What do you major in to become a surgeon? If you want to make a living by performing operations and procedures that normally involve using medical instruments to cut into the body with and remove, repair, adjust or otherwise treat the tissues and organs of the body, you definitely need to go to college. In order to become a surgeon, students must first earn a bachelor’s degree and then apply to medical school, where they begin the doctoral-level training and education that prepares them for the clinical practice of medicine.

Since medical school acceptance is notorious for being challenging and competitive, aspiring surgeons often obsess over which undergraduate major to choose. If you’re stressing about choosing the “right” major for a career as a surgeon, here’s the good news: your choice of major won’t necessarily make or break your ability to realize your career plans. Certainly, there are some college majors that might raise a few eyebrows among medical school admissions personnel, but generally, acceptance to medical school isn’t restricted to students in certain majors. As long as you meet the prerequisites for medical school and your application is strong in all other respects, your undergraduate major can be in almost any subject.

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What to Major in to Become a Surgeon

The first thing to keep in mind when planning a career as a surgeon is that there is no undergraduate major that, in and of itself, will qualify you to pursue licensure as a surgeon. Only a doctoral-level medical degree – the Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) will accomplish that task. A bachelor’s degree is just one step on the lengthy path to this career.

When aspiring surgeons think about their major options, they should think about every part of this path.

  • What undergraduate degree program will help them perform well on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), the standardized test you must take to get into medical school?
  • Which majors will meet all of the required undergraduate coursework to get accepted into medical school and provide a solid foundation in science upon which your doctoral-level medical school studies will build? Alternatively, how difficult will it be to take additional science and math coursework during your studies, either as elective courses or in pursuit of a minor or concentration?
  • What majors will help you develop the non-technical skills and abilities needed to make a good surgeon, such as communication skills, problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, compassion, cultural sensitivity, organizational skills and physical dexterity?

These different stops along the path to becoming a surgeon require different strengths, which you may learn through different programs of study, training programs, and experiences. You might find that majoring in science makes the most sense to you for preparing for medical school but studying the liberal arts is what helps you cultivate the soft skills that will make you a better physician whose patients trust that they are in good hands. Alternatively, if you feel confident already about your level of science knowledge but you’re concerned about your ability to handle the intense workload of medical school studies, you might opt to choose an undergraduate major in the humanities or social sciences that encompasses a lot of reading and writing to get used to these demands.

Most medical school admissions committees do not place a significant amount of attention on an applicant’s major. Committees are more interested in finding students who have maintained a respectable GPA, sought out experience in health care settings or research, and are likely to be successful in the medical world. It is best to pick one of these majors that suits your own individual interests and career goals instead of choosing a major solely because you think it’s what surgeons are “supposed” to study as undergraduate students. Generally, the subjects that are widely considered to be the best majors for surgeons include science topics like human physiology, biology, health sciences, chemistry and biomedical sciences and bioengineering.

If you’re tempted to just choose the major that seems like the most direct route to becoming a surgeon – biology or pre-med – you should consider weighing your decision more carefully. While there’s nothing wrong with deciding to enroll in these programs of study, you should give the decision enough thought to feel confident that you chose the right major and prepared to explain to others, like medical school admissions personnel, why you chose your major. 

What Do Surgeons Major in as Undergraduates?

It’s not a mystery what medical students majored in as undergraduates. The  Association of American Medical Colleges collects that data, as the American Medical Association reported. Among the 22,239 students who enrolled in medical school in 2020, 60 percent – 12,845 students – had a background that related in some way to the biological sciences. The next single largest major was physical science, which accounted for 2,240 students, or over 10 percent of medical school students. Former social science majors made up 1,991 of all medical school students, while a noticeably smaller amount of students, 832, majored in the humanities. Just 784 medical students focused their undergraduate studies on specialized health sciences, and only 156 majored in math and statistics.

Despite the inclusion of the social sciences and the humanities, this data makes it seem that medical students overwhelmingly majored in the hard sciences. However, the American Medical Association pointed out that the second-largest group of students involved in the survey was the group classified as “other” majors. This “other” major accounts for more than 15 percent of medical school students, which illustrates that even less popular (and conventional) majors can still get you into medical school.

Interestingly, the data didn’t link any major with a particular advantage in getting into medical school. You might expect biological science majors to perform better on their MCAT exam and get into medical school with higher rates – and it’s likely that many of these biological science majors assumed this to be true. However, biological science majors achieved only a 40 percent matriculation rate, which the American Medical Association reported is actually lower than the matriculation rate of several other majors, and the MCAT scores for students of biological sciences were right in the middle of the scores found for all majors – not bad, but not exceptionally good, either.

The American Medical Association noted that the math and science coursework found in many of these most popular majors for medical students were in line with the prerequisites for going to medical school. Students often choose these science-based majors because the curriculum makes it easy to meet medical school prerequisites, whereas majoring in a less science-based subject would necessitate taking a lot of extra science courses not required for the degree. 

what to major in to become a surgeon

IMAGE SOURCE: Pixabay, public domain

Pre-Med Studies for Aspiring Surgeons

A consistently popular program of study for aspiring surgeons is pre-medical studies, or pre-med. Officially, though, pre-med isn’t a major at all but instead an academic track that consists of the coursework normally required for admission into a medical school program. Students in different majors can follow a pre-med track, and not all pre-med students actually want to be doctors.

