How to Become a Surgical Tech

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By Staff Writer

Surgical technicians (or surgical techs) provide vital assistance to doctors and nurses in the operating room (OR) before, during, and after surgeries. Among other tasks, they organize and sterilize instruments and equipment for surgeons in the operating room. Read more about the responsibilities of a surgical technician in the section below.

The length of time it takes to become a surgical technician depends on the type of program you pursue. Many vocational schools offer diploma or certificate surgical tech programs that take a year to complete. If you complete your surgical tech schooling in a community college and earn an associate degree at the same time, it typically takes two years to graduate from the program.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects jobs for surgical techs to grow 9% between 2018 and 2028, faster than the 5% average growth rate for all other professions. Expect to enter a health job market after completing your surgical tech schooling.

Use this career guide to learn how to become a surgical technician. Find out more about salary and job growth potential in addition to common coursework and educational training.

What Does a Surgical Tech Do?

Career Basics

The duties and responsibilities of surgical technicians begin before a patient is wheeled into the OR. Surgical technicians prepare instruments and equipment for surgery. They stock the OR with supplies like sponges, gauze, and suction tips. Finally, surgical technicians sterilize the OR before and after a surgery, as well as keep it sterile during a procedure.

In a major operation with a large medical team, surgical techs often work with the OR nurse or a surgical assistant. However, in procedures performed in private clinics, they can work directly with doctors.

Career in Depth

During major medical procedures, surgical technicians can spend several hours on their feet assisting the medical team. In addition, they often remain in the OR after surgery to conduct a complete inventory of the supplies and instruments used.

Some surgical technicians choose to specialize. Examples of specialty areas include cardiology, organ transplantation, and plastic surgery.

Trained in different types of medical procedures, these professionals can work in major hospitals, private clinics, and outpatient centers.

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.

Factors like workplace and location impact salaries. For example, surgical technicians working in specialty hospitals earn the highest annual mean salary in the industry, $54,460. Alaska, California, Nevada, Minnesota, and the District of Columbia pay surgical techs the highest salaries.

Four 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.

  • Earn a High School or GED Diploma

    Most schools offering a surgical technology program require applicants to have a high school or GED diploma. Some institutions also require a minimum GPA to be considered for admission. Boost your application by enrolling in a high school class in human anatomy or biology. Volunteer in a medical setting to show prospective schools you are committed to pursuing a career in healthcare.

  • Find the Right Surgical Tech Program

    Begin your search for the ideal surgical technology program at the start of your senior year of high school. Scan prospective schools' websites for information on tuition, location, learning options, and concentrations. Finally, research scholarship options from prospective schools and private organizations to help make an expensive program more affordable.

  • Earn Certification

    You do not have to be certified to work as a surgical technician. However, The National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA) offers a respected certification program. Many surgical techs opt to seek certification as proof of their ability, knowledge, and training. The exam consists of 175 questions. Members of the Association of Surgical Technologists (AST) pay a $190 exam fee; nonmembers pay $290.

  • Find a Surgical Technologist Position

    According to BLS data, most surgical techs work in general medical and surgical hospitals. If you pursued a specialty during your surgical tech schooling, you can apply to jobs in that sector. With a 9% projected job growth between 2018 and 2028, the job market offers options for both employment and advancement for qualified surgical technicians.

Preparing to Become a Surgical Tech: Schools and Programs

The BLS reports that there are approximately 500 surgical technology programs accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP). You can read more about accreditation below.

Community colleges offer many programs, including the two-year associate in surgical technology available at Columbus State Community College. However, several four-year institutions offer an associate in surgical technology as well, including the University of Cincinnati Clermont College and Florida State College in Jacksonville.

If you value the interaction and support of fellow students, try to find a program that follows a cohort model of education. If you juggle several personal and work-related responsibilities, look for an online program with asynchronous coursework for greater flexibility. The surgical technology program you choose should help you achieve your educational and career goals.

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.

Fundamentals of Surgical Technology

Students learn about techniques to maintain a sterile OR environment. They study the care, preparation, and maintenance of surgical supplies and equipment before, during, and after surgeries. The course also includes hands-on opportunities to apply classroom instruction in a practical setting. Schools may deliver this course across two semesters.

