How to Become a Surgeon (General)

Updated on January 15, 2024


Becoming the surgeon general is no easy feat, but with dedication and perseverance, it may be possible to attain this esteemed position one day. The road begins with obtaining an undergraduate degree, ideally with coursework in science, followed by admission into medical school. After graduating from a 4-year medical program, newly minted doctors must complete a 5-year surgical residency and receive intense, hands-on training. Subsequently, aspiring surgeons often pursue a fellowship for further subspecialty training in an area like trauma or pediatric surgery. With over a decade of education under their belt, accomplished surgeons may be recruited for high-level government positions like serving as the U.S. surgeon general – the nation’s top spokesperson on public health issues. Surgeons can ultimately reach this prestigious role through this path of continual learning and achievement in medicine.

What is a Surgeon (General)?

The United States Surgeon General is the nation’s leading spokesperson on public health matters. They serve as the primary medical adviser to the U.S. government, providing Americans with the best scientific information available on improving their health and reducing the risk of illness and injury.

Role and Responsibilities

The Surgeon General oversees the operations of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, a group of over 6,000 uniformed public health professionals who promote health and disease prevention programs. Some of the key responsibilities of the Surgeon General include:

The Surgeon General cannot set health policy but plays a critical role in drawing attention and resources to the nation’s major health challenges.

Becoming Surgeon General

The President of the United States nominates the Surgeon General, whom the Senate must confirm. They must be appointed from the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps rank by law. Candidates are typically renowned physicians and scientists with extensive training and expertise in areas like public health, epidemiology, medicine, and health administration.

What does Surgeon (General) do?

Surgeons general, also known as surgeons general of the United States, are the leading spokespersons on public health issues in the federal uniformed services. As the most senior commissioned officers in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, they have several key responsibilities:

In short, surgeons generally serve as key advisors on public health matters while leading a uniformed service of disease-fighting professionals. Appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, they support the health and safety of all Americans.

Educational Requirements for Becoming a

To become a surgeon general, you need to complete many years of education and training. The path starts in high school and continues through medical school, residency, and beyond.

High School Preparation

In high school, students interested in a medical career should take courses to prepare for college pre-med programs. Important classes include biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, and English. Getting good grades and scoring well on college admission tests like the SAT or ACT is also essential. Extracurricular activities like volunteer work in healthcare can also help strengthen your application to college.

Undergraduate Education

Most surgeons generally complete an undergraduate degree before entering medical school. Common majors include biology or another science, but any major is typically acceptable if you take the prerequisite courses for medical school. These usually include biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, English, and calculus. Maintaining a high GPA and securing strong letters of recommendation from professors are vital to getting into a good medical school.

Medical School

Medical school takes four years to complete. The first two years focus on classroom scientific study, while the last two years are spent gaining hands-on clinical experience with patients. Medical students interested in surgery often complete elective rotations in surgery to gain more exposure. Successfully graduating from an accredited medical school program is required to advance.

Surgical Residency

After finishing medical school, aspiring surgeons must complete a surgical residency, which usually takes 5-7 years, depending on the specialty. This provides intensive on-the-job training under the supervision of experienced surgeon mentors. Residencies for general surgery take five years. Specializing further requires 1-2 additional years of fellowship training.

Board Certification

Once their residency is complete, surgeons must pass rigorous exams to become board-certified in their specialty. This requires extensive study and testing of medical knowledge and surgical skills. Board certification must be maintained through continuing education and retesting every ten years.

Career Advancement

Becoming a surgeon general requires further distinguishing yourself through years of exemplary surgical practice, research, teaching, and leadership. After at least 20-30 years of medical and surgical experience, one may finally be considered for nomination to the prestigious role of surgeon general.

The lengthy training and career ladder highlight the commitment and persistence required to reach the surgeon general’s top public health leadership role. The educational foundation in science, medical skills, and surgical expertise provides credibility and influence to improve the nation’s health.

Postgraduate Training for Surgeon (General)

After completing medical school, aspiring surgeons must undergo 5-7 years of residency training in general surgery. This intense hands-on training prepares them to become independent surgical practitioners.

After finishing the residency, some surgeons opt for further training in a surgical fellowship or sub-specialty lasting 1-3 years. These provide advanced training in specialized areas like neurosurgery, plastic surgery, or colon and rectal surgery.

Additionally, surgeons must be board-certified in general surgery to practice independently. This involves passing a 6-hour exam testing clinical judgment, applied knowledge, and technical skills. According to the American Board of Surgery (ABS), over 97% of general surgery residents pursue board certification immediately after training.

Skills and Qualities of a Successful Surgeon (General)

Becoming a skilled general surgeon requires developing expertise across various areas. Here are some of the most important skills and personal qualities needed to be a successful surgeon:

Technical Skills

Cognitive Skills

Interpersonal Skills

Personal Qualities

General Surgeon Salary

Years of ExperienceSalary Range
Public Health Advisor (5-10 years)$50,000-$100,000
Public Health Director (10-15 years)$100,000-$150,000
Assistant Surgeon General (15-20 years)$150,000-$175,000
Surgeon General (20+ years)$199,300

Career opportunities for Surgeon (General)

 Becoming a surgeon general opens up many career opportunities and possibilities for advancement. As the leading spokesperson on public health issues for the government, the surgeon general plays a vital role in shaping health policies and initiatives.

After completing medical training and a residency, those aspiring to be surgeon general often gain experience serving in leadership positions such as health commissioner for a state or major city. This allows them to develop expertise managing public health programs and communicating health information to the public. Many previous surgeons general have served in these types of roles before their appointment. For example, Dr. Vivek Murthy served as the health commissioner for the state of Indiana before becoming the 19th U.S. surgeon general under President Obama.

The surgeon general may also have opportunities for advancement into higher government positions. According to an analysis by Becker’s Hospital Review, four former surgeons general later served in prominent political offices, including governor and assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

In the business sector, former surgeons general are also in high demand for leadership roles in health organizations, given their expertise in public health policy. For instance, Dr. David Satcher became the National Center for Primary Care director at the Morehouse School of Medicine after serving as surgeon general.

With their widespread name recognition and credibility on health issues, former surgeons general often have opportunities to continue influencing public policies through research, advocacy organizations, media commentary, and authoring books. Their career prospects remain strong long after their tenure as American doctors come to an end.


 In summary, becoming a surgeon general requires many years of education and training. It starts with obtaining a bachelor’s degree and then completing four years of medical school to earn an MD or DO. This is followed by 5-7 years of residency training in general surgery. To qualify for the role of surgeon general, one must have outstanding accomplishments in public health and preventive medicine. Additional credentials like an MPH or PhD are also extremely helpful. With drive and dedication, it is possible to attain this esteemed position at the peak of the medical profession. Those interested can learn more at the official Surgeon General website.