’ll take these examinations throughout medical school and the first year of residency. 

Become certified

Although becoming a board-certified orthopedic surgeon is an optional step, a certification can prove your dedication to your profession. To get certified, you must pass the board examinations, which assess your knowledge and expertise in surgical procedures. You can get certified by the American Board of Orthopedic Surgery (ABOS) or the American Osteopathic Board of Orthopedic Surgery (AOA).  

Essential Skills of an Orthopedic Surgeon


Excelling as an orthopedic surgeon requires a harmonious blend of specific skills beyond extensive medical knowledge:

  • Manual Dexterity and Precision: Orthopedic surgery demands intricate procedures that necessitate steady hands and sharp eye-hand coordination. This skill is crucial for the precision required in every surgical task.
  • Effective Communication: The ability to articulate complex medical concepts clearly to patients and their families is essential. Equally important is the capacity to collaborate and communicate effectively with other healthcare professionals to ensure optimal patient care.
  • Physical Endurance: The nature of orthopedic surgery often involves lengthy periods of standing during operations and handling physically demanding tasks. A high level of physical stamina is vital to withstand these prolonged and intense work hours.

Career Growth and Opportunities

The career path of an orthopedic surgeon offers various opportunities for advancement beyond specializing in a particular subspecialty. With experience, orthopedic surgeons can step into leadership roles within hospitals or clinics. Options include becoming a chief of surgery, where they oversee the surgical department’s service quality, or ascending to the role of chief medical officer to manage overall clinical performance.

Additionally, orthopedic surgeons have the opportunity to contribute to the future of the field through teaching and mentoring roles, imparting their knowledge and skills to upcoming professionals. 

Engaging in research and publishing findings is also an option that allows them to share their insights and expertise with the wider medical community, further enhancing their professional growth and impact.

The Financial Perspective

A significant advantage to becoming an orthopedic surgeon is the high-income potential. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for physicians and surgeons, which includes orthopedic surgeons, stood at $229,300 in May 2022. This substantial income serves as a reward for the demanding educational journey required in this field. 

Despite the considerable costs of medical education, reflected in the average medical school debt of about $250,995, the financial prospects for orthopedic surgeons are strong and offer a compelling return on investment.

Challenges and Considerations

A career as an orthopedic surgeon, while rewarding, comes with its own set of challenges. Key considerations include:

  • Stress and Burnout: Orthopedic surgeons often work under high pressure in a fast-paced environment, where precision is crucial. The constant demand for excellence can lead to stress, anxiety, and burnout.
  • Physical Demands: Prolonged surgeries require surgeons to stand for extended periods, performing meticulous procedures. This physically demanding nature of the job can lead to musculoskeletal issues and chronic pain over time.
  • Balancing Work and Life: The demanding schedule of long hours and on-call responsibilities makes it challenging to maintain a healthy work-life balance, potentially affecting personal well-being and family life.
  • Keeping Pace With Technology: The field of orthopedic surgery is ever-evolving, with continuous advancements in surgical tools and prosthetics. Staying abreast of these innovations, while intellectually stimulating, adds another layer to an already busy workload.

The Bottom Line

The journey to becoming an orthopedic surgeon, though lengthy, is a remarkable demonstration of dedication to medical knowledge, surgical expertise, and making a significant difference in patients’ lives. Having explored the essential steps and potential challenges of this career, you’re now better positioned to decide if it aligns with your aspirations.

If you’re ready to take the first step toward a career in orthopedic surgery, consider joining our medical school, where you’ll receive top-notch education and mentorship to embark on this life-changing journey.


What is the difference between an orthopedic surgeon and an orthopedist?

While both share similar roles and duties, an orthopedist focuses on non-surgical treatments before recommending surgery. In contrast, an orthopedic surgeon can offer non-surgical treatments and perform surgeries on conditions and injuries that don’t improve with other non-surgical treatments. 

Is orthopedic surgery stressful?

Yes, a career in orthopedic surgery can be stressful. The nature of the work often involves a fast-paced environment, with long hours and occasional weekend duties. The need for intense concentration during complex surgeries, where precision is paramount, also contributes to the stress levels experienced by orthopedic surgeons.

Is becoming an orthopedic surgeon worth it?

Becoming an orthopedic surgeon can be worth it for those passionate about the field, offering professional fulfillment, financial rewards, and the opportunity to make a significant impact on patients’ lives. However, it requires extensive education, rigorous training, and a commitment to ongoing learning. Ultimately, the decision depends on personal interests, dedication to long-term training, and the desire to work in a demanding medical specialty.