How to Become an Orthopedic Surgeon: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Learn how to become an orthopedic surgeon. Research the education and career requirements, licensure and experience required for starting a career as an orthopedic surgeon.

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Do I Want to Be an Orthopedic Surgeon?

Orthopedic surgeons operate on patients who are living with musculoskeletal problems related to trauma, accidents, sports injuries and various types of disorders. In addition to performing surgery, these specialists may perform physical examinations, review charts and conduct follow-up visits. Standing for many hours while working is often required, and readiness to operate on an emergency basis is sometimes needed. Surgeons are under great pressure in the operating room, and they must be able to remain calm and focused.

Job Requirements

Like other medical doctors, prospective orthopedic surgeons must complete a bachelor's degree before gaining acceptance into medical school. After medical school, they must earn a medical license, complete an orthopedic residency and earn specialty certification. The table below includes the requirements, as listed by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, to enter this field.

Common Requirements
Degree Level Professional doctoral
Degree Name Medical Degree (M.D.)
Licensure/Certification Medical doctors must earn licensure by the state, and specialty certification is available
Experience An orthopedic residency is required
Key Skills Orthopedic surgeons must have excellent manual dexterity as well as strong communication and organizational skills

Step 1: Graduate with a Bachelor's Degree

While there is no specific bachelor's degree program required for medical school, students who want to become a doctor must choose a major that is heavily concentrated in the sciences. Students need to take courses in biology, chemistry, anatomy, physiology and physics. Not only are these courses required for admittance into a medical school, but they'll also prepare students for the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT).

Success Tip

  • Work in a medical setting. Medical school is highly competitive, and aspiring doctors need to look for any available advantage to gain acceptance. Volunteering at a hospital or on-campus medical clinic can provide experience in the field and make the student a stronger candidate for medical school.

Step 2: Enroll in Medical School

Medical school is a 4-year program that prepares graduates to work as medical doctors. The first two years of the program are spent in classrooms and laboratories, and students receive instruction in anatomy, physiology, pharmacology and microbiology. The final two years consist of clinical rotations in medical specialties. Students are afforded an opportunity to complete a rotation in orthopedics in addition to specialties such as pediatrics, radiology, gynecology, anesthesiology and psychology.

Success Tip

  • Perform well on the MCAT. The MCAT is a standardized examination that tests an applicant's knowledge of scientific concepts and critical thinking skills. The MCAT tests knowledge of the physical and biological sciences as well as verbal reasoning and writing abilities. The results of this exam are part of the medical school admissions process, and it's important for individuals who are thinking about applying to medical school to perform well.

Step 3: Pass the Licensing Exam

After completing medical school, medical doctors must pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination. This is a 3-part exam that ensures medical doctors understand the scientific principles necessary to practice medicine as well as possess patient care skills and an ability to work in ambulatory settings.

Success Tip

  • Obtain practice materials. The United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) website offers practice tests and training materials that can help applicants prepare for the exam. Each section has its own test that allows examinees to assess their knowledge and skills in a specific area.

Step 4: Complete Residency

An orthopedic surgery residency program is a 5-year commitment that prepares individuals to work in the field. The program offers doctors an opportunity to complete surgical rotations in areas such as general surgery, surgical ICU, internal medicine and the emergency room. Additionally, further rotations are offered in surgical subspecialties, such as cardiovascular and orthopedic surgery. As residents gain more experience in the program, they'll have additional responsibilities and begin focusing more on orthopedics. For example, opportunities will be available to perform hand, shoulder and spine surgeries.

Step 5: Obtain Specialty Certification

The American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery offers specialty certifications for orthopedic surgeons. Specialty certifications are available in sports medicine, shoulder and elbows, spine, rehabilitation, trauma, hands and joint replacement. In order to earn certification, orthopedic surgeons need to have experience in the specialty, obtain an endorsement and pass a written exam.

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