A Comprehensive Guide to Becoming a Surgeon in the United Kingdom

A career in surgery stands apart from all other fields of medicine. Surgeons have the unique opportunity to apply their knowledge and skills directly in the pursuit of curing patients.

However, the journey to becoming a surgeon in the UK is anything but easy.

In order to become a surgeon in the UK, aspiring candidates must first complete their medical school education and then work as doctors for a period of two years. Following this, they can enter a surgical training pathway, ultimately becoming consultant surgeons after approximately 10 years of postgraduate training.

While it may not be as simple as responding to a job posting on LinkedIn, nearly every surgeon I have encountered is deeply passionate about their profession.

In this comprehensive guide, I will take you through the entire pathway you need to follow if a career in surgery is your goal.

The Step-By-Step Journey to Becoming a Surgeon

Here, I will provide you with an overview of the process of training to become a surgeon before diving into more specific details later in the guide.

The path to becoming a surgeon actually begins back in school.

To embark on a career as a surgeon, one must achieve commendable grades in order to gain admission to medical school. After all, becoming a doctor is a prerequisite for becoming a surgeon.

Gaining admission to medical school can prove to be quite challenging, especially for those without the strongest academic background.

If you aspire to become a surgeon, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to work diligently and achieve top grades, as these will undoubtedly make your future endeavors easier.

In the subsequent section, I will discuss the GCSEs and A-levels that you will need.

The path to becoming a surgeon starts in the same manner as any other medical profession — by graduating from medical school.

Medical school equips you with the knowledge and skills necessary to work as a junior doctor, while also laying the foundation in anatomy and human physiology, which will be further developed in your surgical training.

If you have yet to choose a medical school and are leaning towards surgery, I would highly recommend considering a university that offers full-body dissection. (Visit this link for more information: full-body dissection at medical schools)

For surgeons, possessing a thorough understanding of anatomy in the specific area of the body on which they operate is essential. Therefore, learning through dissection provides an excellent foundation for your surgical career.

The foundation training program is a mandatory two-year training pathway for all newly qualified doctors in the UK.

During this program, you rotate through various departments within the hospital, gaining exposure to the different medical specialties and how they function.

For instance, during my foundation training in Plymouth, I had the opportunity to work in A&E, orthopedics, liver surgery, an acute assessment unit, as well as a GP practice.

As a medical student, you have the chance to rank a variety of foundation training options, each comprising different combinations of departments.

As an aspiring surgeon, it would be ideal to secure a foundation program that includes a range of surgical specialties, or even one that aligns with your specific area of interest.

Entering core surgical training is your first step towards specializing as a surgeon.

Core surgical training offers the opportunity to truly specialize in your desired field as a surgeon.

Moving forward, instead of engaging in various departments, your focus will solely be on collaborating with surgical teams within the hospital.

Similar to the foundation training program, core surgical training necessitates the completion of multiple rotations lasting 4-6 months each over the span of a 2-year training schedule.

Throughout your core surgical training, you will regularly assist consultant surgeons in the operating theater and even begin performing some simpler procedures independently.

Upon finishing core training, a doctor can enter specialized surgical training.

At this stage, they are generally acknowledged as a surgeon.

Specialist trainees, also known as registrars, frequently carry out surgeries without direct supervision from a consultant.

Upon entering specialty training, a doctor selects their specific surgical specialty.

For instance, one can become a vascular registrar, a plastic surgery registrar, or a neurosurgery registrar.

During their specialty training, registrars accumulate a wealth of experience and expertise that is required to function as a surgical consultant.

After approximately 6 years as a registrar, surgeons become eligible to undergo clinical training.

This allows them to secure a position as a consultant, the highest level of medical training.

Surgical consultants hold supervisory roles in hospitals.

They oversee teams of foundation trainees, core surgical trainees, and specialist registrars, all of whom work under their guidance to provide care for patients.

Ultimately, they are responsible for the quality of care delivered to their patients and make critical decisions regarding treatment options.

