Surgeons are highly qualified doctors who work across many specialties, usually in a hospital setting. Their main role is to perform surgical procedures, such operations and keyhole (laparoscopic) surgery, under epidural, local anaesthetic and general anaesthetic. Almost all surgeons specialise in an area of surgery, so training is long, complex and can be very competitive.
Most surgeons hold clinics ahead of operations and afterwards to talk to patients about a procedure and assess them before and after their recovery. In some cases, such as following an accident, a trauma surgeon may never have met a patient before an operation and may only get to speak to them afterwards, once they've recovered enough to talk.
Surgeons specialise in different fields of medicine, for example trauma and orthopaedic surgeons will deal with patients who have been in accidents or who have debilitating bone conditions, while a vascular surgeon specialises in conditions relating to blood vessels, and a paediatric surgeon works with babies, children and young adults. Surgeons have their own professional organisations, such as the Royal College of Surgeons, and the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, and in common with all doctors, must be registered with the General Medical Council (GMC), keep up with new developments in their field and prove they are competent to practise on a regular basis.
Typical work activities include:
- conducting out-patients clinics, meeting patients and their families before and after an operation
- doing ward rounds to check a patient's health ahead of and after a procedure
- operating on patients either as a pre-booked (elective) procedure or as an emergency
- working closely with other surgeons, anaesthetists, specialist doctors, nurses, technicians and administrators
- administration and paperwork
- training and supervising junior doctors.
A surgeon is usually based at a hospital, working in an operating theatre, at their own clinic or unit. They may also work in the armed forces or for a charity organisation.
Most surgeons work a shift pattern on a rota with other surgeons so that days, evenings, weekends and on-call for emergencies are covered 24 hours a day. Though a planned shift may specify hours, surgeons often work beyond these, for example, if they are operating on a patient and the procedure takes longer than scheduled. There are part-time working options for surgical careers, known as less-than-full-time (LTFT), that offer more structured working hours.
Most surgeons in the UK work for public health providers, for example in a hospital for a healthcare trust. Some may work as a private practitioner in addition to their public health commitments, or they make work solely for private practices and providers.
Salaries are based on experience, and a doctor is still considered a junior, or trainee, until they are appointed to a consultant's position. A fully qualified consultant surgeon working in England, Scotland or Northern Ireland will have a basic first-year salary around £77,000 a year (2017-18 figures). https://www.bma.org.uk/advice/employment/pay/consultants-pay-england.
Surgeons apply to train in their specialty after completing a five- or six-year medical degree plus two years of foundation training (F1 and F2). From that point, junior doctors train for another seven years or more before they are eligible to apply for a first consultant's appointment. Surgeons train in ten recognised specialties: cardiothoracic surgery, general surgery, neurosurgery, oral and maxillofacial surgery, otolaryngology (known as ear, nose and throat or ENT), paediatric surgery, plastic surgery, trauma and orthopaedic surgery, urology, and vascular surgery. Each specialty will have sub-specialties and there can be a cross-over and collaboration between specialties – for example a vascular surgeon may work with a cardiothoracic surgeon. In addition, there are academic surgical posts.
Surgeons' roles are advertised through official membership organisations, colleges and societies, through hospitals and NHS Trusts, in local and national newspapers and in journals such as the British Medical Journal and their online equivalents.
Personal Qualities and Skills
Key skills for surgeons
- Good hand-eye coordination and spatial awareness
- Confidence and self-motivation
- Excellent clinical skills
- Good stamina
- Good teamworking skills
- Good decision making skills, especially under pressure
- Good attention to detail
- An interest in new techniques and technical developments
- Good communication skills whether dealing with patients and families or colleagues
- Team leading capabilities.
Pay And Opportunities
Typical employers of surgeons
- Large public sector hospitals and healthcare providers
- Private hospitals and healthcare providers
- Universities and medical education providers
- Relief work organisations
Qualifications and training required
You can only start to train to become a surgeon once you have a degree in medicine plus two years of foundation training. The relevant training is overseen by the GMC and exams are set by Royal Colleges. Qualification after your degree and foundation training takes a further seven years of combined study and practical experience, but appointment into a speciality or to a consultant position usually takes longer.
Training as a consultant surgeon
The current process to train as a consultant surgeon typically involves the following...
Medical degree an approved course of usually five or six years, followed by two years of foundation training (F1 and F2). This is general training in different areas and specialties of medicine, including surgery, in a hospital setting. Core surgical training (CT1-2) involves another two years of medical training and is followed by specialist training (ST3-7). Or an alternative is to follow F1 and F2 with seven years of run-through training (ST1-7) which covers core surgical training (CT1-2) and specialty training (ST3-7). This professional experience and training includes examinations at various stages and supervised learning events (SLEs). All doctors have to regularly demonstrate their fitness to practise and keep up to date with new developments in their field in order to stay registered with the GMC.
Applying for medical degree courses
If you are considering applying for a medical degree, most medical schools require GCSEs, AS and A levels or the equivalent, with very good grades (AAA) in chemistry and biology plus another science or mathematics at AS level and one other good A level, which could be in a non-science-related subject, such as a language, music or geography. Scottish equivalent requirements might be, SQA Highers AAAAB by the end of S5 to include chemistry and two from biology, maths or physics (or a science in S6), SQA Advanced Highers in two subjects in S6 and one further subject at Higher or above, with preference for chemistry and biology/human biology. Other routes into medicine are available, for example, students who don't have the required A levels could study a six-year degree which includes a foundation year or pre-clinical course; students with an existing degree and relevant experience can take an intensive four-year medical degree.
Proof of commitment to medicine is usually sought by medical schools as a first step to gaining a place on a course. This could be demonstrated by a strong personal statement and practical evidence, such as work shadowing, regularly visiting elderly residents at a care home, or volunteering at a charitable organisation. Many universities and medical schools require candidates to sit the UK Clinical Aptitude Test (UKCAT) or BioMedical Admissions Test (BMAT) and applicants are usually, but not always, called to a face-to-face interview or assessment ahead of a university offering a place.