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How To Become A Surgeon In The UK (Complete Guide)

How To Become A Surgeon In The UK (Complete Guide)

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.

A career in surgery is unlike any other area of medicine. Surgeons get to practically apply their knowledge and skills to cure patients of disease.

However, the path to becoming a surgeon in the UK isn’t an easy one.

To become a surgeon in the UK, a candidate must first graduate from medical school and then work for two years as a doctor. From there, they can enter a surgical training pathway, finishing as a consultant surgeon after approximately 10 years of postgraduate training.

Despite not being quite as easy as replying to a job posting on LinkedIn, nearly every surgeon I’ve met absolutely loves their job.

In this guide, I’m going to walk you through the complete pathway that you’ll need to follow if you want to pursue a career in surgery.

The Step-By-Step Path To Becoming A Surgeon

Here I’m going to give you a bird’s eye view of the process of training to become a surgeon, before delving into more specific questions later in the guide.

How To Become A Surgeon Pixel Infographic

1. Getting The Right Grades At School

The road to becoming a surgeon actually starts way back in school.

In order to become a surgeon, you need to get the right grades in school to be able to attend medical school- as you can’t become a surgeon if you’re not a doctor.

Getting into medical school can be a real challenge, especially if you don’t have the strongest academic background.

If you think you want to be a surgeon, one of the biggest favours you can do yourself now is to study hard and get the best grades possible- as they’ll only make your life easier in the future.

I’m actually going to discuss what GCSEs and A-levels you’ll need in the next section.

2. Completing Medical School

The path to becoming a surgeon and becoming any other kind of doctor starts exactly the same: you have to graduate from medical school.

Medical school is where you learn everything you need to start work as a junior doctor, as well as giving you a foundation in the anatomy and human physiology that you’ll build on in your surgical training.

If you haven’t selected a medical school yet and are leaning towards surgery, I’d recommend attending a university that offers full-body dissection.

It’s vital for surgeons to have an excellent anatomical understanding of the area of the body they’re operating in, so learning through dissection is the perfect start to your surgical career.

3. The Foundation Training Program

The foundation training program is a two-year training pathway that every newly qualified doctor in the UK has to complete.

In it, you rotate around lots of different departments within the hospital, getting a taste for how the different medical specialties operate.

A foundation doctor working on a surgical ward

During my foundation training in Plymouth, I worked in A&E, orthopaedics, liver surgery, an acute assessment unit as well as a GP practice.

While you’re still in medical school, you have the chance to rank lots of these different foundation training sets, each with a different combination of departments.

As a budding surgeon, you’d ideally want to get a foundation program that includes lots of different surgical specialties- or even the particular specialty that you think you may want to go into.

4. Core Surgical Training

Core surgical training is your first step to truly specialising as a surgeon.

From this point onwards, instead of working in lots of different departments, you’ll only work with surgical teams within the hospital.

Much like the foundation training program, core surgical training involves you completing a number of 4-6 month rotations over the course of the 2-year training schedule.

During your core surgical training, you’ll regularly be assisting consultant surgeons in theatre and even start to complete some simpler operations by yourself.

5. Specialist Surgical Training

After completion of core training, a doctor can enter into specialist surgical training.

It’s at this point that they’d generally be regarded as a surgeon.

Specialist trainees, or registrars as they’re called, will regularly complete operations without direct supervision from a consultant.

On entry into specialty training, a doctor has chosen their individual surgical specialty.

For example, you can be a vascular registrar, a plastic surgery registrar, or a neurosurgery registrar.

Over the course of their specialty training, registrars build the wealth of experience and expertise they’ll need to function as a surgical consultant.

6. Completion Of Surgical Training

After approximately 6 years as a registrar, surgeons are eligible to complete their clinical training.

This lets them take up a job on the top rung of the medical training ladder: consultant.

Surgical consultants are the bosses in hospital.

They have teams of foundation trainees, core surgical trainees and specialist registrars all working under them to care for their patients.

They’re who are ultimately responsible for the quality of care a patient receives when under them and they’re who will get to make all the big decisions about treatment.

Over a full career, a surgeon could spend up to 30 years as a consultant, building a huge bank of knowledge and surgical acumen.

What GCSEs And A-Levels Do You Need To Be A Surgeon?

Circling back to school then, as I mentioned before, your grades can play a pivotal role in whether or not you can become a surgeon.

Getting into medical school is an incredibly competitive process- so anything you can do to differentiate yourself as a competent applicant will pay dividends.

As a broad rule of thumb, you’re going to need:

  • At least 5 GCSEs grades 9 to 7 (A* or A)
  • Including GCSEs in English and maths
  • 3 A-levels or equivalent
  • Including chemistry and biology

In reality, none of the above is actually an absolute requirement.

You can apply to medical schools that don’t have a requirement for A-level biology, medical schools that don’t look at your GCSEs at all, or even medical schools that won’t consider your A-levels if you have another degree.

A surgeon working at his computer

However, by not being able to tick off all of the above you will start to significantly limit your university choices.

That being said, just because your exam results aren’t the strongest element of your application doesn’t mean you have to give up on becoming a surgeon.

If you’re determined enough, there will be a way to first get into medical school and then surgical training, no matter what your GCSE psychology result!

I go into a bit more depth on exactly what qualifications you’ll need to become a surgeon in this article.

How Long Does It Take To Become A Surgeon?

Unfortunately, there aren’t really any shortcuts in surgical training.

To go from a normal person off the street to a consultant surgeon will generally take you at least 15 years, including medical school.

This breaks down to:

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

This could be cut down by 1 year to 14 years if you attend a shorter, 4-year graduate entry medical degree- but you do have to be a graduate to do that!