Over the course of their career, a surgeon may spend up to 30 years as a consultant, accumulating a vast amount of knowledge and surgical expertise.

What Academic Qualifications Are Required to Become a Surgeon?

Returning to education, as previously mentioned, your grades play a crucial role in determining whether or not you can pursue a career as a surgeon.

Gaining admission to medical school is a highly competitive process, so any effort you make to set yourself apart as a capable candidate will yield significant benefits.

As a general guideline, the following criteria are typically required:

  • Minimum of 5 GCSEs graded 9 to 7 (A* or A)
  • This must include GCSEs in English and mathematics
  • Completion of 3 A-levels or equivalent qualifications
  • This must include chemistry and biology

However, it is important to note that none of the aforementioned requirements are absolute.

There are medical schools that do not mandate A-level biology, some that do not consider GCSE results at all, and even some that do not take A-levels into account if you possess another degree.

However, not fulfilling all of the above criteria will significantly limit your options when it comes to choosing a university.

Nonetheless, having less-than-ideal exam results does not imply that you should abandon your aspiration of becoming a surgeon.

If you possess enough determination, there is always a pathway to gaining admission to medical school and subsequently pursuing surgical training, irrespective of your GCSE psychology grade!

For further details on the specific qualifications required to become a surgeon, I delve deeper into this topic in my article.

The Length of Time Required to Become a Surgeon

Regrettably, there are no quick paths to surgical proficiency.

Transitioning from an ordinary person to a consultant surgeon will typically demand a minimum of 15 years of training, including medical school.

Here is a breakdown of the time involved:

  • 5 years spent in medical school
  • 2 years within the foundation training program
  • 2 years as a core surgical trainee
  • 6 years as a specialist registrar

By pursuing a four-year graduate entry medical degree, the duration could potentially be reduced to 14 years. However, it is essential to note that this option requires prior graduation!

In reality, most individuals take longer than this ideal timeline to achieve their goals.

Individuals may take breaks for maternity leave, sabbaticals, research pursuits, or health reasons.

Additionally, the process of surgical training is highly competitive, often necessitating an additional year to reapply at both the core surgical level and the specialist registrar level.

Succeeding at each stage of the process is crucial to completing the 15-year timeline.

Another perspective is to consider the point at which one is typically regarded as a "surgeon."

In this case, the answer would be nine years, as specialist surgical training marks the point where individuals are essentially considered surgeons.

Discover the identity of the world's youngest surgeon and explore a comprehensive timeline of the journey to becoming a surgeon here.

Skill Requirements for Surgeons

Surgeons are highly skilled professionals who continually develop their abilities throughout their careers.

While there is significant overlap between the skills required to be a surgeon and those required to be a doctor, there are some notable distinctions.

If becoming a surgeon is your dream occupation, there is no harm in cultivating skills and qualities that will serve you throughout your career.

Here are some of the most important skills needed for surgery and ways to develop them:

Skill Required for SurgeryHow to Develop ItAnatomical knowledgePut effort into studying and comprehending the fundamentals of human physiology and anatomy during GCSE and A-level biology.Hand-eye coordinationEngage in hobbies that involve intricate hand-eye coordination, such as drawing, painting, or knitting.CommunicationGain experience through part-time jobs or work placements that involve interacting with the public or coworkers. For instance, working as a local tour guide can significantly enhance your public speaking and communication abilities.The ability to perform under pressureExpose yourself to situations that require you to achieve high-pressure goals. This can be accomplished through participation in sports, paid employment, or volunteer positions.

While this list is not all-encompassing, it provides key areas on which you can focus before attending medical school.

Once enrolled in medical school, you will have opportunities to observe surgeries and ideally participate in hands-on operations.

This will allow you to apply your transferable skills and gain valuable experience with scalpels, forceps, and retractors.

The Difficulty of Becoming a Surgeon

I fully comprehend the allure of pursuing a career as a surgeon. The appeal of such a prestigious job is evident.

