How To Become an Orthopedic Surgeon in 7 Steps (Plus Tips)

Updated June 30, 2023

Orthopedic surgeons are medical specialists who focus on the structural systems of the human body. They undergo extensive training and participate in ongoing education to advance their skills as they relate to scientific breakthroughs or technological innovations. If you're interested in becoming an orthopedic surgeon, learning more about this role can benefit you.

In this article, we explain what orthopedic surgeons are, what they do, why you should consider a career in this field and how to become an orthopedic surgeon.

Key takeaways:

  • Orthopedic surgeons diagnose, treat and prevent conditions affecting bones and muscles, such as broken hips, scoliosis and osteoporosis.

  • Becoming an orthopedic surgeon requires attending medical school, completing a residency and a fellowship in orthopedic surgery and earning your medical license and board certification.

  • To increase your chances of earning acceptance into medical school, be sure to study science in high school, obtain letters of recommendation from your advisers and teachers, perform well in your clinical rotations and work on developing your surgical skills.

Explore Orthopedist jobs on Indeed
View more jobs

What is an orthopedic surgeon?

An orthopedic surgeon is a physician and surgeon who has the necessary licenses to diagnose, treat and prevent conditions affecting bones and muscles. They have a vast knowledge of the diseases and injuries that affect the musculoskeletal system, which includes muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments, cartilage and nerves. Orthopedic surgeons treat congenital conditions, injuries or degenerative diseases, such as scoliosis, broken hips and osteoporosis, respectively.

Orthopedic surgeons focus on improving their patients' lives through therapies and treatments. They address the root causes of pain or determine why a patient lacks mobility. They then form a treatment plan to restore the patient's quality of life. Orthopedic surgeons may correct bone deformities through surgery or prescribe nonsurgical treatments with medication or rehabilitative physical therapy.

Read more: What Is an Orthopedic Surgeon?

What does an orthopedic surgeon do?

An orthopedic surgeon performs surgeries or treatments to improve a patient's physical condition, relieve their pain or suppress bone degeneration. For example, they may perform a hip replacement to lessen pain from arthritis, restore mobility and stop bone loss. The musculoskeletal system is a complex network of bones and muscles, and orthopedic surgeons are adept at the mechanical aspects of surgery to treat the entire structural system of the body. Although orthopedic surgeons spend most of their time in surgery, they also:

  • Interview patients

  • Conduct detailed examinations to assess patients' physical condition and identify osteopathic problems

  • Educate patients on their condition

  • Order and interpret diagnostic tests, such as X-rays or magnetic resonance images

  • Perform surgical procedures and treatments, such as arthroscopy, to diagnose joint conditions or treat fractures

  • Prescribe medication or post-surgery rehabilitation

  • Treat bacterial or viral infections

  • Address genetic conditions

  • Complete patient charts accurately and maintain records

  • Collaborate with other health care staff as part of a multidisciplinary medical team

  • Be on call to respond to emergencies, such as car accidents or trauma

Read more: Learn About Being an Orthopedic Surgeon

Why become an orthopedic surgeon?

Becoming an orthopedic surgeon enables you to help patients return to their normal lifestyles through surgery or therapy. An improvement in patients' conditions can lead to increased job satisfaction and fulfillment. Orthopedic surgeons regularly work with advanced technologies, such as robotics or implants, so you may get to experience the latest trends in the field.

Some orthopedic surgeons choose to become specialists in their field, such as in sports medicine, by treating sports injuries and working with professional teams. Others may choose to practice orthopedic oncology to remove tumors from the musculoskeletal system, potentially saving lives. Orthopedic surgeons typically work:

  • As a solo practitioner

  • For a private practice group

  • In academia

  • In teaching hospitals

  • For government agencies

  • In the military

Related: What Is Orthopedic Specialization and 13 Specialties

How to become an orthopedic surgeon

Orthopedic surgeons often invest a lot of time and energy into education and training before entering this industry. They spend many years studying the musculoskeletal system and advance to practice a subspecialty or specialize in specific areas of the body, such as the spine, ankle or hand. Here are seven steps you can follow to become an orthopedic surgeon:

1. Earn a bachelor's degree

First, consider earning a bachelor's degree from an accredited university. During your degree path, try to complete coursework in:

  • General chemistry

  • Organic chemistry

  • Biology

  • Physics

  • Mathematics

  • English

You can also consider taking pre-med classes or apply for an internship and choose science-based electives. On average, it takes about four years to earn a bachelor's degree.

Read more: Bachelor's Degree: Definition, Benefits and How To Earn One

2. Pass the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT)

Next, you appear and pass a seven-hour MCAT test to demonstrate your eligibility for medical school. The MCAT comprises individually scored sections, and the overall score can be between 472 and 528. Potential orthopedic surgeons typically obtain high scores on the MCAT, which focuses on the following sections:

  • Chemical and physical foundations of biological systems

  • Critical analysis and reasoning skills

  • Biological and biochemical foundations of living systems

  • Psychological, social and biological foundations of behavior

Related: Entry Requirements for Medical School

3. Attend medical school

Once you pass the MCAT, consider applying to medical school. Aspiring orthopedic surgeons typically earn their medical degree to become a doctor of medicine or osteopathic doctor. During the four years of medical school, you commonly study the following courses:

  • Anatomy

  • Biochemistry

  • Physiology

  • Genetics

  • Pharmacology

  • Pathology

You also participate in clinical rotations in standard medical specialties, such as surgery, medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, radiology, psychiatry and neurology.

