How To Become a Surgical Nurse (With FAQs)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated February 22, 2021 | Published February 4, 2020

Updated February 22, 2021

Published February 4, 2020

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

The profession of a surgical nurse can be demanding, and so is the educational process to become one. Despite the stresses in the workplace, many surgical nurses find the job rewarding because they are involved in patient care.

If you are interested in becoming a surgical nurse, be prepared to face the rigors of the job and to create your own path. In this article, you will learn about what a surgical nurse does, how to become a surgical nurse, how important certifications are in the profession plus find some answers to any extra questions you may have.

What does a surgical nurse do?

A surgical nurse, also called a perioperative nurse, is a registered nurse whose specialty is surgical care. These nurses have a critical role in elective and life-saving surgeries, and they may assist surgeons in the following ways:

  • Informing, advising and comforting patients before operations

  • Reading and recording a patient's vital signs before, during and after surgery

  • Sterilizing and marking incision sites

  • Preparing an operating room by setting up instruments

  • Setting up patients with intravenous lines

  • Assisting anesthesiologists and nurse anesthetists before and after surgery

  • Resuscitating patients

  • Helping to transport patients to recovery rooms and intensive care units

  • Monitoring patients after surgery

  • Changing a patient's dressings

  • Administering medications

Career Options

Surgical nurses may follow one of the following three career paths:

  • Scrub nurse: This type of nurse prepares instruments before an operation and works alongside a surgeon during an operation by monitoring a patient's condition and making sure that the operating room remains sterile.

  • Circulator nurse: This type of nurse observes and manages operations by moving the patient into operating rooms and monitoring the patients' vital signs during surgeries.

  • RN first assistant: This type of nurse assists surgeons by cutting, handling and removing human tissue, suturing wounds, regulating bleeding and using medical instruments.

In addition to following a specific career path, surgical nurses often specialize in one area, like cardiac surgery, neurosurgery, plastic surgery, obstetrics and pediatric surgery.

Related: How To Choose a Career

The average salary for a surgical nurse

Surgical nurses can make over $71,000 a year based on their weekly salaries. However, with certification, they can advance in their careers and earn more money.

  • Common salary in the U.S.: $1,378 per week

  • Some salaries range from $400 to $2,900 per week.

Surgical nurse requirements

Surgical nurses may have to meet requirements in the following areas:

  • Education

  • Training

  • Certification

  • Skills

Education

Before you can pursue a career as a surgical nurse, you need to earn a high school diploma, a General Education Diploma (GED) or an equivalent. You may also have to earn a certain GPA to be accepted by some schools.

You also have three postsecondary options:

  • You can earn a diploma by studying in hospital settings over a two- or three-year period.

  • You can earn an associate's degree. This process will take you two years to complete.

  • You can earn a Bachelor's Degree in Nursing (BSN), which will take your four years to complete and you must perform supervised duties in a healthcare facility during two of those years.

If you choose to earn your BSN, you can then specialize in nursing, but you have two more options for your post-graduate education. The first is to undergo a two-year peri-operative nurse training program. The second option you have is to earn your master's degree (MSN) or doctorate with a surgical nursing specialization.

Please note that all nursing students should undergo undergraduate programs that are accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education or Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing.

Training

No training is required to become a surgical nurse beyond the basic education requirements needed to become a registered nurse. Within those programs are requirements for nursing students to log hours in real health care center settings. However, there are different requirements for different states. Also, nursing students who wish to earn more money may undergo extra training and obtain more prodigious certifications.

Certification

Registered nurses may only need to earn one or two types of certification to show their commitment to the profession. Below are three popular options:

  • The Medical-Surgical Nursing Certified Board (MSNCB), which is part of the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), offers the Certified Medical-Surgical Registered Nurse (CMSRN) credential. Registered nurses can earn the CMSRN upon passing a multiple-choice certification exam.

  • Alternatively, RNs can earn the Certified Medical-Surgical Registered Nurse credential through the Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses.

