How to Become a Plastic Surgeon

Updated on January 15, 2024


Becoming a plastic surgeon takes many years of education and training, but it can be a rewarding career, helping patients feel more confident by enhancing their appearance. First and foremost, aspiring plastic surgeons must obtain an undergraduate degree, typically focusing their studies on biology, chemistry, and other science prerequisites. Next, they must complete four years of medical school to earn their MD or DO. Subsequently, they must complete a five-year residency program in general surgery before they can enter a two- to three-year plastic surgery fellowship. Throughout this long educational journey, maintaining excellent grades and strong letters of recommendation are key to matching into competitive programs. With intense dedication and persistence, future plastic surgeons can gain the skills and credentials needed to perform cosmetic and reconstructive surgeries that can truly change patients’ lives.

What is an Plastic Surgeon?

A plastic surgeon is a medical doctor who has undergone extensive training in treating and reconstructing the skin, craniofacial structures, the hand, extremities, breast, and trunk of the body (American Society of Plastic Surgeons, 2023). They help patients with cosmetic enhancements as well as reconstructive surgeries after disfiguring accidents or surgeries like mastectomies.

Plastic surgery is divided into two main categories: reconstructive and cosmetic surgery. Reconstructive procedures are aimed at restoring form and function after disfigurements from burns, disease, congenital issues, or traumatic injuries. Some examples include cleft lip and palate surgery, scar revision procedures, hand surgery, etc. Cosmetic procedures are elective surgeries done to enhance one’s appearance, like facelifts, nose reshaping, tummy tucks, etc.

Plastic surgeons undergo rigorous training to gain expertise in the full spectrum of plastic and reconstructive surgical techniques. This includes a minimum of 5-7 years of residency training after medical school (American Board of Plastic Surgery, 2021). They learn both cosmetic and medically necessary reconstructive techniques using the latest technologies and approaches. Their training equips them to tailor procedures to patients’ unique anatomy and desires.

What do Plastic surgeons do?

Plastic surgeons perform a variety of procedures to reconstruct and reshape the human body. Their work involves:

Educational Requirements for Becoming a

Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

The first step to becoming a plastic surgeon is earning a bachelor’s degree from an accredited 4-year university. While any major is acceptable, common ones pursued by pre-med students include biology, chemistry, biochemistry, or physics. Ensure that you maintain a strong GPA (3.5 or higher preferred) and secure strong letters of recommendation for medical school applications. Additionally, aim for a good MCAT score. Learn more about the MCAT exam format and content.

Complete Medical School

After earning an undergraduate degree, the next educational requirement is to complete four years of medical school and earn either a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree. Gaining acceptance to medical school is competitive, particularly in top-ranked programs, so ensure your application stands out with research experience, community service activities, and publications/presentations if possible.

Finish a Plastic Surgery Residency

Following medical school, aspiring plastic surgeons must complete an integrated residency in plastic surgery, lasting six years. This immersive training teaches aesthetic and reconstructive plastic surgical procedures through hands-on surgical experience and direct supervision from experienced attending plastic surgeons. Residency program options can be browsed via the Electronic Residency Application Service (ERAS).

Obtain Medical Licensure

Before being able to practice independently, plastic surgeons must obtain state-issued medical licensure. This involves passing all three steps of the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), submitting an application, and undergoing a criminal background check. The licensure process differs slightly by state, so review the requirements via your state’s medical board.

Pursue a Fellowship (Optional)

While optional, many plastic surgeons choose to pursue one year of advanced fellowship training in a subspecialty like craniofacial, microsurgery, hand surgery, or cosmetic surgery. This allows them to gain further expertise in complex procedures demanded by today’s industry standards. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons fellowship search tool is used to browse potential programs.

In summary, becoming a licensed, board-certified plastic surgeon requires a minimum of 12 years of higher education and training. The substantial commitment allows those passionate about reconstructive and cosmetic plastic surgery to gain considerable expertise in the field. Reach out to mentor plastic surgeons to learn more about navigating the educational path.

Postgraduate Training for Plastic Surgeons

Becoming a plastic surgeon requires extensive postgraduate training beyond the four years of medical school. This includes:

In summary, the postgraduate journey spans a minimum of 7-8 years after medical school – with 11-13,000 hours spent in clinical training – before one can practice as a fully qualified plastic surgeon. It’s a long but rewarding path to mastering the complexities of form, function, and aesthetics.

Skills and Qualities of a Successful Plastic Surgeon

Becoming a successful plastic surgeon requires developing several important skills and qualities. Excellent surgical skills are essential since plastic surgery procedures are complex and require precision when manipulating delicate tissues. Plastic surgeons must have exceptional hand-eye coordination and spatial visualization skills to mentally picture anatomical structures during surgery.

Additionally, plastic surgeons need strong focus and concentration to perform procedures that often last several hours. They must be able to tune out distractions and intensely focus on the intricate details of surgery. Interpersonal skills are also vital as plastic surgeons must consult with patients, explain procedures, address concerns, and establish trust. Communication skills enable plastic surgeons to ensure patients possess realistic expectations of outcomes.

