If you’re intrigued by the prospect of a career in surgery, you’ll soon find yourself having to decide between a wealth of specialties available. Among those options is general surgery, a field that not only offers an array of opportunities for those who pursue it but also addresses the diverse needs of patients. 

As we embark on this exploration of general surgery, we’ll uncover the educational requirements and delve into the complexities of a surgeon’s career while addressing the pivotal question of how long it takes to become a general surgeon.

What Is a General Surgeon?

A general surgeon is a medical doctor who has completed extensive training in surgery after obtaining a medical degree. They are highly knowledgeable about the anatomy and physiology of the body and have the expertise to perform different types of surgeries

General surgeons are typically involved in elective and emergency surgeries, covering various body systems, including the abdomen, digestive tract, skin, and more. They are well-versed in preoperative, operative, and postoperative care, ensuring the best possible outcomes for their patients.

What Does a General Surgeon Do?

Imagine having a doctor who is a jack-of-all-trades, someone who can fix a variety of health issues with surgical precision—that’s a general surgeon for you! They handle everything from appendix troubles and hernias to urgent, life-saving procedures in emergency situations. But it’s not all about the major operations; they also master simpler, less invasive techniques to sort out medical issues. So, in the realm of healing and medicine, general surgeons wear many hats, ready to jump in and tackle all sorts of surgical challenges!

How Long Does It Take To Become a General Surgeon?

The entire process of becoming a general surgeon can be a long and demanding journey, taking around 13 to 15 years from the start of undergraduate education to the completion of training and certification. 

Remember that this timeline can vary based on individual circumstances and the specific requirements in your country or region. Here’s an overview of the typical timeline:

Earn a bachelor’s degree

The path of becoming a general surgeon starts with a bachelor’s degree, which typically takes four years to complete. While no specific undergraduate major is required for admission to medical school, choosing a major that includes prerequisite coursework in the sciences is advisable. 

During your undergraduate years, you’ll take courses that provide a strong foundation in the sciences, including biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Maintaining a high GPA and gaining relevant extracurricular experiences, such as volunteering in healthcare settings or conducting research, is also essential during this period.

Complete a medical school program

Following your undergraduate education, you must attend a four-year medical school program. Medical school is an intense and comprehensive educational experience that covers a wide range of subjects essential to your success as a general surgeon. During these years, you’ll study the intricacies of the human body, learn how to diagnose medical conditions and gain an understanding of the principles of patient care. Medical school also involves clinical rotations where you’ll work with patients under the supervision of experienced physicians. 

Complete a medical residency program

The third step to becoming a general surgeon entails completing a medical residency program, typically lasting 5 to 7 years. During this period, you’ll receive specialized training in various surgical procedures and gain hands-on experience in a hospital setting. Generally, the residency programs include rotations in different surgical subspecialties.

Under the guidance of experienced surgeons, you’ll develop the skills and knowledge necessary to perform surgeries and manage complex surgical cases. The residency is a challenging but essential phase of your surgical training.

Obtain a medical license

To practice medicine legally, you must obtain a medical license in the country or state where you intend to work. This process typically involves passing a licensing examination, such as the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). The examination assesses your knowledge and competency in medical practice, ensuring you meet the required standards to provide patient care. Once you pass the licensing exam, you can apply for and obtain your medical license.

Become board certified

Although not mandatory, many general surgeons pursue board certification in their field. Taking such a step demonstrates a high level of expertise and dedication to maintaining the highest standards of patient care. The certification process often requires passing a comprehensive examination administered by a relevant medical board, such as the American Board of Surgery (ABS). Board certification recognizes your competence and can enhance your professional reputation.

Consider a fellowship

Fellowships typically last one to three years and provide advanced training in subspecialties like vascular surgery, colorectal surgery, or minimally invasive surgery. These programs offer the opportunity to gain expertise in a particular surgical niche and can open up additional career opportunities. If you are considering a fellowship, make sure to research and apply to programs that align with your interests and career goals.

Factors That Can Affect the Length of Your Training

A combination of factors can affect the length of your training. Some of the most common factors include: 

  • Specialization and fellowship choice
  • Academic and professional background
  • Changes in the surgical field and technology

Let’s take a closer look at each of these factors.

Specialization and fellowship choice

One of the primary factors influencing the length of surgical training is the choice of specialization and whether a surgeon decides to pursue a fellowship. While general surgeons complete a standard residency program that typically lasts 5 to 7 years, those who opt for a surgical subspecialty, such as cardiac or transplant surgery, may need additional years of fellowship training. Fellowships often add one to two years to the training process, offering in-depth specialization and advanced skill development, ultimately leading to a longer process of becoming a surgeon

Academic and professional background

Your academic and professional background can also affect the length of your training. If you enter medical school with prior healthcare experience or advanced degrees in related fields, you may have a head start in certain aspects of your training. 

Conversely, if you face academic challenges or require additional remedial coursework, you may experience extended training timelines. Finally, if you decide to engage in research or other scholarly pursuits during your training, your educational journey can take extra time.

Changes in surgical field and technology

The field of surgery is constantly evolving, with new techniques, technologies, and procedures emerging. As a surgeon, you want to stay current and proficient in the latest advancements and may dedicate additional time to continuing education and training. This lifelong learning can be a rewarding investment but may lead to an extended training period as surgeons adapt to evolving best practices and technologies in their field.

The Bottom Line

Becoming a general surgeon is a multi-step process that involves obtaining a bachelor’s degree, completing medical school and residency, acquiring a medical license, achieving board certification, and potentially pursuing a fellowship. 

The journey typically spans 13-15, with variations influenced by specialization choices, geographic location, prior academic background, program structure, board certification, and the commitment to staying current in the field. Surgical aspirants should carefully plan their career path, considering these factors and being adaptable to the individualized nature of their training.


What type of surgeon takes the longest to become?

Based on the length of the medical residency program, neurosurgery takes the longest to complete—seven years. 

Which type of surgeon gets paid the most?

Neurosurgeons are among the highest-paid surgeons in the medical field. The reported average annual salary for neurosurgeons is in the high range, often exceeding $600,000, but it can vary depending on location, experience, and specific medical institutions.

How old are most general surgeons?

The age of a general surgeon can vary widely depending on when they completed their education and training, with the average standing at 48 years old

What are the most essential qualities of surgeons?

Surgeons require a unique skill set to excel in their profession. Some essential qualities include:

  • Communication skills
  • Compassion
  • Attention to detail
  • Leadership skills
  • Patience
  • Physical stamina

What is the job outlook for this profession? 

The job outlook for physicians and surgeons, in general, is expected to grow at a rate of about 3 percent from 2022 to 2032. The demand for healthcare services will continue to drive the need for medical professionals, but the specific job market can vary based on location, specialty, and other factors. On average, about 24,200 job openings for physicians and surgeons are projected yearly over the coming decade.

What’s the difference between trauma and general surgeon?

Trauma surgeons complete residency training in general surgery and often have fellowship training in trauma or surgical critical care. However, trauma surgeons specialize in treating injury patients, while general surgeons treat surgical illnesses.