Studying Surgical Technology

I'm interested in studying surgical technology. What can you tell me?

Surgical technology is a field for those who enjoy helping others, work well in a team and are physically capable. Surgical technologists work elbow to elbow with surgeons in the operating room, handing them instruments and using equipment. They are the people who respond when the surgeon asks for forceps or a scalpel. A great surgical technologist anticipates the needs of the surgeon and the surgical assistant so that no one has to ask for the right instrument. If you want to study surgical technology, you should make sure that you are prepared for the physical demands of the job. Most surgical technologists must stand in 1 place for the duration of an operation, which could last many hours. They must work with their hands all day and sometimes bend and reach to help position patients. Many students choose surgical technology because it allows you to begin working at a good wage with just 1 to 2 years of training after high school. Although you can get started in the profession relatively quickly, career advancement does not come easily. Even with years of experience as a surgical technologist, you may need to go back to school or take an administrative job in order to find more challenging duties and higher pay. Surgical technologists often pursue additional training as surgical assistants or registered nurses for this reason.

Let's hear some other perspectives

An Interview with Melissa Smith

Melissa Smith

Graduate, Certificate in Surgical Technology,Seattle Central Community College

“Surgical technology is much more than learning how to pass tools and instruments to a doctor in the operating room, which is often what people assume about the field.”Read the Full Interview

An Interview with Melissa Venturine

Melissa Venturine

Instructor, Surgical Technology,Everest Institute

“I would tell a student interested in studying surgical technology that it is a good profession and that it allows you work almost anywhere.”Read the Full Interview

Surgical Technologist Overview

What exactly is a surgical technologist?

Surgical technologists, who are also called surgical techs, operating room technologists or scrubs, help doctors and nurses with surgical operations. Before the operation, they prepare the operating room, surgical equipment and the patient. During the operation, surgical technologists hand instruments to the surgeons and assistants who perform the surgery. Following the operation, surgical technologists transport the patient to a recovery room and clean the operating room. Most surgical techs work in hospitals. Some work in doctors’ offices, outpatient medical clinics and dentists’ offices. Surgical technologists work full time, and they may be required to work shifts that last more than 8 hours. They may hold on-call positions or work rotating shifts that include nights, weekends and holidays.

Let's hear some other perspectives

An Interview with Laronda Cannon

Laronda Cannon

Surgical Technician,Madigan Army Medical Center

“If you are interested in becoming a surgical technician, I would tell you not to get discouraged by either the coursework or the on-the-job challenges. You have to be able to let things go and not take other people’s frustration, stress and rudeness personally.”Read the Full Interview

Personality Quiz

How do I know if surgical technology would be a good fit for me?

Here is a quick quiz to help you decide if you have the personality it takes to succeed as a surgical technologist. Rate, on a scale from 1 to 5, how well each of the following statements describes you.

I am physically capable and can stand for long periods of time.

Surgical technologists have to stand and handle equipment for the duration of a surgical operation, which can last for many hours. In order to work in this field, you must have stamina as you complete physical tasks.

I am a good listener and understand instructions.

Surgical technologists receive instructions from surgeons, nurses and surgical assistants. To be a surgical technologist, you must listen attentively and ask good questions to clarify instructions.

I have dexterity and am able to work with my hands.

Surgical technologists pass surgical instruments to the operating team during an operation, use equipment, clean rooms and restock supplies. You will need to work with your hands all day as a surgical technologist.

I am even-tempered and remain calm in stressful situations.

The operating room can be a stressful place, and surgeons and nurses may speak abruptly at times. You will have to remain calm and respond quickly at these times.

I am detail-oriented and pay attention to small things.

Surgical technologists are responsible for monitoring patients’ conditions and making sure that only sterilized instruments and equipment enter the sterile area of the operating room. Being consistently aware of the details in your surroundings will help you to be effective in this field.

I can keep track of many things at once.

Surgical technologists help to keep surgical operations running smoothly by making sure that instruments and equipment stay organized. If you are someone who can manage multiple things at once, you will be a good addition to an operating room.

I am friendly and pleasant to others.

Surgical technologists prepare patients for surgical operations. If you are friendly, you can help put patients at ease when they are anxious about their operations.

I am not squeamish or bothered by bodily fluids.

Surgery involves bodily fluids and incisions into the body. You will need to see and work near blood and exposed tissue and bone without becoming uncomfortable or lightheaded.

I am flexible and can adapt to new working conditions.

Surgical technologists sometimes work non-standard hours. You must adapt to working during nights, holidays and weekends, for shifts longer than 8 hours or at unpredictable times.

I am a team player and work well with others.

Surgical technologists work as part of the surgical team. You will need to work well with doctors, nurses and surgical assistants.