The courses that make up a school’s pre-med program will usually include laboratory courses in the principles of biology, cell biology, genetics, chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, physics and vertebrate physiology. Non-laboratory courses in a pre-med program may include psychology, sociology, statistics and ethics. 

Students in any major can follow a pre-med track by using their free electives to complete any pre-med courses that aren’t already part of their major curriculum. The following are some of the most popular majors to combine with coursework in pre-medical studies.

Majoring in Human Physiology

In a Bachelor of Science in Human Physiology program, students focus on learning in-depth material about various components of the human body. Human physiology is the study of the functions of the human body at the molecular, cellular, and organism levels. The coursework required for this major provides a strong foundation in biology, statistics, physics, chemistry, and mathematics across a broad range of health topics. Human physiology is one of the ideal degree programs for students who are planning to pursue advanced medical degrees, but it can also open new doors for engaging in clinical research as well.

Physiology often goes hand in hand with anatomy. While the field of anatomy looks at the structures of the body and their relationships with other parts, physiology is concerned with the functions those structures serve. 

Earning an Undergraduate Degree in Biology

A Bachelor of Science in Biology degree program provides all of the fundamental knowledge necessary for students who aspire to become physicians, surgeons, dentists, or other members of the medical team. As the primary life science, biology enables students to learn about various diverse fields of study, from anatomy and physiology to molecular biology and ecology. Through required laboratory courses, students gain vital critical thinking and problem-solving skills that are assets for all contributors to the medical industry.

Year after year, biology and biological science are popular majors, and not only among aspiring surgeons. For the 2017 through 2018 school year, students earned 73,983 bachelor’s degrees in biology and biological sciences, according to the National Center for Education Statistics

Studying Health Sciences as a Major

When students choose the Bachelor of Science in Health Sciences major program, the curriculum is based on broadening their understanding of all the mental and social factors that play prominent roles in achieving overall good health. Health sciences programs are more interdisciplinary than most of the science-based majors you might consider as a prospective surgeon, balancing coursework in biology, physiology, organic chemistry, nutrition, mathematics, psychology, ethics and health care policy.

Since the health sciences major is quite flexible, students are prepared for multiple different careers related to human health, such as physical or occupational therapist, physician assistant, pharmacist, athletic trainer, nurse and public health worker or advocate. Most colleges and universities that offer this major combine it with all the necessary pre-medical courses needed for medical school.

Some health sciences programs allow students to pursue optional concentrations and specializations in areas like medical sciences, exercise science, leadership and community wellness and public health. 

Pursuing a Chemistry Degree

A Bachelor of Science in Chemistry is another commonly chosen degree program for students who wish to become surgeons or physicians. Majoring in chemistry ensures that the two years of college chemistry requirement for medical school will be surpassed, whether or not you’re part of a pre-med program. Students often engage in courses on organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, biochemistry, physics, biology, calculus, statistics, and computer science for a well-rounded degree.

Around 14,040 students earned a bachelor’s degree in general chemistry during the 2017 through 2018 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. 

Earning a Bachelor’s in Biomedical Sciences and Biomedical Engineering

If you’re interested in the application of biology principles and techniques to the field of medicine, you might want to explore degree options in biomedical sciences or biomedical engineering. These programs of study can help you develop the skills to innovate new medical technologies.

Biomedical sciences and bioengineering are relatively new fields of study, but they are growing rapidly. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that 4,460 bachelor’s degrees in biomedical sciences and 7,416 bachelor’s degrees in bioengineering and biomedical engineering were awarded for the 2017 through 2018 school year.

Biomedical engineering is one large and important subdiscipline within the discipline of bioengineering, which refers to any type of engineering design work that applies the tools and practices of engineering to biological systems and materials.

Surgeon Preparation Beyond the Bachelor’s Degree

If you want to be a surgeon, you’re looking at a long journey just to get your career started. Assuming you finish your bachelor’s degree on time, you’re looking at eight years of schooling – four for your undergraduate degree and another four for medical school.

After you graduate from medical school, you begin the first year of your residency, also known as your internship year. All told, surgical residencies will last for a minimum of five years, and residencies in some surgical specialties take as long as seven years to complete, according to the American College of Surgeons. Surgeons spend longer on residency training than many other types of doctors, for whom residency may take as little as three years. Physicians must also complete licensing exams to be fully qualified to practice medicine, and this requires taking exams like the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) or the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX).

Surgical residents do get paid for their work, but they don’t make anywhere near the kind of money full surgeons make. While the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a median annual salary of $251,650 for surgeons in 2020, the job search website Indeed reported that the average surgical resident salaries were only in the range of $60,000 to $65,000 in 2021. 

Additional Resources 

Isn’t It Better to Be a Specialist in an Area of Surgery Instead of Being a General Surgeon?

What Are Some Areas of the Body That Fall Under “General Surgery?”

What Kind of Extra Training Do Orthopedic Surgeons Generally Need to Have? 

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