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What Qualifications Do You Need To Be A Surgeon?

What Qualifications Do You Need To Be A Surgeon?

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.

To become a surgeon, you’re going to need the right qualifications.

From GCSEs, to A levels, to a medical degree, to postgraduate surgical exams!

As it happens, you can’t just walk into a career in surgery because you want to have a go at shouting “scalpel!”

In this article, I’m going to run over all the different qualifications you’ll need to become a surgeon.

So if that’s what you’re aiming for, you’ll know what ticks in the boxes you’re going to need to get.

What Subjects Do You Have To Take To Be A Surgeon?

First off, let’s consider your subject choices.

Not selecting the right subjects at GCSE or A-level can severely limit your university choices if you’re already thinking ahead to medical school.

Subjects necessary to become a surgeon generally include chemistry, biology, English and maths. However, each medical school has its own individual selection criteria, so with careful choice of institution it’s possible to avoid any or all of the above requirements.

Weirdly enough, chemistry actually tends to be the one constant demand from medical schools- not biology.

That being said, a handful do also ask for biology. So, if you want to keep all your options open then I’d take it too.

University requirements aside, having not taken biology in school will set you up for a bit of an uphill battle in the first year of medical school.

An anatomical model of the heart at medical school

Maths and English GCSEs are also generally required but you don’t need to take them at A-level.

Now, if you are coming to medicine slightly later in life, and are worried you didn’t take the right subjects in school to become a surgeon, then I wouldn’t worry.

Depending on what qualifications you’ve got there will be a way to make it work.

Whether that be only applying to medical schools that don’t require any of the sciences, doing a science undergraduate to apply to medicine as a postgrad, or even going back to take some school exams as night classes.

Taking the subjects I’ve outlined above will keep the maximum number of options open to you, but there are plenty of other paths into surgery.

What GCSEs Do You Need To Be A Surgeon?

If you’re already thinking you may want to be a surgeon, your GCSE choices now can make things a lot easier for you further down the line.

To become a surgeon, a candidate will generally require at least 6s (or Bs) in science, maths and English GCSEs. The GCSE requirements to become a surgeon come from the fact that a candidate must first attend medical school before embarking on surgical training.

The GCSEs needed to be a surgeon are exactly the same as those needed to be a doctor.

Although there’s not really a minimum standard, the better GCSEs you can get the better chance you’ll have of getting into medical school.

There are universities that have no specific GCSE requirements at all for medicine, but that’s not to say you won’t have a much higher chance of bagging an offer with a full set of 9s compared to 4s.

In terms of science, you’ll be much better off taking individual science GCSEs compared to combined qualifications.

These separate classes will also set you up for the A-levels you’ll need to be a surgeon.

However, there’s no need to panic if you haven’t taken any science GCSEs!

A 6 in maths and a 6 in English will actually be perfectly adequate for tonnes of medical schools across the UK.

In many cases, it’s actually your A-levels that can be a bit trickier to navigate…

What A Levels Do You Need To Be A Surgeon?

Your A-levels are what will actually make or break you meeting your offer to medical school.

Which is the first big step on the road to becoming a surgeon.

To pursue a career in surgery, a candidate will generally require A levels in chemistry and biology, plus at least one other subject. The standard offer for medical school is AAA, so budding surgeons need to meet this standard in order to begin their medical training.

It’s incredibly rare for a student to get into medical school with less than 3As these days.

One of my best friends managed it when we went to medical school back in 2014 but I really wouldn’t hold out hope!

Medicine is now a lot more competitive and you need every edge you can get as surgical training is exactly the same.

Surgical instruments laid out in an operating theatre

In a similar vein to your GCSEs, if you want to be a surgeon then your A-level choices are simply dictated by what’s required by medical school.

To keep the highest number of doors open to you, you should take chemistry, biology and one other subject.

But, taking only chemistry A-level will still give you loads of options.

A biology A-level will likely include some basic anatomy and human physiology, so will give you a good grounding from which to build your knowledge in medical school.

Surgeons need to have expert anatomical knowledge of the area of the body they’re operating in so it never hurts to start early!

Surgeons Need To Go To Medical School

The main qualification you’re going to need to become a surgeon is a medical degree!

As we’ve been discussing, your GCSEs and A-levels are essentially just a means to an end: getting an offer to study medicine.

Surgeons are just doctors who have specialised in performing operations. So you’ll initially be working on the wards just like any other junior doctor.

However, after you’ve completed your initial training, you can move on to more specialised surgical programs.

You can find a full timeline for how long it takes to become a surgeon here.

But, that’s not to say your hands are tied until that point.

During medical school you can get involved with surgical societies, network with surgeons you’ll meet in the hospital and get involved with scientific research looking at surgical procedures.

All these things you do at medical school will actually massively improve the strength of your application when it comes to applying to these postgraduate surgical training programs.

Postgraduate Surgical Qualifications

Unfortunately for you, if you want to be a surgeon then your medical school finals definitely won’t be the last exams you take.

There are a whole host of postgraduate surgical qualifications that you may or may not need to take depending on which path you follow.

The main one that you definitely will have to do is the MRCS (or the Membership of the Royal College of Surgeons).

This exam is the first big hurdle in your surgical training.

The MRCS examination is a crucial milestone in a surgical career; it determines whether a surgical trainee possesses the correct knowledge, skills and attributes to complete basic training and to progress to higher levels of specialist surgical training.

Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh

The only requirement to take it is that you’re a registered doctor within the UK.

It sort of acts as the gateway between junior doctors/surgical trainees and the higher levels of surgical training.

After passing the MRCS, surgeons can choose to be addressed as Mr or Ms rather than Dr.

After the MRCS, there’s a bit more divergence between what exams you need to take depending on what specialty you want to work in.

However, they all have one thing in common: they take a lot of hard work to pass!

Final Thoughts

If your dream is to become a surgeon then there’s no reason that any of the qualifications we’ve talked about should hold you back.

They’re all perfectly achievable with the right mindset and enough hard work.

Now you know what you’re going to need, you can plan accordingly.

Next thing you know, you’ll be in the operating theatre asking for that scalpel!

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.