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How Long Does It Take To Become A Surgeon? (Full Timeline)

How Long Does It Take To Become A Surgeon? (Full Timeline)

Updated on: December 20, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

It’s easy to see the appeal of surgery- you’re able to relieve suffering, improve lives and cure disease through the practical application of your medical skillset.

So, if you were to go from average person to high-flying surgeon, how long would it take?

Becoming a surgeon takes at least 8-10 years of training. This includes 4-6 years at medical school, 2 years in the foundation training program and 2 years as a core surgical trainee. After this, a doctor can enter specialist surgical training and so would widely be regarded as a surgeon.

Although at this 8-10 year point you’d generally be seen as a ‘surgeon’ by other doctors and the average Joe, in some ways this is just the start of your surgical journey.

Over the following years of practising as a surgeon, you’d continue to build the skillset required to qualify as a fully-qualified consultant.

In this article, I’m going to dig into a bit more depth on each of the steps required to become a top surgeon as well as looking at what the shortest possible time is to complete the pathway.

How Many Years Does It Take To Become A Surgeon?

Unfortunately, there’s no getting around the fact that it’s a long old road to becoming a fully-qualified surgeon.

However, I’m confident in saying almost any surgeon you meet will tell you it was completely worth it.

Here are broad steps that you’re going to need to take on your journey from average person to expert surgeon:

Medical School

Length of Time4-6 years
Cumulative Total4-6 years

The ‘standard’ length of time a student spends at medical school is 5 years.

Over these five years, students transform from fresh-faced school leavers to newly minted doctors.

In addition to these 5-year degrees, there however also shorter graduate-entry courses (as well as longer ones).

Two surgeons performing a bronchoscopy

Graduate students are eligible to enter special graduate-entry medicine programs that essentially condense the standard 5-year course into only 4 years.

In other cases, places like Oxford and Cambridge only actually offer 6-year medicine programs.

This is because they mandate an intercalated year within the normal 5-year degree.

An intercalated year generally equates to a year out of the normal medicine degree to undertake a distinct piece of research.

Most medical schools offer this opportunity as an optional extra, but some medical schools require all their students to do it.

Foundation Training

Length of Time2 years
Cumulative Total6-8 years

The foundation training program is a 2-year training program that any newly qualified doctor has to complete.

In it, you generally do 3 four-month rotations in different departments each year.

So that’s 6 different specialties you’ll work in over the 2 years.

If your aspiration is to become a surgeon, you can choose rotation sets that include surgical specialties within these rotations.

That way, you’ll be able to begin observing and assisting in surgeries as a qualified doctor.

Core Surgical Training

Length of Time2 years
Cumulative Total8-10 years

Core surgical training is your next step after finishing the foundation program.

In many ways, it mirrors the foundation training pathway, but instead of rotating around a big mix of medical specialties, you only move between different surgical departments.

Core surgical training is made up of either more 4-month rotations or 6-month rotations (or a mixture of both).

You’ll start to get a feel for what types of surgery you most enjoy, and what you’d rather avoid, so that you can make an informed decision for the next step of your training.

Specialist Surgical Training

Length of Time~6 years
Cumulative Total14-16 years

Once you enter specialist surgical training, you are for all intents and purposes a ‘surgeon.’

You’ll only be working in one surgical department, performing operations and seeing patients with specified conditions.

Your title at this point is ‘surgical registrar.’

Although you’re not quite a fully-qualified consultant, you’ll often be the most senior doctor in the hospital within your specialty.

How long you have to spend training as a surgical registrar depends on what specialty you’ve chosen, but it will generally be at least 6 years until you’re eligible to become a consultant.

What Is The Shortest Time To Become A Surgeon?

If you’re on a mission, how quickly could you progress from new medical graduate to consultant surgeon?

The shortest possible time to become a fully qualified surgeon is 10 years following graduation from medical school. Including medical school, this would then be 14 years (if a 4-year graduate entry medical degree was completed). The majority of surgeons will however not take such a direct path.

Although 10 years may not seem like a speed run, the reality is most surgeons will take a more convoluted route to becoming fully qualified.

Each step of the process in surgical training can be highly competitive.

This means it can often take a doctor more than one attempt to progress from one step of the path to another.

This could be having to take an F3 year in order to reapply to core surgical training or working as a trust grade doctor in order to reapply to specialist surgical training.

A surgeon concentrating during an operation

In some highly competitive surgical specialties, it can also almost be a norm for consultants to hold a PhD before being employed by a hospital.

This means surgeons have to take a sidestep out of their surgical training in order to complete a full PhD!

Despite it not officially being required as part of the training pathway, these surgeons practically need PhDs in order to remain competitive with their colleagues.

Although it sometimes may not seem like it, doctors do also have lives too!

This translates to time out for maternity leave, time out for a sabbatical, or time out for health reasons.

At the end of the day, although consultancy may seem like the light at the end of the tunnel, plenty of doctors you’ll meet aren’t in a massive rush to get there.

The whole time you’re ‘in training’ you are still working as a doctor/surgeon, you are still getting paid, and sometimes taking the next step in the pathway would require you to move house, hospital or work more unsocial hours.

Who Is The Youngest Surgeon In The World?

As a bit of fun, you may be curious to know who the youngest recorded surgeon in the world is!

The youngest surgeon in the world was Akrit Jaswal, who performed his first surgery at the age of 7 in November 2000. Akrit performed a surgical release on an 8-year-old girl’s fingers after they had fused together following severe burns. Despite his age, his first surgery was a complete success.

Although not officially a doctor at the time of his surgery, Akrit was technically the surgeon who performed the operation!

Akrit had developed a fascination for medicine and the human body at a young age so had taken to observing surgeries performed at a local hospital in India.

As a result of his dedication, a few of the surgeons started to let Akrit assist in some of the operations.

The 8-year-old girl’s parents were incredibly poor so sadly could not afford the services of normal doctors at the local hospital.

However, hearing of Akrit’s abilities, they asked him to perform the surgical release in order to assist their daughter.

Despite his early success in medicine, Akrit actually went on to study bioengineering at IIT Kanpur.

Final Thoughts

I think it can be easy to be intimidated by the long training timelines required to become a surgeon.

At a minimum, it will be 14 years from your first day of medical school to your first day as a consultant.

However, as far off as this goal may seem, from your second year of medical school you’ll likely start to have the chance to scrub into surgeries and get hands-on with operations.

As you move up the food chain, you simply get more and more responsibility with less and less supervision.

Just because you don’t hold that top job title doesn’t mean you won’t be the one holding the scalpel and making key clinical decisions.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.