Surgical Tech to Surgeon: How Are They Different?

December 6, 2019


Surgery is an exciting, high-stakes field. Whether you’re heading off to college for the first time – or in the middle of your studies – you’ll need to weigh up the pros and cons of prospective careers.

Instead of spending decades becoming a surgeon, surgical technology is a quick and rewarding way to find work in an operating room.

What are the pros and cons of surgical techs and surgeons? How do their educations, salaries, and requirements compare? Can a surgical tech become a surgeon? Keep reading to find out! 

Surgical Tech School Requirements

 U.S. military / Wikimedia / CC0 


Future surgical techs will encounter a wide range of costs, programs, and requirements. Depending on the length and intensity of the allied health training course, both certificate and associate degree programs can cost between $6,000 and $25,000. There are pros and cons of surgical tech training, but almost all of these are quick certifications that pay well within 1-2 years.

What Do You Learn at Surgical Tech School?

In the classroom, expect to study a combination of anatomy, physiology, ethics, biology, medical terminology, and pharmacology. During your supervised surgical tech training, you’ll become familiar with infection control methods, sterilization procedures, surgical instruments and equipment, and supervised surgical procedures.

You may learn about specialized areas of care including emergency, transplant, orthopedic, or even plastic surgery.

According to the US Air Force, a military surgical service specialist training program is available after the standard 8-week basic training.

Surgeons: 4-Year Degree, Med School, & Residency

 Monash University / Flickr / CC BY-NC


Medical school acceptance mandates a four-year science degree. Expect at least another four years to complete medical school, where you’ll study health-based sciences such as biochemistry, psychology, medical ethics, and anatomy (in both classroom and laboratory environments).

During the first two years of their graduate program, most surgeons-in-training veer towards a specialty. During the final two years of medical school, they’ll treat actual patients under the supervision of medical professionals.

After graduating from medical school, future surgeons will finish a highly-competitive surgical residency program. This takes between three to eight years, depending on the specialization, and students will work under licensed professionals who oversee all patient interactions.  

It takes anywhere from 11-16 years before surgeons can practice. Many surgeons also choose to become board-certified through the American Board of Medical Specialists (ABMS) or the American Osteopathic Association (AOA).

Can a Surgical Tech Become a Surgeon?

Though it’s rare for a surgical technologist to go attend medical school, it’s definitely not unheard of! Whether going back to school to get your nursing degree – or even extra allied health certifications – one of the best parts of becoming a scrub tech is discovering whether a high-pressure, high-stakes career in surgery is right for you. 

Surgical Tech Salaries and Career Ladder

 Commander, U.S. 7th Fleet / Flickr / CC BY-SA 


Most surgical tech salaries fall between $33,000 and $69,000, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the average pay for surgical techs was $47,000 in 2018.  It’s all relative to location though: In New Jersey, the average surgical tech earned just under $54,000. Because this industry often requires long hours or being on-call, overtime is often an option.

This allied health career is more stable than ever, and by 2028, the job market for surgical technologists is expected to increase by 9%

Surgical First Assistant Salary

Surgical techs who prove their skills in the OR might be promoted to a first assistant position, which requires working directly with other members of the surgical team. With greater responsibilities come greater salaries (an average $7,000 per year, in fact). 

Surgeons: High Salaries but Intense Working Hours

Unsurprisingly, because of their education and experience, surgeons earn more than most medical team members. The average pay for a general surgeon ranges from around $120,000-$360,000, though bonuses and profit-sharing dramatically increase this number.

By gaining experience and specialties (even subspecialties) surgeons have a better chance of moving up the chain of command into more prestigious jobs.

According to the American College of Surgeons, these medical experts work between 50-60 hours every week (not including on-call hours). 

What Does a Surgical Tech Do? 

 U.S. Navy / Wikimedia / CC0


Historically, a surgical team has understood the importance of a sterile OR, and that it’s one of the most important responsibilities. Surfaces and equipment must be disinfected and every person who enters the OR must be scrubbed and outfitted with the proper gear.

Patient Prep and OR Organization

Surgical techs are integral members of the operating team, ensuring that the operating room is safe, clean, and well-run. These allied health workers also ensure that all of the equipment is disinfected, working optimally, and that the patient’s safety is guaranteed.

Before surgery, “scrub techs” may need to transport patients to and from the operating room, wash and disinfect incision site areas, and position them on operating tables. During operations, techs are expected to pass equipment to the surgeon or senior assistant.

Experienced surgical techs should be able to anticipate the orders and movements of the surgeon while focusing on orders of surgeons and nurses. After surgery, they may be asked to transport the patient to the recovery room.

Surgical first assistants are trained to resuscitate patients, close surgery sites, and even place catheters and IVs in the patient. 

Surgeons: Leadership and Problem-Solving

Surgeons are the leaders in the operating room, but job duties depend on their specialization. They may correct physical deformities, carry out preventative treatment for specific diseases, or work with a transplant team.

Acting surgeons typically provide advice to the patient before, during, and/or after surgery. Once the operation commences, surgeons rely on their team to provide the necessary equipment, tools, oxygen, IVs, and other necessities. It is the surgeon’s responsibility to identify and address possible issues in a timely, calm manner.

After procedures, the surgeon is responsible for detailing postoperative care and other requirements to staff members. They are also expected to speak with relatives, though longer surgeries may require runners to act as communication liaisons.

The Skills You’ll Need as a Surgical Tech and Surgeon

 Photo by JAFAR AHMED on Unsplash 


Regardless of where they fall in the hospital hierarchy, most medical professionals share personality traits. Intense focus, emotional stability, and stress management are key for those in the operating room. Someone’s life is literally in your hands, so being able to calmly handle stressful situations will keep your team and patients safe.

Continuing to educate yourself on new techniques and research is key to being the best possible member of the surgical team. You’ll meet medical teams and patients from all backgrounds and walks of life, so communication is understandably important.

Surgery is demanding and you should enjoy being on your feet in stressful, adrenaline-filled situations. You need to remain in strong physical and mental shape to perform well, and hand-eye coordination will help you save lives.

Surgical Technologists: Detail-Orientation and Flexibility

Surgical technology is great for those who love high-energy situations in a constantly-evolving field. You’ll need razor-sharp attention to detail and must remain focused during surgeries that can last hours.

Some hospitals organize their staff on rotation. This means could be helping with a knee replacement on Monday and in the ER on Tuesday. If you’re on-call, you may have to rush straight from a dead sleep to the operating room in seconds. Flexibility is crucial.

Surgeons: Leadership and Bedside Manner

Surgeons need to be natural leaders, as the entire surgical team relies on them to take charge. Giving clear and concise directions, delegating tasks, and keeping their team focused is remarkably important.

Calm confidence is a vital characteristic of any surgeon, but having the humility and ability to ask for outside help is essential. The importance of great bedside manner cannot be understated.

Start Your Future As a Surgical Technologist

Whichever surgical career you choose, you’ll become an integral part of your team. Discover more about how to become a surgical technologist, be sure to contact one of our AIMS Education representatives. 

Congratulations on the next step of your life!