How to Become a Plastic Surgeon

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated December 21, 2020 | Published February 4, 2020

Updated December 21, 2020

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.

Plastic surgeons often serve high-profile clients or people recovering from illnesses and accidents. They also help individuals who want or need to change the shape of a part of their body. Whether performing reconstructive or cosmetic surgery, plastic surgeons make a living helping people. In this article, we explain what a plastic surgeon does, detail how to become one and explore answers to frequently asked questions about this career.

What does a plastic surgeon do?

A plastic surgeon performs operations that modify the appearance or shape of part of a patient's body. These licensed medical professionals not only perform cosmetic surgeries such as facelifts or nose jobs, but they also perform reconstructive surgeries for patients with facial and body abnormalities caused by injury, birth defects, disease or aging.

The specific procedures plastic surgeons perform depend on their specialty. For instance, craniomaxillofacial surgeons diagnose and treat patients with conditions affecting the face, neck, jaws and mouth. Cosmetic surgeons may perform liposuction or breast augmentations. Burn surgeons may remove dead skin, graft new skin and work to reduce scarring on patients with burn injuries.

Other duties and responsibilities of a plastic surgeon include:

  • Conducting consultations with patients and recommending the best treatments

  • Performing tests before surgery

  • Providing follow-up care for the patient after surgery

  • Referring patients to other specialists, such as physical therapists, to complete their recovery

  • Performing some administrative tasks, including updating the medical records of patients

How to become a plastic surgeon

Becoming an established plastic surgeon can require more than 10 years of training and education. This lengthy preparation is necessary considering the high skill level and risks associated with the job. Here are the typical steps to follow to become a plastic surgeon:

  1. Obtain a bachelor's degree.

  2. Complete a four-year doctor of medicine degree.

  3. Obtain a license.

  4. Complete residency.

  5. Complete a fellowship in a subspecialty.

  6. Obtain certification.

  7. Apply for jobs.

1. Obtain a bachelor's degree

A plastic surgeon's education begins with a bachelor's degree. Ideal programs include biology, physics and chemistry. Some schools offer pre-med programs that prepare you for graduate study in medicine. If you decide to pursue a pre-med degree, you'll have to take classes in math, physics, chemistry and biology. If your school doesn't offer a pre-med degree, it may offer a pre-med program or track, which focuses on advising and test preparation.

To gain admission into a medical school, you must pass the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) as well as submit letters of recommendation from mentors, professors, reputable doctors or people with good standing in the community. Demonstrating leadership qualities, working in a health care facility and participating in various medical conferences can give you an advantage when applying to a medical school.

Related: When a Professional Degree Will Help You Advance in Your Career

2. Complete a four-year doctor of medicine degree

You must hold a doctor of medicine (M.D.) or doctor of osteopathy (D.O.) degree before you can participate in post-graduate training in plastic surgery. The M.D. or D.O. program generally takes four years to complete. You'll spend your first two years of medical school taking advanced courses in anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, pharmacology, microbiology and pathology. The remaining two years are devoted to clinical rotations, where you will gain experience working directly with patients.

3. Obtain a license

In the U.S., you are required to earn a medical license to legally practice plastic surgery. To obtain a license, you must pass the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). If you are a doctor of osteopathic medicine (D.O.), you must pass the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Exam (COMLEX). The USMLE and COMLEX consist of three parts, each meant to see how well you apply basic and advanced science concepts to the practice of medicine.

4. Complete residency

Once you become a licensed physician, you need to complete a three-year residency program in general surgery, which includes clinical rotations in various types of surgery. You can then take a three-year residency in plastic surgery, which requires you to rotate through the plastic surgery wards of several hospitals and practices.

A residency program in plastic surgery may cover head, facial, burn and neck surgery, skin grafting and surgery, plastic microsurgery techniques and cosmetic surgery of the breast, neck and head. It may also cover wound healing, emergency care, fluid replacement and the relation of basic science to surgical techniques. The program may also require you to attend conferences, gain teaching experience, conduct research, participate in journal clubs and dissect cadavers.

5. Complete a fellowship in a subspecialty

If you want to specialize in a subspecialty of plastic surgery, you could complete a one-year fellowship program. Fellowships are available in several areas, including aesthetic surgery, microvascular reconstructive surgery, body contouring, craniofacial surgery and hand surgery. Aside from completing clinical training in your specialty, you may also need to complete a research project. If you're an allopathic plastic surgeon, you can obtain voluntary subspecialty certification in hand, neck and head surgery from the American Board of Plastic Surgery (ABPS).

6. Acquire certification

Board certification demonstrates a plastic surgeon's exceptional expertise in a particular specialty or subspecialty of medical practice. Here are some of the certifications that a plastic surgeon must obtain:

American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) Certification

This certification signifies that you have completed a required set of training and education requirements beyond the minimum requirements for obtaining a license. To acquire this certification, you must have a medical license and pass a written and oral examination. To maintain this certification, you must take an extensive continuous professional development program known as the ABMS Program.

The American Board of Plastic Surgery (ABPS) Certification

This is one of the 24 specialty boards that the ABMS recognizes. To obtain this certification, you must complete the appropriate training and pass comprehensive oral and written examinations covering all plastic surgery procedures.

Related: Impress Recruiters with These Desirable Professional Certifications

FAQs about plastic surgeons

Here are some of the frequently asked questions about plastic surgeons:

What does a plastic surgeon's work environment look like?

Plastic surgeons practice in a range of settings, including community and academic hospital settings, trauma wards, private practices, multi-specialty practices and outpatient clinics. They usually perform surgery and other related tasks for more than 40 hours per week. As with all surgeries, plastic surgeons work with a team of assistants or other surgeons to complete an operation.

Plastic surgeons may also be called on short notice to carry out emergency surgery. They usually work in well-lit, clean environments, such as a hospital's operating room. They also work in medical schools to teach or train aspiring plastic surgeons.

Some plastic surgeons prefer to practice in a private setting, as it provides them control and independence. However, getting and retaining patients can be a laborious and time-consuming process. Also, the costs to maintain a private practice can be much higher compared to a group practice where costs are shared.

What skills are necessary to become a successful plastic surgeon?

To be successful in this role, aspiring plastic surgeons generally need the following qualities:

Motor skills

Manual dexterity, hand-eye coordination and attention to detail are a must for anyone performing medical procedures such as stitching wounds or severing blood vessels. You should be able to remain calm and keep a very steady hand under pressure.

Teamwork

Because plastic surgeons work with nurses, assistants, anesthesiologists and other medical professionals while performing surgery, they must be great team players and be able to recognize everyone's contribution to a successful operation.

Communication skills

Because surgeons need help from other professionals to complete surgery, they must have great communication skills to facilitate a smooth operation. They should be able to talk to their team openly and professionally.

Problem-solving skills

As with any other medical field, not everything in an operation always goes according to plan. Plastic surgeons should be able to solve problems quickly and effectively to prevent putting the lives of their patients at serious risk.

Patience and stamina

These skills help surgeons get through grueling operations. Surgery usually takes around five to six hours to complete, so plastic surgeons must be able to stay focused throughout to avoid making fatal mistakes.

Related: Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills

How many steps are there in the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE)?

The USMLE is a three-step program. The first step is usually taken at the end of your second year of medical school and assesses your scientific knowledge as it relates to medicine. The second step is usually taken at the end of medical school. It has two parts, and each part takes about one day to complete. The second step tests your clinical skills and knowledge through questions and patient simulations. The third step is usually taken after the first year of your residency. It's a two-day exam that includes questions and simulations that test your ability to care for patients unsupervised.

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