Related: Osteopathic Doctor vs. MD: Definitions and Differences

4. Complete residency

Next, you may spend about five years of on-the-job training during your residency. Students spend the first two or more years in general surgery, then advance to orthopedics during the last few years. During this time, students work alongside attending physicians and gain confidence in their abilities and skills, while learning to build rapport with patients.

Related: FAQ: How Long Does It Take To Become a Resident Surgeon?

5. Complete a fellowship

Most orthopedic surgeons then complete a fellowship that involves an in-depth study of a specific part of the body or a subspecialty. A fellowship generally takes one or two years to complete. During their fellowship, orthopedic surgeons can focus on:

  • Hand, foot, ankle and spine surgery

  • Pediatric orthopedics

  • Orthopedic oncology

  • Reconstructive surgery

  • Surgical sports medicine

Related: Fellowship vs. Internship: Definitions and Key Differences

6. Earn your license

Once you complete all training requirements, you then take and pass the national United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) or the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensure Examination (COMLEX). Clearing either of these licensing exams is necessary for you to practice as an orthopedic surgeon. Licensing requirements can vary across states, so consider researching whether your state has additional licensing requirements.

7. Earn a board certification

After you receive your license, passing a board exam to practice isn't a requirement, but it can improve how much patients trust you and confirms your dedication to your profession as a surgeon. Becoming board-certified as an orthopedic surgeon includes passing an inspection from a jury of peers, who then deem you to be competent and knowledgeable in orthopedic surgery.

The American Board of Orthopedic Surgery (ABOS) and the American Osteopathic Board of Orthopedic Surgery (AOBOS) administer board exams for orthopedic surgeons. These board exams include 320 multiple-choice, computer-based questions. Following the written portion, surgeons take and pass an oral question-and-answer exam that analyzes their knowledge and expertise in surgical procedures. To remain board certified, orthopedic surgeons participate in continuing education and renew their certification through board evaluation and exams every seven to 10 years. These requirements ensure surgeons stay current with the latest developments and innovations in the field.

Related: How Many Years Does It Take to Become a Doctor?

How much does an orthopedic surgeon make?

According to Indeed data, the average salary for an orthopedic surgeon is $185,752 per year. Various factors, such as the location of the employer and the number of years of work experience, can impact an orthopedic surgeon's salary. Orthopedic surgeons may earn several bonuses and benefits besides their salary, such as health insurance and overtime.

For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on the link provided.

Read more: How Much Do Orthopedic Surgeons Make?

Upgrade your resume
Showcase your skills with help from a resume expert

Tips to become an orthopedic surgeon

To increase your chances of acceptance into medical school or residency, here are a few tips to help you become an orthopedic surgeon:

Study science in high school

If you're in high school, consider taking electives in science or medicine. Talk to a counselor or adviser who can help you choose the best courses to prepare for college and meet the requirements. Consider taking advanced placement courses in:

  • Biology

  • Anatomy

  • Physiology

  • Physics

  • Chemistry

Related: How To Get Into Medical School From High School (With Tips)

Obtain strong letters of recommendation

Try to develop a network of advisers, teachers or other peers who can affirm your character, devotion or commitment to your profession in a letter of recommendation. Medical schools and residencies may be more likely to accept you when respected professionals verify your work. You also may benefit from developing close professional relationships with your teachers and mentors early during your training program.

Read more: 14 Do's and Don'ts When Asking for Letters of Recommendation

Perform well in clinical rotations

Performing well in clinical rotations, during which you learn surgical skills, can be the basis of the letters of recommendation you receive from your supervisors and mentors. During clinical rotations, you also may discover a subspecialty that matches your skills and ability. Performing well in clinical rotations can serve as a strong foundation for your career as an orthopedic surgeon.

Please note that none of the companies mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

Is this article helpful?

Related Articles

How To Become a Neonatologist

Explore more articles

  • 11 Entry-Level MBA Jobs With Salary Information and Related Job Titles
  • 15 Jobs You Can Do With a Degree in Communication Sciences
  • 16 of the Highest-Paid Banking Jobs (Duties and Salaries)
  • 32 High-Paying Jobs Nobody Knows About (With Salaries and Duties)
  • 7 Pros and Cons of Being a School Counselor (With Tips)
  • What Is a Museum Curator? What They Do, Job Requirements and Where They Work
  • Pharmaceutical Sales Rep: What They Do and How To Become One
  • 8 Pros and Cons of Being a Bank Teller
  • 12 High-Paying International Jobs for College Graduates
  • 11 Types of Office Jobs (With Salaries and Duties)
  • How To Become an AI Engineer (Plus Job Duties and Skills)
  • Director vs. Associate Director: Key Differences