How to Become a Surgical Tech
Surgical technologists (or surgical techs) help everything in the operating room (OR) run smoothly. People in these roles prepare the room for surgery, sterilize equipment, and keep tools organized and accounted for. They can also bring in an above-average paycheck without a bachelor’s degree.
Becoming a surgical tech requires a certificate, diploma, or associate degree, which range in price from about $5,000 to $15,000. Compare that to the average cost of earning a degree at a four-year institution, which is on average $28,123 per year, according to National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) data from 2019.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average salary for surgical techs in May 2020 was $51,510, and these jobs will grow 7% by 2029. That’s faster than the average growth rate for all other professions.
Knowing the basics of the profession can help you take the first steps toward becoming a surgical tech.
What Does a Surgical Tech Do?
Surgical techs prepare instruments and equipment for surgery. They stock the OR with supplies like sponges, gauze, and suction tips. They also sterilize the OR before and after surgery to ensure it remains bacteria-free.
Steps to Becoming a Surgical Tech
After you graduate from your program, you enter a robust job market with skills, education, and experience that employers value. Review the four steps below to guide you in your surgical tech career.
Surgical Tech Salary and Job Growth
The BLS projects robust job growth for surgical technicians between 2018 and 2028. In 2019, these professionals earned a median annual salary of $48,300, higher than the current median pay for all other occupations.
Top 5 States With the Highest Job Growth
Career Paths for Surgical Techs
- Organ transplantation
You can transition into a specialty through on-the-job experience, additional coursework, or even an internship.
Some surgical techs choose to earn additional certifications, which can position them for higher-paying jobs.
For instance, surgical techs can become certified as a surgical first assistant. First assistants report directly to surgeons during operations. According to the BLS, professionals in this category made an average annual salary of $116,080 in May 2020.
Courses in Surgical Tech Programs
An associate degree in surgical technology typically consists of 60-64 credits and takes two year of full-time enrollment to complete. Diploma or certificate programs require fewer credits and take less time to complete. Regardless of the type of surgical tech degree you pursue, it will likely include classroom instruction, whether online or on campus, and hands-on training and internship or work shadowing opportunities.
Some programs offer specialized coursework in procedures for specific fields, such as dermatology or pediatrics. See below for common surgical tech classes.
Components of a Successful Surgical Tech Career
As a surgical tech, you must maintain concentration throughout a procedure, since doctors depend on you for a smooth OR. It also helps to have a high tolerance for what you’re bound to encounter during surgery: blood and other bodily fluids.
The O*Net program lists top skills for this role, including:
- Active Listening
- Time Management
- Equipment Maintenance
Surgical techs use some software in their job, including:
- Client scheduling software
- Medical and Patient databases
Surgical techs handle the following tools:
- Electrosurgical or electrocautery equipment used to cauterize incisions
- Medical staplers
- Robotic arms
- Surgical vacuums
At a minimum, surgical techs must complete a training program to work. Currently, twelve states require surgical techs to be certified, though employers anywhere may prefer it.
Job postings for surgical techs may also require a current CPR certification, which is common for any position working in a healthcare setting.
These careers support medical teams and are attainable through a certificate program or associate degree.Certified nursing assistant (CNA):
CNAs assist licensed nurses with patients’ personal care.
Average salary: $32,050 (May 2020)
Education required: Requirements vary by state but may include training at a vocational school or on the job.Dental assistant:
Dental assistants sterilize equipment and help prepare patient rooms. You can earn the certificate, diploma, or degree you need to become a dental assistant in nine months to two years.
Average salary: $42,310
Education required: Certificate, diploma, or associate degree.Medical assistant:
People in these roles fulfill administrative duties, like helping patients schedule appointments. They also have clinical responsibilities, such as preparing blood work.
Average salary: $36,930
Education required:High school diploma or equivalent Pharmacy technicians:
At the pharmacy counter or in hospitals and residential facilities like nursing homes, pharmacy techs help ensure patients receive the proper medication.
Average salary: $36,450
Education required: Requirements vary by state but may include training at a vocational school or on the job.
Still unsure about where you want to work or what you want to do? Take the tailored Lantern Career Quiz to uncover careers that match your style and preferences.
