Surgical Technologist in the operating room

How to Become a Surgical Technologist

Duties, Responsibilities, Schooling, Requirements, Certifications, Job Outlook, and Salary

Surgical Technologist in the operating room

The operating room is one of the highest-pressure environments in all of healthcare, which means there’s no thrill like being part of a successful surgical operation. If you love the idea of playing a crucial hands-on role in the operating room, a career as a surgical technologist might be just what you’re looking for.

This career guide will teach you everything you need to know about becoming a surgical technologist, including the educational requirements, certifications, day-to-day duties, and how long it generally takes to launch your new career as a surgical tech.

Not sure if becoming a Surgical Tech is right for you? Click here to see our full list of the best entry-level medical jobs.

Surgical Technologist Definition

What is a Surgical Technologist?

A team of healthcare professionals is working behind every successful surgery to ensure the operating room is safe, sterile, and adequately prepared for the procedure. Surgical technologists, also known as operating room (OR) techs, prepare the operating room and actively participate in procedures and even serve as an extra set of hands for the surgeon.

Surgical Technologist: Job Description

What Does a Surgical Technologist Do?

Whether it’s a routine procedure or a major life-saving operation, every operating room must be thoroughly sterilized, prepared with all the necessary medical equipment, and stocked with the tools and medications that will be used during the operation. Once the operation begins, surgical technologists don’t just watch from the sidelines. They hand sterile instruments to surgeons, wash and bandage surgical sites, and sometimes directly handle tissue samples or entire organs.

Surgical Technologist Duties

Some of the day-to-day responsibilities of surgical techs include:

  • Sterilizing surgical tools and other equipment
  • Ensuring operating rooms are adequately stocked with supplies
  • Washing and disinfecting surgical sites to prepare patients for surgery
  • Passing the necessary instruments to surgeons during a procedure
  • Maintaining a sterile environment to minimize any risk of infection
  • Applying bandages or other dressings to the surgical site
  • Transferring patients to recovery rooms after a procedure

Surgical Technologist Skills

To thrive as a surgical technologist, you’ll need to be highly detail-oriented. Maintaining a sterile environment requires focus and strict attention to procedural guidelines, as small mistakes can have major consequences in an operating room. The best surgical technologists thrive under pressure and have excellent listening skills. As a surgical tech, you’ll be expected to respond to requests from the surgical team quickly and efficiently. You’ll also need the manual dexterity to carefully handle sharp instruments and other surgical tools, as well as the stamina to stay on your feet for hours at a time.

Group of healthcare professionals

Where Do Surgical Technologists Work?

The vast majority of surgical techs work in hospitals or private clinics and usually work full-time. While most workweeks are often around 40 hours, shifts may go longer than 8 hours or be scheduled on nights, weekends, or holidays. A career as a surgical technologist is not for the squeamish. You’ll be exposed to bodily fluids and occasionally unpleasant sights or odors. However, just like the rest of the surgical team, you’ll wear scrubs and sterile caps, masks, and gowns to protect you (and the patient) from any potentially contagious diseases.

Surgical Technologist Schooling & Certification

How Long Does it Take to Become a Surgical Technologist?

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Surgical Technologist?

To get started as a surgical tech, you’ll need to complete a Surgical Technology program from an accredited college or university. While finishing a surgical tech program usually requires around two full years in school, it’s possible to earn your degree in as little as 90 weeks with an accelerated degree program. By this time, two years from now, you could be playing a critical role in a life-saving operation. That’s pretty exciting to think about!

Like any long-term goal, working toward a new career as a surgical technologist seems much more attainable when you break it down into individual steps.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to the education, experience, and certifications you’ll need to become a surgical technologist:

1. Enroll in a Surgical Technology Degree Program

The first step in your journey to becoming a surgical tech is enrolling in a surgical technology degree program at an accredited college or university. While starting a career as a surgical technologist will require hard work and dedication, just about anyone can qualify for a degree program. For example, all it takes to enroll in the Surgical Technology program at Brookline College is a high school diploma or GED, a passing score on a Scholastic Level Exam, and completing a background check.

2. Earn Your Associate’s Degree in Surgical Technology

Like any associate’s degree program, your surgical technology degree will require completing a few general-ed courses in subjects like Math, English, and Science. While they may not seem directly related to your career as a surgical tech, these courses will help you become a more well-rounded professional that can think quickly and communicate clearly in a sometimes-stressful operating room environment.

As for your degree-specific studies, your surgical technology degree program will give you a fundamental understanding of various surgical principles and practices before going deeper into the specific surgical techniques you’ll be expected to perform. You’ll learn all about sterilization methods, commonly used operating room equipment, and how the various surgical instruments are used during procedures.