In real life, however, most people will take longer than this perfect run-through time.

People take time out for maternity leave, as a sabbatical, to pursue research or for health reasons.

Surgical training is also, unfortunately, an incredibly competitive process.

This means that doctors often have to take an extra year to reapply at both the core surgical level and the specialist registrar level.

This 15-year timeline is only possible if you’re successful in your applications at every stage of the process.

Now, another way to answer this question is actually to look at how long it takes before you’d generally be considered a ‘surgeon.’

In which case, the answer would be 9 years, as once you enter specialist surgical training you are for all intents and purposes a surgeon.

Find out who was the world’s youngest surgeon was, as well as a complete timeline for how long it takes to become a surgeon, here.

What Skills Do You Need To Be A Surgeon?

Surgeons are highly skilled professionals that are continually developing over their entire careers.

There is a huge overlap between the skills needed to be a surgeon and the skills needed to be a doctor, but there are a few important differences.

If being a surgeon is your dream job then there’s no harm in starting to build some of the skills and qualities that will serve you throughout your career.

I’ve brainstormed some of the most important skills needed for surgery and how you can develop them here:

Skill Needed For SurgeryHow You Can Develop It
Anatomical knowledgeWork hard in GCSE and A-level biology to learn and understand the basics of human physiology and anatomy.
Hand-eye coordinationTake up a hobby that can replicate some of the intricate hand-eye coordination required in surgery e.g. drawing, painting, knitting etc.
CommunicationHold a part-time job or do some work experience that involves interacting with the public or colleagues e.g. working as a local tour guide will massively improve your public speaking and communication skills
The ability to perform under pressurePut yourself in situations where you need to achieve a high-pressure goal. This can be done by playing sports, through paid employment or even volunteer positions.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but they are some key areas you can work on before going to medical school.

Once you’re at medical school, you’ll be able to get down into theatres and hopefully get hands on in operations.

This will let you put your transferable skills to good use as you start to build real experience with scalpels, forceps and retractors.

How Hard Is It To Become A Surgeon?

I can definitely understand why people want to become surgeons. It’s easy to see the appeal of such a prestigious job.

However, because of this popularity, becoming a surgeon can be a highly competitive process.

And you’re not just competing with random people off the street… you’re competing with other highly intelligent doctors.

Your first step down the path of purely surgical training is when you enter core surgery training.

This then acts as somewhat of a gateway to doctors wanting to become surgeons.

In 2022, the competition ratio for core surgery spots was just under 4:1.

That’s 4 doctors applying for one place.

You can understand why then some doctors take more than one go at getting into surgical training and why that 15 year timeline to consultancy isn’t always realistic!

A female surgeon at work

Quite a few of my friends applied to core surgery training.

Some were successful and some weren’t.

However, those who really wanted to be surgeons took a year out of training as an F3 and applied again.

This time, nearly every single one was successful.

Getting into surgical training is highly competitive. But, just like medical school, if you want to get there bad enough and you’re willing to dedicate the time and effort to making it happen, you will get there eventually.

If you want to discover what the most and least competitive surgical specialties are, as well as more statistics surrounding the training pipeline, check out this article all about how hard it is to become a surgeon.

How Much Do Surgeons Make In The UK?

Although money shouldn’t be the only thing motivating you to become a surgeon, I can imagine it certainly adds to the appeal!

It is well known that surgeons are well compensated for their work and arguably rightly so.

At the end of the day, they are incredibly skilled professionals who are carrying out a valuable service for their patients.

Here’s how much surgeons earn in the UK:

Training GradeSalary Estimate
Core surgical trainee£40,257
Surgical specialty training£51,017-£58,398
Newly qualified NHS consultant£88,364
15-year veteran NHS consultant£112,569
Private consultant surgeon£250,000+

Now, just bear in mind that these are only estimated salaries. The exact take-home pay for any doctor depends on how many out-of-hour shifts they do in a month, as you get more money for nights/weekends.

In real life, it’s also not as clear cut as NHS vs private consultant.

Many NHS surgeons do a bit of private work on the side to supplement their income.

They split their time between NHS hospitals and private clinics so probably land in a salary range between the two listed above.

Discover what the highest paid surgical specialty is, as well as getting a full breakdown of how much NHS vs private consultants earn here.

What Are The Different Types Of Surgeon?

As modern medicine has progressed, areas of practice have been divided into smaller and smaller specialities.

We now have specialist pancreatic surgeons, specialist transplant surgeons and specialist bowel surgeons… where before, we just had ‘general’ surgeons.

Broadly, each different type of surgeon operates in their particular area of the body.

This rule doesn’t always hold true, such as with vascular surgeons, but it’s a rough rule of thumb.

Specialist surgeons become experts in their area of the body, developing an incredibly deep knowledge of the anatomy, physiology and pathology that affects their area.

There will always be slight variations with how surgical specialties are divided, but in the UK the main types of surgeon are:

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

Now, this is in no way a complete list, but it is a broad overview of the main types.

For example, general surgery can be further broken down into colorectal, oesophageal, hepatobiliary, breast… and each general surgeon will be a particular specialist in one of these areas.

Each surgical specialty brings with it its own unique set of challenges and rewards, all of which you’ll be sure to find out about during your surgical training!

Final Thoughts

The earlier you decide to pursue surgery as a career path, the better chance you’ll have of being prepared for the hurdles when they come.

Although getting to the finish line as a consultant surgeon is no easy undertaking, you’ll almost certainly have an incredibly rewarding career.

Do your best to meet surgeons, learn about the training pathways available and keep on top of your anatomy and you might be one of the UK’s top surgeons before you know it.

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.