The outstanding judgment stems from extensive training, allowing plastic surgeons to make sound decisions in complex situations with potentially serious consequences. They must choose appropriate procedures for individual patient’s unique anatomy and goals. Just as crucial is staying current on the latest surgical techniques through continuing education. This ensures plastic surgeons remain at the forefront of innovation in the field.

On a personal level, successful plastic surgeons demonstrate dedication, resilience, creativity, and empathy. The commitment requires long hours of studying and mastering procedures. Plastic surgery also involves dealing with complications, setbacks, and stress. Creativity helps plastic surgeons develop surgical plans tailored to each patient’s needs. Finally, empathy and emotional intelligence allow plastic surgeons to understand patients’ desires and connect with them on a deeper level. Cultivating these well-rounded skills and attributes leads to gratifying careers improving patients’ lives through restorative plastic surgery procedures.

Plastic Surgeon Salary

Experience Level Average Salary
Less than 5 years $300,000
5-10 years $400,000
10-20 years $475,000
More than 20 years $550,000

Career Opportunities and Advancement

Becoming a plastic surgeon opens up a variety of career opportunities and room for advancement. Many plastic surgeons choose to open their private practice, allowing them to set their schedules and focus on the procedures that interest them most. Private practice also allows income potential to grow through expanding one’s client base and reputation.

For those interested in academics, plastic surgeons can pursue career advancement as instructors and professors in medical schools. They may teach courses in plastic surgery techniques to medical students or resident doctors in training. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the average salary for medical school basic science professors in 2020 was $176,041.

Leadership roles are also available for experienced plastic surgeons, such as serving as department chair, residency program director, or chief of plastic surgery at a hospital or medical facility. These roles allow for career development in areas like mentoring other doctors, managing budgets and personnel, and setting policies. According to ZipRecruiter, the average annual salary for a physician program director is $233,058.

Many plastic surgeons also choose to specialize in a specific area like craniofacial, hand, or microsurgery. Pursuing an advanced specialty fellowship after residency enables them to provide expert care in complex reconstructive procedures. Specialization opens up opportunities to publish research, speak at conferences, and train other doctors in the field.

In summary, plastic surgeons have high-income potential and opportunities for career advancement into private practice, academia, hospital administration, or specialization. The ability to help patients improve their lives through reconstructive procedures also makes for a rewarding career path.


In summary, becoming a plastic surgeon requires many years of education and training, but it can be a rewarding career helping patients improve their self-image and quality of life. The journey begins with a strong foundation in science and math in high school, followed by completing a bachelor’s degree. After taking the MCAT exam, you would then apply to medical schools and complete four more years to earn your medical degree. The next 5-7 years are spent gaining practical experience in general and plastic surgery residency programs. Once licensed, you can then apply for board certification in plastic surgery. You can attain the expertise and skills to become a successful plastic surgeon with dedication and persistence.

Additional Resources

Resource Link Description
American Board of Plastic Surgery
  • Outlines the certification process for becoming a board-certified plastic surgeon in the United States
  • Provides a timeline and steps for medical school, residency, and board certification
American Society of Plastic Surgeons
  • Professional association representing over 8,000 plastic surgeons in the US
  • Practice and patient resources on various plastic surgery procedures and finding a qualified surgeon
Johns Hopkins Department of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery
  • Details of plastic surgery residency program and training at Johns Hopkins
  • Overviews of the latest research and patient care in plastic and reconstructive surgery
The Match (NRMP)
  • Registration for “The Match” to obtain a plastic surgery residency position after medical school
  • Timelines, requirements, and statistics on matching into competitive specialties


What education is required to become a plastic surgeon?
To become a plastic surgeon, you must complete a bachelor’s degree, attend four years of medical school to earn your MD, complete 3-5 years of general surgery residency, and complete an additional 2-3 years of specialized plastic surgery residency training. The total time in school and training can range from 11-15 years after high school. Learn more about medical school requirements on the AAMC website.

What undergraduate major is best for students wanting to pursue plastic surgery?
While no specific major is required, students interested in plastic surgery should take courses required by medical schools, such as biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, math, and English. Majors like biological sciences or biochemistry help prepare students for the MCAT exam and medical studies.

What skills are important for a successful plastic surgery career?
Excellent surgical skills and steady hands are vital to operate and reshape patients’ skin, tissues, and bones. Strong attention to detail and precision ensure proper technique and safety. Interpersonal skills are key to consulting with patients, explaining procedures, and helping patients feel at ease about changes to their appearance. Creativity also helps visualize and plan procedures.

How competitive is getting into plastic surgery residency?
Plastic surgery residency positions are very competitive, even more so than general surgery residencies. Open positions can receive hundreds of applicants, so excellent test scores, grades, research, publications, and letters of recommendation are important. Many pursue one or more years in an independent research fellowship to help their application stand out.

What is the job outlook and salary range for plastic surgeons?
The job outlook for plastic surgeons is excellent. According to the BLS, employment for all physicians and surgeons is projected to grow 7% from 2020-2030, faster than average across all occupations. The average annual salary for plastic surgeons was $526,000 in 2020, among the highest of any physician specialization. Salaries can vary based on factors like location, experience, and whether in private practice or employed with a hospital system.