Human Anatomy and Physiology

Students learn about the structure and functions of the body at the cellular, organ, and system levels. They explore the interdependence of the different systems in the body including the skeletal, cardiovascular, lymphatic, and respiratory systems. This comprehensive course includes a lab component and is typically taken over two semesters.


This course teaches students about the physiology, pathology, and control of bacteria. Learning how different types of microorganisms function, students can guard against infection in the OR. They study the different biological processes behind infection control procedures so they can maintain a safe and sterile OR environment.

Sterile Processing

Students learn about decontamination procedures, processing and reprocessing instruments, and various products used in different types of surgeries. The course also covers inventory control and handling of surgical equipment. These, along with several other duties, often fall under a surgical tech's responsibilities during surgical procedures.

Surgical Pharmacology

Enrollees study how to administer anesthesia and how each method can affect patients during surgeries. They examine potential complications and intervention techniques to address possible adverse effects from anesthesia. The course also gives students the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the characteristics and purpose of common medications used during surgeries.

Accreditation for a Surgical Tech Program

Accreditation refers to the voluntary process that postsecondary schools and programs undergo to showcase the quality of their educational programs and the sustainability of their fiscal and physical operations.

Degree-focused nonprofit public and private postsecondary institutions often seek regional accreditation. For-profit trade and sectarian schools typically seek national accreditation. The U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation act as overseers of the accreditation process.

A third type of accreditation reviews specific programs offered by accredited institutions. In the field of surgical technology, CAAHEP acts as the main accrediting body for education programs in the allied health arena, including surgical tech programs. The Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) is another accrediting body for this field.

Be sure the program you choose holds an active accreditation credential from either CAAHEP or ABHES. The Certified Surgical Technologist exam administered by NBSTSA requires test-takers to show completion of an accredited surgical tech program.

Surgical Tech Specialties

Many surgical technicians work as generalists, but some specialize in a surgical subfield like neurosurgery, pharmacology, or organ transplantation. A specialization may require additional coursework and an internship, thus extending your surgical tech schooling.

Having a specialization makes you a more qualified candidate for positions within your area of expertise. It often leads to jobs with increased responsibilities and higher salaries. A specialty can also help you transition to administrative work. For example, you can manage the practice of a private physician in your area of specialization.

You can make the decision to pursue a specialty as you progress in your career. However, if you pursue a specialty after you complete your surgical tech schooling, you may need to enroll in additional classes or engage in further training.

Surgical Tech Certification

If you completed a CAAHEP- or ABHES-accredited program, you must submit one of the following documents along with the other requirements: a copy of your graduation certificate, a transcript, or a notarized letter from the head of your program that states the degree you received. Once the NBSTSA approves your application to take the test, you must make an appointment with the testing agency nearest you. Each center maintains its own testing schedule.

You can renew your certification by enrolling in continuing education units from approved AST programs. The field maintains a two-year certification cycle. You can also renew your certification by examination. Read about the cost and structure of the CST exam in a section above.

Finding a Surgical Tech Program

Components of a Successful Surgical Tech Career: Skills, Credentials, Tools, and Technology

As a surgical tech, you must maintain concentration throughout a procedure since doctors depend on you for a smooth OR. You must have a calm demeanor, but be ready to react quickly if something unexpected arises. You must be able to communicate clearly and work well in a team.

You can boost your surgical tech qualifications by specializing in a specific area or by adding to your skills by enrolling in a CPR class.

Additionally, keep in mind that medical manufacturers constantly improve or upgrade surgical machines and equipment. Stay on top of these advancements and position yourself as an authority on the subject to boost your standing among the other healthcare professionals in the OR.

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?

The average cost of a one-year certificate or diploma program at a community college ranges from $5,000-$8,000 for in-state students. Two-year associate programs at four-year universities can cost as much as $48,000 for tuition, fees, books, and supplies.

Do you need a bachelor's degree to be a surgical tech?

At the current time, you do not need a bachelor's degree to work as a surgical technician in the United States.

Can you move up from surgical tech?

With additional training and formal instruction, surgical techs can become surgical or nurse assistants. In small hospitals, surgical techs may already perform many of the responsibilities of these professionals.

How long does it take to become a surgical technician?

Surgical tech diploma or certificate programs usually take 12 months to complete. An associate in surgical technology typically takes two years of enrollment.

Resources for Surgical Techs

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

See Also

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