Getting Financial Help
Scholarships for Surgical Tech Programs
Foundation for Surgical Technology Scholarship
Who qualifies: Eligible applicants must demonstrate top academic performance and financial need, and they must be enrolled in an accredited program
Amount: Typically $1,000-$1,500, amount varies yearly
Deadline: March 1, annuallyOther important information: If you are awarded this scholarship, you will need to become an AST member, including paying membership dues.
Scholarships for Trades and Community Colleges
California Community Colleges Endowment Osher Scholarship
Who qualifies: Active students at California community colleges (other qualifications may apply).
Amount: $300-600 per semester
Deadline: Different for each college
Other important information: Students must apply for the scholarship through their school. Consult with your school’s financial aid office to determine your eligibility and deadline to apply.
Horatio Alger Association Career and Technical Scholarship
Who qualifies: Applicants must be U.S. citizens under 30 years old at the time of applying. They must have obtained a high school diploma or GED credential and be enrolled in an accredited program at a non-profit institution. Some other qualifications may apply.
Amount: Up to $2,500
Deadline: July 15
Jeannette Rankin Women’s Scholarship Fund
Who qualifies: Women over the age of 35 who meet criteria for low-income status.
Amount: Typically $1000-$1500, amount varies yearly
Deadline: February 2021; 2022 deadline TBD.
Federal Grants for Surgical Tech Programs
Federal Pell Grant
Who qualifies: Applicants can determine eligibility by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®)
Amount: Varies; the maximum amount awarded in the 2021-2022 school year will be $6,495
Deadline: You must complete the FAFSA by June 30, annually
Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant
Who qualifies: Applicants can determine eligibility by completing the FAFSA
Amount: $400-$1000, depending on your institution and academic need
Deadline: You must complete the FAFSA by June 30, annually
Other important information for federal grants: You must complete the FAFSA to remain eligible every year you are in your program. You also may have to meet specific academic requirements. Additionally, your school will receive funds and may either pay you directly or discount your tuition.
Paying for Continuing Education
To keep your certification up to date, you will need to complete 60 continuing education hours every four years. Membership in a professional association can qualify you for reduced rates for these courses.
You also may use the cost of continuing education to negotiate a higher wage with your employer. Read more about employer-provided tuition assistance.
Surgical Tech Professional Organizations
Joining a professional surgical tech association can benefit your career. Associations offer networking and mentoring opportunities, disseminate recent research findings, and help members find fresh professional options. Explore the five professional organizations below to get an idea of the benefits they can offer your career as a surgical technician.
Association of Surgical TechnologistsThe oldest professional organization for surgical technologists in the U.S., AST serves more than 40,000 members, including students, from all over the country. Members pay a discounted rate for continuing education units. AST also offers liability insurance to members with a coverage of up to $2 million per claim.
Association of Surgical AssistantsFull membership in this professional association includes AST membership as well. Members enjoy discounts to regional and national conferences. ASA also records and processes continuing education units for members. ASA partners with several organizations to provide members with a variety of business and professionals services, including malpractice insurance and educational opportunities.
Southern Medical AssociationAlthough originally an organization for medical doctors, SMA accepts allied health professionals (like surgical technicians) as members. SMA's partner organizations provide members with individual healthcare insurance, secure electronic payment processing, and practice management assistance. Members can also access extensive digital resources including an online library and live webcasts.
American Society for MicrobiologyASM offers several membership benefits, including access to an online networking directory and job board, free or discounted subscription to several ASM publications, and substantial discount on continuing education units. The association also sends out news briefs about research findings and other relevant scientific developments in the field of microbiology.
American Association of Blood BanksAABB accepts applications for membership from medical and healthcare practitioners with a professional interest in transfusion practices, patient blood management, and cellular therapies. Members gain access to an active job board, a variety of online educational tools, and complimentary subscriptions to AABB's publications and newsletters.
FAQ on Becoming a Surgical Tech
Resources for Surgical Techs
Read on to browse some of the top places to find additional resources for surgical techs:
Foundation for Surgical TechnologyFFST offers scholarships to help surgical technologist students afford their education.
Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education ProgramsCAAHEP is the main accreditation board for surgical techs. This site features a complete list of all accredited programs.
The National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical AssistingThe NBSTSA offers certification for surgical techs and first assistants.
The Accreditation Review Council on Education in Surgical Technology and Surgical AssistingThis accreditation services agency also helps connect surgical tech students with scholarship opportunities.
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