Become a Surgical Oncologist: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Jan 02, 2019

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

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  • 0:00 Should I Be a Surgical…
  • 0:41 Career Requirements
  • 1:49 Steps to Be a Surgical…

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Should I Be a Surgical Oncologist?

Surgical oncologists specialize in performing surgery on patients with cancer. They're also trained in cancer diagnosis, prevention, and rehabilitation, and they might conduct cancer research.

These professionals typically work long hours, nights, and weekends and are often required to do high-stakes, detailed work while standing on their feet. The career involves several years of education and training, but it does offer a much higher-than-average salary and provides some with the satisfaction of making patients' lives easier and even saving lives.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.)
Degree Field Medicine
Experience 5 years of residency training plus 2-3 years of fellowship training
Licensure and Certification State-issued license is required; board certification is available
Key Skills Strong verbal and written communication, leadership, organizational, and problem-solving skills; patience and empathy; attention to detail; proficiency in computer imaging and medical software; ability to operate surgical tools, lasers, and surgical accessories; knowledge of human anatomy and cancer treatment; dexterity, physical stamina, good eyesight, and hand-eye coordination
Salary (2014) $187,200+ (2015 median annual salary for physicians and surgeons)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Society of Surgical Oncology, O*Net Online

Aspiring surgical oncologists need to earn a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree. Training involves 5 years of residency work, plus roughly 2-3 years of fellowship training. A state-issued license is required and board certification is available. Surgical oncologists need strong verbal and written communication skills, leadership skills, attention to detail, organizational skills and problem-solving skills. They should also have patience and empathy, as well as proficiency in computer imaging and medical software and the ability to operate surgical tools, lasers, and surgical accessories. Knowledge of human anatomy and cancer treatment, as well as dexterity, physical stamina, good eyesight and hand-eye coordination are also critical. According to 2015 data by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, physicians and surgeons earned a median salary of $187,200 or more per year.

Steps to Be a Surgical Oncologist

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree and take MCAT

While students may choose to earn a degree in any major at the bachelor's level, they must take premedical courses in chemistry, organic chemistry, biology, and physics to meet medical school admissions requirements. These courses also help students prepare for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), which is another requirement when applying to medical school. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), most students take the MCAT exam in the spring or summer following their junior year of study.

Volunteering at a local hospital or health clinic can help aspiring surgical oncologists gain experience working with patients. Having volunteer experience may also help a student demonstrate leadership skills and stand out to medical school admissions boards.

Step 2: Graduate from Medical School

Students have the option to pursue a 4-year Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree. The first two years of medical school are spent taking courses and working in laboratories. Students focus on such subjects as anatomy and physiology, pharmacology, biochemistry, pathology, microbiology, and medical ethics. During the last two years, students learn how to diagnose and treat illnesses by completing clinical rotations in a number of different medical specialties, such as family practice, obstetrics and gynecology, psychiatry, surgery, and pediatrics.

Step 3: Earn Licensure

All medical school graduates are required to pass a licensing exam in order to practice medicine. M.D.s take the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), while D.O.s take the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Exam (COMLEX-USA). These exams consist of three parts. Students complete parts one and two during medical school, and they can complete part three immediately after graduating or during the first year of residency.

Step 4: Complete a Residency in General Surgery

After graduating from medical school and earning a medical license, aspiring surgical oncologists must complete residency training in general surgery. A general surgery residency usually takes five years to complete. However, some residency programs may take six years, with an additional year focusing on research experience. General surgery residents complete clinical rotations and gain experience in different types of surgery, including pediatric, oncological, cardiothoracic, vascular, trauma, and transplant surgery. Residents may conduct science or clinical research during their third or fourth years.

Upon completion of a residency in general surgery, doctors may take the American Board of Surgery's General Surgery Certifying Examination. Since there is currently no board certification available specifically in surgical oncology, board certification in general surgery can help a surgeon stand out as a professional in the field.

Step 5: Complete a Fellowship in Surgical Oncology

The final step to becoming a surgical oncologist is to complete a fellowship in surgical oncology. These fellowships typically take two years to complete. Fellowships that include a research component usually take three years. Fellows complete clinical rotations and gain experience performing surgery on different types of cancer, such as breast, gastrointestinal, skin, gynecologic, and thoracic. Research may be conducted in a number of areas, such as genetics, pharmacology, immunology, or cancer therapies.

Step 6: Continue Education

Continuing Medical Education (CME) credits are required to renew licensure and certification, if applicable. Surgical oncologists can continue their educations through advanced courses or by attending approved meetings and conferences. Oncology surgeons may find CME opportunities through professional organizations, such as the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

Step 7: Career Advancement

Surgical oncologists have many opportunities to advance in their field. Some with ample experience and leadership skills may move into the role of supervisor or manager. Surgical oncologists many choose to start their own practices and hire their own staff, while others may move into teaching or administrative positions at medical schools.

Aspiring surgical oncologists need to have a Doctor of Medicine or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree as well as complete a residency in general surgery and a fellowship in surgical oncology. Additionally, in order to practice medicine, doctors must hold a valid medical license and continuing education is required to renew licensure and certifications.

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