Nevertheless, due to its widespread popularity, the journey to becoming a surgeon can be an intensely competitive one.

And this competition is not just among average individuals; it is among other brilliant doctors.

The first step toward a purely surgical career begins with core surgery training.

This training acts as a sort of gateway for doctors aspiring to become surgeons.

In 2022, the ratio of competition for core surgery spots was nearly 4:1.

That means there were four doctors vying for a single spot.

It is understandable, then, why some doctors make multiple attempts to enter surgical training and why the 15-year timeline to consultancy may not always be feasible!

A female surgeon at workMany of my acquaintances applied for core surgery training.

Some succeeded, while others did not.

However, those who truly desired to become surgeons took a year off from training as an F3 and reapplied.

This time, nearly every single one of them was accepted.

Entering surgical training requires a high level of competition. But, similar to medical school, if you have a strong enough desire to make it happen and are willing to invest the time and effort, you will eventually succeed.

If you want to learn more about which surgical specialties are the most and least competitive, as well as access additional statistics about the training process, check out this article on how challenging it is to become a surgeon.

What Is the Salary of Surgeons in the UK?

While money should not be the sole motivator for pursuing a surgical career, it certainly adds to its appeal!

It is common knowledge that surgeons are generously compensated for their work, and rightfully so.

After all, they are highly skilled professionals providing valuable services to their patients.

Here is an overview of the earnings of surgeons in the UK:

Training GradeSalary EstimateCore surgical trainee£40,257Surgical specialty training£51,017-£58,398Newly qualified NHS consultant£88,36415-year veteran NHS consultant£112,569Private consultant surgeon£250,000

Please note that these figures are only estimations of salaries. The exact take-home pay for any doctor depends on the number of out-of-hour shifts they undertake in a month, as additional compensation is given for nights and weekends.

Moreover, in reality, the distinction between NHS and private consultants is not as straightforward.

Many NHS surgeons engage in private work on the side to supplement their income.

They divide their time between NHS hospitals and private clinics, earning a salary that likely falls within the range mentioned above.

To discover which surgical specialty is the highest-paid and obtain a comprehensive breakdown of the earnings of NHS and private consultants, visit this article.

What Are the Various Types of Surgeons?

As modern medicine has advanced, specialized areas of practice have become increasingly specific.

We now have specialized pancreatic surgeons, transplant surgeons, bowel surgeons, and many more, whereas before, we only had "general" surgeons.

In a broad sense, each distinct type of surgeon operates within their own realm of the human body.

This principle does not always apply universally, as seen with vascular surgeons, but it serves as a general guideline.

Specialized surgeons acquire expertise in their specific area of the body, cultivating a profound understanding of the anatomy, physiology, and pathology that impacts their domain.

While there may be slight variations in the categorization of surgical fields, in the United Kingdom, the principal types of surgeons are as follows:

  • Cardiothoracic surgery
  • Neurosurgery
  • ENT surgery
  • Plastic surgery
  • Urology
  • Academic surgery
  • General surgery
  • Maxillofacial surgery
  • Paediatric surgery
  • Trauma and orthopaedics
  • Vascular surgery
  • Transplant

Bear in mind that this is not an exhaustive list, but rather a broad overview of the primary categories.

For instance, general surgery can be further subdivided into colorectal, oesophageal, hepatobiliary, breast... and each general surgeon specializes in one of these areas.

Each surgical specialty presents its own distinct challenges and rewards, all of which you will undoubtedly encounter during your surgical training!

In Conclusion

The earlier you decide to embark on a surgical career, the better equipped you will be to navigate the obstacles that lie ahead.

While reaching the finish line as a consultant surgeon is no simple feat, you will most likely enjoy an incredibly fulfilling profession.

Make an effort to connect with practicing surgeons, familiarize yourself with the available training pathways, and stay abreast of your knowledge in anatomy, and sooner than you think, you could become one of the preeminent surgeons in the United Kingdom.

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