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?

Career Basics

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.

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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.

Step 1
Earn a High School or GED Diploma
Most surgical tech programs require applicants to have a high school diploma or GED credential. The GED test takes about three months to plan for and pass on average. Its cost varies by state — around $20-35 for each section, or $80-140 for the entire test.
Step 2
Select a Surgical Tech Program
Training programs prepare you with the knowledge and experience you’ll need for becoming a surgical tech. When looking for a surgical tech program, you’ll find certificate programs, diplomas, and associate degrees. Certificate programs and diplomas typically take a year or less to complete. In contrast, associate degree programs may take up to two years, because they include additional general education credit hours. All these programs range in price from around $5,000 to $15,000, with certificates, diplomas, and in-state associate degree programs at community colleges on the lower end and private associate degree programs on the higher end.
Step 3
Make Sure Your Program Has Proper Accreditation
Not all programs are accredited or have the proper accreditation to qualify graduates to become certified surgical techs. In order to eventually become certified, you must graduate from a training program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). You can search for accredited programs on the CAAHEP’s website and the ABHES directory.
Step 4
Become Certified
Not every state requires surgical techs to be certified, but some do. And in any state, being certified may help in your job search. The National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA) conducts the certification exam. Members of the Association of Surgical Technologists (AST) pay a $190 exam fee; nonmembers pay $290. To take the test you must complete an accredited program and submit an application to the testing board. It can take up to six weeks for the board to approve your application and invite you to take the test.
Step 5
Find a Surgical Technologist Position
According to the BLS, most surgical techs work in hospitals. You might also find work at a specialty clinic, residential facility, or outpatient care center.
Step 6
Keep Your Certification Up to Date
You must renew your certification for years. You can do so either by retaking the test or by completing continuing education units from approved programs.

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

Arizona
35.4%
Utah
29.2%
Colorado
27.5%
Maryland
23.1%
Idaho
21.8%

Career Paths for Surgical Techs

With the knowledge and experience you’ve gained from your program, you’re ready to work as an entry-level surgical technologist. The AST provides a host of resources for landing a job, including an online job board and templates for building your resume and cover letter. As you gain experience, consider joining departmental committees or mentoring colleagues. You can also boost your career by joining a professional surgical tech association and participating in networking events and other training. . Beyond the AST, associations include the Association of Surgical Assistants (ASA), the Southern Medical Association (SMA), and the American Society for Microbiology (ASM). Many surgical techs are generalists, but some specialize in subfields like:
  • Cardiology
  • Neurosurgery
  • Organ transplantation
  • OB/GYN

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. 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. If you decide to pursue a career that requires a bachelor’s degree, many bachelor of applied science programs will accept credit hours earned in an associate program. You could even continue to nursing school and work in ORs as a certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA). This requires several more years of schooling but can pay off — nurse anesthetists earned an average annual salary of $189,190 in 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.

Item Fundamentals of Surgical Technology In this course, you’ll learn about the techniques, tools, and processes that ensure a sterile operating environment. This course could last multiple semesters and includes hands-on learning opportunities.
Human Anatomy and Physiology Human anatomy and physiology teaches you about the body’s structure and functions at the cellular and system levels. You’ll explore how the body’s systems — like skeletal, respiratory, and cardiovascular — depend on each other to function.
Microbiology In a surgical tech program, microbiology focuses on the biological processes that lead to infection and how you can prevent bacteria from spreading in the OR.
Sterile Processing Sterile processing teaches decontamination procedures for surgical tools. The course also covers how to manage equipment inventory.
Surgical Pharmacology The course introduces you to anesthesia and other medications used during surgeries so you’re aware of potential complications and can intervene or prevent bad reactions.

Components of a Successful Surgical Tech Career

Skills

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
  • Coordination
  • Time Management
  • Equipment Maintenance

Technology

Surgical techs use some software in their job, including:

  • Client scheduling software
  • Email
  • Medical and Patient databases
  • Spreadsheets

Tools

Surgical techs handle the following tools:

  • Electrosurgical or electrocautery equipment used to cauterize incisions
  • Laser
  • Medical staplers
  • Robotic arms
  • Sterilizers
  • Surgical vacuums

Credentials

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.

Related Careers

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 Technologists

The 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 Assistants

Full 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 Association

Although 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 Microbiology

ASM 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 Banks

AABB 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

How much does surgical tech school cost? A one-year certificate program or associate of applied science at a community college may cost $5,000-$10,000 for in-state students. Two-year associate programs typically range from $5,000-$15,000 but may cost as much as $40,000.
Do you need a bachelor's degree to be a surgical tech? No, you do not need a bachelor's degree to work as a surgical tech in the United States.
Can you move up from surgical tech? With additional training, surgical techs can become surgical or nurse assistants.
How long does it take to become a surgical technician? Surgical tech diploma or certificate programs usually take a year to complete. An associate degree in surgical technology may take one to two years.

Resources for Surgical Techs

Read on to browse some of the top places to find additional resources for surgical techs:

Foundation for Surgical Technology

FFST offers scholarships to help surgical technologist students afford their education.

Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs

CAAHEP 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 Assisting

The NBSTSA offers certification for surgical techs and first assistants.

The Accreditation Review Council on Education in Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting

This accreditation services agency also helps connect surgical tech students with scholarship opportunities.

Related Careers at a Glance

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