Once you’ve built a solid foundation of both theoretical knowledge and practical techniques, you’ll spend over 25% of your degree-specific credit hours in a clinical externship. You’ll gain hands-on experience in preparing actual operating rooms, sterilizing equipment, and observing and assisting with surgeries. Your clinical externship will prepare you to carry out your duties as a surgical technologist confidently and safely.

Before enrolling in a surgical technology program, it’s worth considering a college or university that offers job-placement assistance to students after finishing their degree. Job searches can be exhausting, and having somebody on your side who can help you put your best foot forward with employers will be a big help when it comes time to start your career as a surgical tech.

Multinational interns and professor having a discussion

3. Get Certified By One of the Major Credentialing Organizations

Nearly all surgical technologist jobs require certification to prove you’ve mastered the required skills to maintain a safe and sterile operating room environment. The two major credentialing organizations for surgical technologists are the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting and the National Center for Competency Testing. While each organization has its own certification exam, they’re very similar. With both exams, you can expect 175 questions and around four hours to complete each test. Practice exams are available for a small fee and can help you get used to the exam format, as well as highlight any areas you might need to brush up on before it comes time to take the real thing.

4. Stand Out By Earning CPR or BLS Certifications

Many employers prefer to hire surgical techs who have completed cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or basic life support (BLS) training. Each of these certifications can be completed online for around the cost of a takeout meal. While they’re not necessarily required, these certifications will make you much more appealing to potential employers by demonstrating you’re prepared to administer life-saving care in an emergency situation.

How Much Does It Cost to Earn a Surgical Technology Degree?

It’s common for many colleges and universities to charge over $20,000 per semester in tuition alone. In many cases, that figure won’t even cover the cost of lab fees, books, or other required course materials. Fortunately, the rise in online education has made college more affordable for millions of people across the country. Attending college online can save thousands over the course of a degree program, and it’s often easier to get a concrete figure of how much you can expect to pay.

Surgical Technologist Salary

How Much Do Surgical Technologists Make?

According to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for a surgical tech comes in at about $50,000 per year, which works out to about $24 per hour. Surgical technologist salaries in the 90th percentile can reach as high as $71,000 or more.

Highest Paying Industries for Surgical Technologists

According to the BLS, these industries are where you’re most likely to find the top-paying jobs for surgical techs:

Industry Average Hourly Pay Average Salary
Specialty Hospitals $26.18 $54,460
Colleges, Universities, & Professional Schools $26.06 $54,210
Outpatient Care Centers $25.65 $53,360
Private Physician’s Offices $23.90 $49,720
General Medical & Surgical Hospitals $23.89 $49,700

Highest Paying States for Surgical Technologists

According to the BLS, surgical technologists earn the highest average wages in these states:

Location Average Hourly Pay Average Salary
Alaska $32.53 $67,660
Nevada $30.79 $64,050
California $30.05 $62,510
Washington, D.C. $29.20 $60,740
Minnesota $28.90 $60,090

Highest Paying Cities for Surgical Technologists

According to the BLS, surgical technologists earn the highest average annual wage in these cities:

Location Average Hourly Pay Average Salary
Salinas, CA $35.71 $74,280
San Francisco, CA $34.99 $72,790
San Jose, CA $33.54 $69,750
Anchorage, AK $33.50 $69,690
Vallejo-Fairfield, CA $33.25 $69,160
Sacramento, CA $32.76 $68,150
Fresno, CA $32.35 $67,280
Las Vegas, NV $32.24 $67,060
Redding, CA $31.98 $66,520
Santa Barbara, CA $31.93 $66,420

Surgical Technologist Job Outlook

What Is the Job Outlook for Surgical Technologists?

The BLS estimates that the overall employment of surgical techs will grow 7% by 2029, which is nearly twice the average growth rate across all other jobs during the same time period (4%). The aging baby-boom population is projected to increase the overall demand for medical services, which will provide surgical technologists with long-term career stability.

Smiling nurse in a hallway

Ready to Start Your Career as a Surgical Technologist?

If you’re intrigued by the idea of being part of the action in a fast-paced operating room, becoming a surgical technologist might be the ideal career path for you. Working as a surgical tech can be demanding at times. Still, you’ll be well-compensated for your efforts, and it’s incredibly rewarding to be a part of surgical procedures that improve people’s lives—and sometimes save them altogether.

Click here to learn more about the Surgical Technology program at Brookline College, and start working toward your new career as a surgical technologist today.