Become an Oncology Surgeon: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Mar 05, 2020

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

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Become an Oncology Surgeon

Oncology surgeons, also known as surgical oncologists, conduct research on the causes and outcomes of cancer and perform advanced surgical procedures related to cancer treatment, such as tumor removal. Additionally, they provide pre- and post-surgical care and rehabilitation to cancer patients.

Becoming an oncology surgeon involves a 15-year educational commitment. However, once established, these professionals tend to make yearly salaries that are several times higher than the national average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Still, oncologists work hard for their money. Many put in long or irregular shifts, work under great pressure and perform detailed procedures while standing for long periods of time.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathy (D.O.)
Degree Field Surgical oncology
Experience Five years of residency training plus two or more years of fellowship training
Licensure and Certification A state-issued license is required
Key Skills Strong verbal and written communication skills; leadership skills; attention to detail; organizational skills; problem-solving skills; and patience and empathy; 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 $208,000 (Median annual salary in 2018 for all physicians and surgeons); $269,067 (Median annual salary as of February 2020 for all oncologists)*

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Society of Surgical Oncology, American College of Surgeons, O*Net OnLine, *

Steps to Become an Oncology Surgeon

Step 1: Obtain an Undergraduate Degree

A bachelor's degree is required for admission to medical school. Students aren't required to have a particular major, but they need to have courses in biology, physics, English, and organic chemistry to meet medical school admissions requirements, according to the BLS. Thus, students may choose to pursue a bachelor's degree in a physical science, such as biology, or pursue another field of study and supplement their education with electives in the natural sciences.

Students are required to take and pass the standardized Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) to gain entry into medical school. The MCAT is a multiple-choice exam that tests students on their writing and problem-solving skills while also testing their understanding of basic medicine and science concepts. MCAT scores are often used by admission boards when determining whether or not to accept an applicant into a medical school program. 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.

Success Tips:

  • Volunteer. Volunteering at a local hospital, hospice, or health clinic can help aspiring oncology surgeons gain experience working with patients. Having volunteer experience may also help a student stand out to medical school admissions boards.
  • Participate in a job shadow. The AAMC recommends that aspiring physicians participate in job shadows as a way to see first hand what a career in medicine entails. Students may find professional surgical oncologists to shadow in order to ask questions and observe common tasks performed in daily work.

Step 2: Complete a Medical School Program

Aspiring oncology surgeons must complete a four-year Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) program. Medical training includes multi-subject classroom instruction and lab research, followed by hospital and clinical rotations involving direct patient observation and care, supervised by practicing physicians. Although some medical school curricula may be rigid, students on track to becoming oncology surgeons may find training opportunities in surgical practice and cancer diagnostics, or hospital rotations in cancer and surgical wards.

Step 3: Pass the Medical Licensing Exam

Physicians are required by law to pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) for M.D.s or the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Exam (COMLEX) for D.O.s before practicing medicine. The USMLE or the COMLEX may be taken upon completion of medical school or during the first year of a residency program. Applicants' test scores are considered by prospective residency programs, so it is often beneficial to take these exams immediately after graduation from an accredited medical school program.

Step 4: Complete a Surgical Residency Program

Newly licensed physicians generally complete a one- or two-year hospital internship followed by a five-year to six-year residency in general surgery. Physicians spend time observing and practicing various types of surgery, including cancer, cardiac and vascular cases.

Success Tip:

  • Consider board certification. Upon completion of a surgical residency, doctors may take the American Board of Surgery's General Surgery Certifying Examination. Doctors become board-certified surgeons upon passing this exam, which may help expand career opportunities.

Step 5: Complete a Fellowship in Surgical Oncology

Surgeons can choose from surgical oncology fellowship programs, requiring two or more years of continued clinical training. Fellowships include rotations in surgical and non-surgical oncology services and clinical or lab research mentored by experienced oncologists. Surgeons may choose from several specialties, including gastrointestinal cancer, breast cancer, skin cancer, and bone cancer. After completing a fellowship, surgeons are recognized as oncology specialists by the Society of Surgical Oncology (SSO).

Step 6: Continue Education

Continuing Medical Education (CME) credits are required in order for surgeons to renew licensure and certification. Oncology surgeons have the ability to continue their education by taking advanced courses or by attending approved meetings or conferences.

Success Tip:

  • Join a professional organization. Oncology surgeons may further their careers by joining professional organizations, such as the SSO and the American Society of Clinical Oncology. In addition to providing CME opportunities, professional organizations offer other membership benefits and networking resources.

Oncology surgeons research and perform surgeries on cancer patients. They earn a median annual salary of $269,067.

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