How to Become a Brain Surgeon: Education and Career Information

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

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Do I Want to Be a Brain Surgeon?

Brain surgeons operate on the brain to treat problems such as bleeding and hemorrhaging, tumors, infections, or tissue and nerve damage. They also treat symptoms of brain diseases. Brain surgeons are trained in neurosurgery and likely will have the necessary training to operate on the spinal column, as well.

These surgeons work in hospitals and are on their feet a good deal, especially when they are performing surgery. Though the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that these medical professionals earned a substantial median annual salary - over $187,000 in 2012 - they are expected to work long hours and be on call for medical emergencies. They also have to deal with the stress of having someone's life in their hands when they operate.

Job Requirements

Prospective brain surgeons are required to complete an undergraduate degree, earn a medical degree, complete a residency and earn a license. The following table contains the core requirements to become a brain surgeon:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Bachelor's degree with science coursework; medical graduate degree*
Degree Field Any undergraduate degree; medical degree required*
Experience Typically seven years of residency***
Licensure and Certification Must pass national exam and obtain state license; certification offered by the American Board of Medical Specialties*
Key Skills Manual dexterity, physical stamina, strong verbal and written communication and problem-solving skills, empathy, attention to detail*
Computer Skills Medical software required to manage patients' charts**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **New England Journal of Medicine, ***American Board of Neurological Surgery.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

It's not required that brain surgeons earn a particular undergraduate degree. However, medical school admissions boards look for individuals with strong science coursework in biology, chemistry, math and physics. In addition, aspiring doctors are expected to round out their undergraduate coursework with courses in English and social science studies. Coursework should prepare students for the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), which measures a person's knowledge of physical and biological science, verbal reasoning and cognitive skills.

Success Tip

  • Build relationships with mentors. Mentors can help students navigate the medical school admissions process, including selecting appropriate undergraduate courses, reviewing personal essays and preparing for the MCAT. In cases where the mentor is a member of the faculty, he or she can also write recommendation letters.

Step 2: Earn a Medical Degree

In the first two years of medical school, students learn the fundamentals of medicine through science courses on topics such as psychiatry, pharmacology and gastroenterology. Courses in problems solving and patient care are also taught. In the latter two years of the program, students typically work in clinical settings, completing rotations in areas of medicine including surgery and neurology. Students may also have the choice of completing a neurosurgical clerkship.

Success Tips

  • Take the USMLE. To become licensed, brain surgeons must successfully complete the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE). It's customary for students to begin taking the three-part exam after completing their pre-clinical curriculum. The second part of the exam is taken after completing clinical rotations. In some states, doctors must complete parts one and two of the USMLE to receive a resident's license.
  • Apply for a resident's license. Some states require that medical doctors in residence have a license. Medical students should investigate the procedure for becoming a resident and apply for a resident's license if necessary.

Step 3: Complete a Residency

A neurosurgical residency usually lasts seven years. During this time, residents gain experience working in emergency medicine, elective surgery, and pediatric and adult surgery. They also have the opportunity to work with other areas of the neurological system, such as the spinal column and the extremities. Residents learn more about neuroradiology and neuropathology and may be required to complete a research project. They also might gain experience working with special populations, including children and senior citizens.

  • Complete a fellowship. Brain surgery is a specialty area of neurosurgery, and participating in a fellowship can help brain surgeons gain valuable experience specifically with maladies of the brain. Fellowships may focus on stroke, epilepsy, brain tumors and pediatrics.

Step 4: Obtain a Medical License

To practice medicine, all doctors must be licensed by a state board. The details of licensing requirements vary by state, but they all require that doctors submit proof of training and pass all three parts of the USMLE. Students generally take part three of the exam during the first or second year of residency.

Step 5: Become Board Certified

Doctors who work as brain surgeons can become voluntarily certified by the American Board of Neurological Surgery. To be eligible for certification, they must complete an application, submit proof of residency verified by the program director and successfully pass a written and oral exam. Certifications must be renewed every 10 years.

Step 6: Earn Continuing Education Credits

To maintain certification status, brain surgeons must participate in the Maintenance of Certification (MOC) program implemented by the American Board of Medical Specialties. This four-step process integrates patient care, communication skills, professionalism, medical knowledge, and practice-based and systems-based learning skills. The 10-year process consists of three mini-cycles and culminates in an exam during the 10th year.

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