Become a Surgeon's Assistant: Career Roadmap

Research the requirements to become a surgeon's assistant. Learn about the job description and duties, and read the step-by-step process to start a career in surgical assisting. View article »

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Video Transcript

Should I Become a Surgeon's Assistant?

Surgeon's assistants are also called surgical technologists or operating room technicians. These professionals serve as an extra pair of hands for surgeons during operations. They might hand the surgeon instruments, cut tissue, insert drainage tubes and close wounds during a surgical procedure. Techs also might work with patients before and after operations. Those referred to as 'surgical first assistants' fulfill the most hands-on roles among these techs. Extended periods of time standing may be necessary, along with working on call or weekend and evening hours.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Certificate or associate degree; prior education at the associate or bachelor's degree level (and/or equivalent experience) required for program admission
Degree Field Surgical assisting
Licensure and Certification Some states require licensure/registration, voluntary certifications available; CPR/Basic Life Support certification usually required
Experience Operating room experience
Key Skills Good oral communications, critical thinking, monitoring, and active listening skills; ability to work in a team environment; ability to use spreadsheet , graphics , Office Suite, and medical software; familiarity with electrosurgical equipment and medical accessories such as sponges, needles, supplies, and other instruments used in surgery
Salary $54,301 (2016 median for surgical assistants)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP), O*Net Online,

These professionals typically need a certificate or an associate's degree in surgical assisting. However, prior education at the associate's or bachelor's degree level (and/or equivalent experience) is needed to enroll in one of these programs. Some states require licensure or registration, and voluntary certifications are available. Additionally, CPR/Basic Life Support certification is usually required. Operating room experience is required to work in this field.

These professionals should also have good oral communication, critical thinking, monitoring and active listening skills. They should also have the ability to work in a team environment. Working knowledge of spreadsheet, graphics, Office Suite and medical software is needed, along with familiarity with electrosurgical equipment and medical accessories, such as sponges, needles, supplies and other instruments used in surgery.

According to 2016 earnings data from, the median salary for surgical assistants was $54,301.

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Steps to be a Surgeon's Assistant

Step 1: Earn an Undergraduate Degree

To qualify for a surgeon's assistant program, applicants generally need a bachelor's degree in science, nursing, allied health or a related field; however, some programs accept candidates with an associate's degree and relevant work experience.

The Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) notes that most surgical assistant programs require that students have completed prerequisite college-level coursework in anatomy and physiology, medical terminology, microbiology, pathophysiology and pharmacology.

Step 2: Gain Experience

In some cases, candidates for surgical assistant training programs already must be certified surgical technologists or physician assistants. A minimum of three years of recent experience in an operating room typically can satisfy admissions requirements.

Step 3: Complete a Surgical Assisting Program

A surgical assistant training program typically lasts from 10-22 months. Through classroom education and clinical laboratories, students explore advanced anatomy and physiology, principles of surgical assisting and pathophysiology.

Step 4: Become Certified

The National Surgical Assistant Association (NSAA) offers the voluntary Certified Surgical Assistant (CSA) credential, and the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA) offers the Certified Surgical First Assistant (CSFA) credential. Certification typically entails passing an examination and meeting education and experience requirements.

Step 5: Gain Necessary State Credentials

Some states require licensure or registration of surgical assistants. In Texas, for example, these professionals must meet numerous licensure requirements, including holding an associate's degree or higher from an accredited institution and having at least 2,000 hours of experience over the previous three years. Licensure candidates in Texas also must provide proof of current certification through NBSTSA or NSAA and evaluations from at least three physicians who have supervised them in recent years. In contrast, Colorado requires registration of surgical assistants, but they don't have to meet education or experience requirements, nor do they need to be certified.

Step 6: Continue Education

Continuing education can help a surgical assistant stay current in the field and may be required for certification or licensure renewal. For example, 75 continuing education credits are required every four years to renew the CSFA credential. Surgical assistants can continue their education through workshops and classes.

Joining a professional organization, such as the Association of Surgical Assistants, can provide surgical assistants access to a variety of continuing education options, networking opportunities and other resources for career advancement and professional growth. Additional membership benefits include invitations to live events, malpractice insurance, legislative representation and insurance discounts.

Surgeon's assistants typically need a certificate or an associate's degree in surgical assisting, as well as a previously conferred undergraduate degree in allied health, nursing, science or a related field.

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