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

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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Do I Want to 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.

Job Requirements

Becoming a surgical oncologist involves approximately 15 years of education, plus state licensure. The following table outlines common requirements to become a surgical oncologist:

Common Requirements
Degree Level M.D. or D.O.*
Degree Field Medicine*
Experience 5 years of residency training plus 2 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, patience, empathy*
Computer Skills Proficiency in computer imaging and medical software***
Technical Skills Ability to operate surgical tools, lasers and surgical accessories; knowledge of human anatomy and cancer treatment***
Additional Requirements Dexterity, physical stamina,* good eyesight and hand-eye coordination***

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

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

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.

Success Tip

  • Volunteer. 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 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.

Success Tip

  • Earn board certification. 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.

Success Tip

  • Join a professional organization. Oncology surgeons may find CME opportunities through professional organizations, such as the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
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