  • Registered nurses can also earn the CNOR credential through the Competency and Credentialing Institute after they have two years' and at least 2,400 hours' experience as an RN.

Also, there are at least 11 organizations that offer specialized credentials, but the most popular may be and the Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses. Other credentialing organizations include:

  • American Association of Critical Care Nurse Certifications Corporation

  • American Board of Certification for Gastroenterology Nurses

  • American Correctional Association

  • American Holistic Nurses Credentialing Corporation

  • American Society of Plastic Surgical Nurses

  • Board of Certification for Emergency Nursing

  • Hospice & Palliative Credentialing Center

  • International Association of Forensic Nurses

  • National Board of Certification and Recertification for Nurse Anesthetists

  • The National Certification Corporation

All registered nurses who receive their certification must recertify, but depending on the organization and credential, you might have to recertify every three to five years. Most credentials may require you to remain active during intervals, continue your education, log in working hours and take a recertification exam. Each organization charges a fee for the exam and may offer discounts for members.

Skills

A surgical nurse will need to following skills:

Attention to detail

Surgical nurses must constantly monitor patients and be aware of any underlying conditions they have.

Communication

Surgical nurses must talk to the surgical team to alert them if the patient's vital signs are below an optimal level. These nurses must also talk to the patient before surgery and speak to the patient's family to inform them of procedures and the best course of action for the patient.

Multitasking

Before and during operations, surgical nurses may have to complete various tasks in short order. Among these tasks are monitoring a patient's vital signs and working with the anesthetist team. Overall, nurses make safe operations possible by assisting the surgeon and making sure that the patient is faring well.

Technical knowledge

Nurses must have knowledge of sciences such as human anatomy, physiology, chemistry, nutrition and microbiology, among other things.

How to become a surgical nurse

To become a surgical nurse, you must first become a licensed registered nurse (RN) and meet some other specific surgical nurse requirements, but there are several paths to becoming an RN in the first place. Below is a list of steps to becoming a surgical nurse:

  1. Earn a high school diploma, GED or an equivalent. You will have to meet this criterion if you want to pursue a nursing education.

  2. Pass a health check, drug test and criminal background check. These are also typical requirements you must meet as a nursing student.

  3. Earn a diploma, associate degree or Bachelor's Degree (BSN) in Nursing. Each option includes a training program that allows you to become a registered nurse.

  4. Continue to a post-graduate education if you earn your BSN. This path is optional, but nursing students who want to earn more money continue their education.

  5. Pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN). This is the test you take to become a registered nurse.

  6. Gain practical experience as a registered nurse. Usually, you are expected to have two years' experience as an RN before you can get any certification or specialize in one type of surgery. Some states may also require you to log at least 2,000 hours' experience working in an acute care setting as an intern, resident, or fellow.

  7. Get your certification. In some cases, certification is optional, but some employers require certification and you can receive certification in specialized fields of surgery.

Frequently asked questions

What are some advancement opportunities for surgical nurses?

After receiving extra training and education, perioperative nurses can become nurse anesthetists, patient educators, or operating room directors. Nurse anesthetists may work with anesthesiologists or serve as the sole leading anesthetist on a surgical team. An operating room director sets the budget and schedule for operating rooms and manages the staff, among other things.

What are some other related career paths for surgical nurses?

Related career paths for surgical nurses include:

  • Certified Nursing Assistant

  • Licensed Practical Nurse

  • Nurse Practitioner

  • Travel Nurse

What is the work environment like for a surgical nurse?

Surgical nurses work in hospitals and clinics, as well as surgical, trauma and emergency care centers. Within these environments, surgical nurses are usually found in recovery rooms and intensive care units.

Surgical nurses work in a stressful environment and they must be alert and prepared to assist a surgical team in a variety of ways. Many workdays require surgical nurses to be on the job and stand for long hours. Despite the stress, many surgical nurses find the job rewarding because of the crucial role they play in caring for patients. In many ways, surgical nurses make safe operations possible.

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