Get My Score

*Note that this is not a scientific quiz. The result is simply my rough estimate of how well I believe your personality matches that of a successful surgical technologist.

By my assessment, a career in surgical technology is probably not a good fit for your personality. Please go to the Admission Advisor homepage for a listing of other careers you may want to consider.

By my assessment, although a career in surgical technology may not be an ideal fit for your personality, if you are willing to adapt in a few areas, you can still find success in the field. Please see the list to the right for information on the areas that you may need to work on.

By my assessment, your personality is a good fit for a career in surgical technology. Scroll through our site to gain valuable insight into what it will take you to earn the necessary credentials.

Making the Right Choice

Is there anything else I should consider in deciding if surgical technology is the right choice for me?

If you are thinking about studying surgical technology, you should consider the criminal background check and drug test that will be required of you once you enter the profession. A criminal background check is a review of information from public and private sources about a person to determine if they have any history of arrest or conviction for crimes. If you fail a drug test or your background check shows certain criminal activity, you will not be able to work or receive clinical training at a healthcare facility.

Surgical Technology Professions

What surgical technology specializations can I choose from?

Education Required:

Certificate (1 – 2 years) or associates (2 years)

Average Salary:

$39,920 (Lowest 10% earned less than $28,100; highest 10% earned more than $57,330)

Work Environment:

Hospitals, outpatient clinics, doctor’s offices, dentist’s offices

Job Description:

Surgical scrub technologists, who are also called scrub techs or scrubs, hand medical instruments and supplies to the surgeon and surgical assistant during an operation. They wear gowns and gloves and maintain the sterile area of the operating room to make sure that only sterilized instruments and supplies enter the area. Scrub techs often specialize in an area of interest such as heart, gastrointestinal or obstetric surgery.

Education Required:

Certificate (1 – 2 years) or associates (2 years) plus professional experience (1 – 2 years)

Average Salary:

$67,000

Work Environment: Hospitals[/environment]

Job Description:

Traveling surgical technologists work for agencies that fill staffing shortages at hospitals. Travel assignments last from 3 months to 1 year and may require specific types of surgical experience depending on the temporary vacancy that the agency is trying to fill. Traveling surgical technologists prepare the operating room, maintain the sterile area and hand instruments to surgeons and surgical assistants during a surgical operation.

Education Required:

Certificate (1 – 2 years), associates (2 years) or bachelors (4 years)

Average Salary:

$75,000

Work Environment:

Hospitals, outpatient clinics, doctor’s offices

Job Description:

Surgical assistants, who are also called first assists and non-physician surgical first assistants, help during surgery by performing surgical tasks under the supervision of surgeons. Some common tasks are exposing the body part that will be operated on, managing body fluids and closing the wound. They also apply and remove splints and insert catheters and intravenous (IV) fluids.

Education Required:

Associates (2 years of undergraduate school)

Average Salary:

$39,920 (Lowest 10% earned less than $28,100; highest 10% earned more than $57,330)

Work Environment:

Hospitals, outpatient clinics, doctor’s offices

Job Description:

Circulating surgical technologists work outside the sterile area of the operating room, along with anesthesiologists and registered nurses. Circulating surgical technologists assist the anesthesiologist and keep written records of the operation. If the patient is conscious, they address the patient’s needs and comfort. Together with the surgical scrub technologist, they count sponges, needles and instruments to make sure nothing has been misplaced during surgery.

Job Outlook

What is the job outlook for surgical technologists?

The job outlook for surgical technologists is good. In 2010 there were 93,600 surgical technologist jobs. By 2020 there will be an additional 17,700 jobs, which is an increase of 19%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics employment projections for surgical technologists. The aging population in the United States is causing growth in surgical technology, as older people require more operations. In addition, hospitals are reducing costs by employing surgical technologists instead of registered nurses in the operating room.
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Education Requirements

How long would it take me to become a surgical technologist?

It takes from 1 to 2 years to become a surgical technologist. In that time, you would complete an undergraduate certificate program or an associates degree. Depending on the state you live in, you may be required to obtain professional certification in order to work as a surgical technologist.

Areas of Study

What can I expect to learn while studying surgical technology?

You will gain expertise in both knowledge and skills as you study surgical technology.

KNOWLEDGE

Anatomy

Anatomy is the study of the structure of the human body. It divides the body into areas such as the chest and the abdominal region. Anatomy includes the names of and connections between muscles, bones and ligaments. Topics in anatomy for surgical technology emphasize the areas that a surgical technologist will need to know in order to assist in common surgical procedures such as joint replacements and heart procedures.

