How to Become a Neurosurgeon: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a neurosurgeon. Research the education and career requirements, training and licensure information and experience required for starting a career in neurosurgery.

Should I Become a Neurosurgeon?

Neurosurgeons are medical specialists who treat injuries, diseases and congenital disorders of the brain and spinal cord. They perform surgical procedures to treat and heal a variety of conditions, such as tumors, blood clots and traumatic injuries. These surgeons must be capable of remaining calm and focused in life-or-death situations. They are often required to work on call to fulfill emergency care needs.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Doctorate
Degree Field Medicine
Experience A year-long internship plus a 6- to 8-year neurosurgical residency is required
Licensure and Certification A license is required to practice medicine; voluntary certifications exist and can expand career opportunities
Key Skills Strong communication and leadership skills, organizational and problem-solving skills, empathy, compassion, patience, dexterity, physical stamina, knowledge of brain and spinal cord anatomy
Salary (2014) $240,440 annually (mean salary for surgeons)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, American Association of Neurological Surgeons

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

While there is not a specific degree required for undergraduate study, aspiring neurosurgeons might choose to concentrate their coursework in advanced biological sciences to meet admission requirements for medical school. They must graduate from an accredited bachelor's degree program with pre-med prerequisite courses, such as microbiology, biochemistry and human anatomy. Most medical schools require a grade point average of at least 3.5 and may choose only those candidates who rank at the top of their graduating class.

During the junior year of study, aspiring neurosurgeons must take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). This exam allows medical schools to evaluate a candidate's training through a skills assessment and a set of multiple-choice questions. Then they must submit their applications via mail or through an online service administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) and the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM).

Success Tips:

  • Participate in job shadowing programs. Most universities can assist students in finding job shadow opportunities to spend time following doctors and neurosurgeons throughout a workday. Participating in job shadowing programs can help an aspiring neurosurgeon learn what to expect in this career and gain medical experience to list on his or her medical school application.
  • Volunteer. Medical school admissions tend to be highly competitive, and having a high GPA may not be enough to help an aspiring neurosurgeon stand out. Participating in volunteer opportunities or performing community service may make a candidate more attractive to medical school admissions officers.
  • Learn a foreign language. Neurosurgeons frequently work with patients who do not speak English, so learning a foreign language such as Spanish can help a candidate succeed in this field and may help him or her stand out over other medical school applicants.

Step 2: Attend Medical School

Aspiring neurosurgeons are required to earn a Doctor of Medicine by attending medical school. Medical school programs are traditionally somewhat inflexible, consisting of medical overview classes paired with experiential units (typically completed in the second half of the 4-year program). Those who wish to be neurosurgeons may tailor their studies to include advanced classes in medical diagnostics, clinical research, surgical practice and disease management. They may also choose to emphasize rotations that allow them to examine and treat patients at a teaching hospital under direct supervision by experienced brain surgeons.

Step 3: Pass the Medical Licensing Exam

The National Board of Medical Examiners and the Federation of State Medical Boards administer the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). The test can be taken right after medical school or within the first part of a residency program. Residency programs often rely on the scores from this test to choose qualifying residents. It is a legal requirement for aspiring physicians to pass the exam prior to practicing medicine in the United States.

Step 4: Complete an Internship and Neurosurgical Residency Program

Upon earning an MD, aspiring neurosurgeons must complete a 1-year hospital internship followed by a 6 - to 8-year neurosurgical residency. During the internship, aspiring surgeons learn to manage patients and develop other skills that will assist them later in their careers. During a neurosurgery residency, an aspiring surgeon will work alongside licensed surgeons learning skills and techniques essential to the field. Eventually, aspiring neurosurgeons will scrub in and assist with surgical procedures.

Step 5: Become State Licensed and Board Certified

Neurosurgeons can apply for licensing through their state's medical board by submitting an application, paying the requisite fees and submitting test scores as well as school transcripts. After a few years of practice, many neurosurgeons also apply for Board Certification through the American Board of Neurological Surgery by meeting specific educational and practicum requirements and by passing an examination. Being board-certified can help a neurosurgeon stand out in the field.

Step 6: Continue Education

Continuing education is required for neurosurgeons to renew licensing and board certification. Continuing education can be done in a number of ways within this field. Neurosurgeons may choose to subspecialize within neurosurgery in a field such as oncology or pediatric neurosurgery and can complete a fellowship to learn more about these subspecializations. A fellowship generally entails several more years of education.

Alternatively, neurosurgeons can complete continuing education requirements by attending classes and seminars held by medical schools and professional organizations. Continuing education enables a neurosurgeon to stay current on technologies and medical breakthroughs in the field of neurosurgery.

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