Physiology

Physiology is the study of the human body according to functional systems. The respiratory system takes in oxygen through the nose, mouth and lungs. The circulatory system moves oxygen and other substances through the heart and blood vessels. The gastrointestinal system processes food into energy and waste products. Physiology topics for surgical technology include how wounds heal and understanding the vital signs of physiological systems.

Mathematics

Mathematics is the study of numbers. In surgical technology, arithmetic and algebra are the most important mathematical fields. Arithmetic deals with the basic mathematical operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Algebra is the field that uses letters to represent unknown quantities, which are solved for. Courses in mathematics for surgical technology emphasize manipulation of whole numbers, fractions, decimals, percentages and conversion of units. Applications of mathematics include calculating drug dosages and restocking medical supplies.

Pharmacology

Pharmacology is the science of how drugs work and what effect they have on the human body. The study is organized according to classes of drugs, interactions between drugs and principles of administering drugs to patients. Topics in pharmacology for surgical technologists include calculating doses and which drugs are commonly used during surgical procedures, such as medications to control pain and fight infection.

Health Law and Ethics

Health law and ethics is the field dealing with the legal and moral obligations that healthcare providers have to their patients. This field includes the document “A Patient’s Bill of Rights,” developed by the American Hospital Association, which outlines rights such as respectful care, consideration of privacy and information about treatment. Other issues in this field include malpractice and licensing requirements for healthcare providers.

SKILLS

Medical Terminology

As you study surgical technology, you will learn medical technology. Medical professionals use specialized terminology to refer to parts of the body and to administer medications. You will learn to understand instructions from doctors and nurses so that you can prepare and position the appropriate part of the body for surgery. You will also learn to use medical terminology in keeping written records of surgical procedures.

Sterile Technique

Your studies of surgical technology will teach you sterile technique, also known as surgical asepsis. Sterile technique is a collection of practices that make an area free of all microorganisms. The goal of asepsis is to prevent the patient from getting an infection, which is a significant risk when the patient’s tissue and body fluids are exposed for surgery. Sterile technique includes sterilizing medical instruments, cleansing the arms and hands in a way known as surgical scrubbing and wearing surgical gowns and gloves.

Patient Care

As you progress through your curriculum in surgical technology, you will learn patient care. The patient care skills you will learn include preparing patients for surgery, transporting patients to and from the operating room, and attending to patients’ needs during surgery. Patients may be experiencing physical and mental distress related to their medical condition or their surgical procedure, so surgical technology coursework teaches you how to address both the physical and psychosocial needs of patients.

Surgical Procedures

Your coursework in surgical technology will teach you about operative procedures. You will learn the types of surgical procedures performed by surgeons in many medical specialties, such as gastrointestinal, orthopedic, obstetrical and heart surgery. Your courses will also teach you the anatomic structures involved and the medical conditions that require the various types of surgery. You will learn about the medical instruments, equipment, sutures and supplies that are involved in each type of surgery.

Teamwork

You will learn teamwork while studying surgical technology. Teamwork in an operating room requires understanding the roles of the surgical team. You will learn the tasks and responsibilities of the sterile and nonsterile team members. The sterile team members are the surgeon, the surgical assistant and the surgical scrub technologist. The nonsterile team members are the anesthesia provider and the circulator, who may be a surgical technologist or a registered nurse.

Academic Degrees

What academic levels are available in the field of surgical technology?

The academic levels available in surgical technology are undergraduate certificates and associates degrees. Certificates are offered by community colleges, vocational schools and hospitals. Associates degrees are offered by community colleges and vocational schools. Though there is no bachelors degree offered in surgical technology, some surgical technologists continue their education by pursuing a bachelors degree in a related field such as healthcare administration or nursing. If you plan to earn a bachelors degree later, you may find an associates degree in surgical technology preferable to a certificate program. A bachelors degree program is more likely to accept transfer credits from an associates degree.

Select the degree level you are interested in:

  • Certificate
  • Associate’s

Certificate

A certificate in surgical technology will train you for work as a surgical technologist. This option is a good choice for students who want to quickly become qualified for surgical technologist jobs and who are not planning to continue their education with a bachelors degree in a related field.

What are the different types of certificates that I can earn in surgical technology?

The only type of certificate available in surgical technology is an undergraduate certificate, which is sometimes called a diploma program. Certificate programs are focused on the skills needed to work in the operating room and the basic scientific knowledge underlying the skills.

How long will I have to study to earn my certificate in surgical technology?

It takes 9 to 15 months and 45 to 60 credit hours to earn a certificate in surgical technology at a community college or vocational school. Certificates in surgical technology in hospitals last from 10 to 18 months and are offered on a noncredit basis.

What types of courses will I take while studying for my certificate in surgical technology?

While studying for your certificate in surgical technology, you can expect to take courses in the classroom and in a clinical setting. Courses required for a certificate include anatomy and physiology, medical terminology, surgical technology and pharmacology. As you progress through your certificate program, you will learn about increasingly complex and specialized surgical procedures. You will also learn the more advanced roles of the surgical technologist, which are acting as the circulator and the first assistant in the operating room. Your clinical training will expose you to surgical specialties such as eye surgery, heart surgery and brain surgery in operating rooms and outpatient surgery centers.

What types of jobs can I hope to secure with a certificate in surgical technology?

A certificate in surgical technology qualifies you for an entry-level position as a surgical technologist. You can work for a hospital, an outpatient surgery center, a doctor’s office or a dental surgery office. You can also continue your education in a related field, although you usually cannot transfer credits from a certificate program.

What should I consider when deciding on a school to earn my certificate in surgical technology?

When deciding on a school to earn your certificate in surgical technology, make sure that each program or school you consider is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or by the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). Accreditation from 1 or both of these organizations tells you and potential employers that your certificate program meets commonly accepted standards for this field. In addition, graduation from an accredited program allows you to apply for professional certification. Professional certification is required by some employers and states.

What about getting an online certificate in surgical technology?

An online surgical technology certificate is not an option for most students. Only a few online surgical technology programs are offered, and those are intended for people who are already working as professional surgical technologists but have not graduated from an accredited certificate or diploma program. Surgical technologists who were trained on the job, licensed practical nurses working as surgical technologists and surgical technologists who were trained in the military are all students who can pursue a surgical technology certificate online. Obtaining an online surgical technology certificate allows these professionals to apply for professional certification as a Certified Surgical Technologist (CST).

Associates Degree

An associates degree in surgical technology will train you for a career as a surgical technologist as well as providing you with an introductory education in liberal arts. This option takes longer than a certificate program but may allow you to transfer credits if you decide to continue your education with a bachelors degree in a related field.

What are the different types of associates degrees that I can earn in surgical technology?

Associate of Applied Science AAS

The AAS degree emphasizes the career and technical skills used by surgical technologists. The AAS degree is usually intended for students who will begin working as surgical technologists directly after graduation. This degree is not very different from the AS degree.

Associate of Science AS

The AS degree provides training in the skills and knowledge areas needed to work as a surgical technologist. The AS degree usually offers more transferable credits for students who want to transition into a bachelors degree program after completing the associates degree.

How long will I have to study to earn my associates degree in surgical technology?

It takes 2 years and 60 to 66 credit hours to earn an associates degree in surgical technology.

What types of courses will I take while studying for my associates degree in surgical technology?

While studying for your associates degree in surgical technology, you will take courses in classrooms and in clinical settings such as operating rooms and medical clinics. Required courses will include patient care, algebra, pharmacology, surgical procedures, medical terminology and microbiology. You will also be required to take general education courses in English composition, chemistry or mathematics and public speaking. The clinical component of your training will contain many short assignments in surgical specialties such as gastrointestinal, joint and ear-nose-and-throat surgery. In addition to specialized surgical procedures, you will also learn about general procedures common to all surgeries, such as sterile technique and how to work with the other members of the surgical team.

What types of jobs can I hope to secure with an associates degree in surgical technology?

With an associates degree in surgical technology, you can obtain an entry-level position as a surgical technologist. You will be qualified for the same positions as you would with an undergraduate certificate, and will be able to work in a hospital, outpatient surgery center, doctor’s office or dental office. You can also continue your education with a bachelors degree in a related field such as nursing or healthcare management, and some of your credits may transfer.

What should I consider when deciding on a school to earn my associates degree in surgical technology?

When you are deciding on a school to earn your associates degree in surgical technology, look for an accredited program or school. The accrediting agencies for surgical technology programs are the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) and the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). Holding an accredited degree qualifies you to apply for professional certification, which is required by some states and may also improve your job prospects.

What about getting an online associates degree in surgical technology?

No online surgical technology associates degrees are offered. Surgical technologists’ work requires hands-on skills, which an online surgical technology program could not teach. Depending on your community college or vocational school, you may be able to complete some of your liberal arts courses online, in effect creating a hybrid online surgical technology program.

Licensing Information

What else should I keep in mind when considering studying surgical technology?

When considering studying surgical technology, keep in mind the requirements of professional certification and continuing education, as well as your future opportunities for advancement.

Professional Certification

Professional certification is available to students who have graduated from an accredited surgical technology training program and who pass a national certification examination. Certification is voluntary, but valuable for improving your job prospects. It is also required by some states in order to work as a surgical technologist.

Surgical technologists are eligible to take The National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA) examination to earn the Certified Surgical Technologist (CST) designation. Candidates are eligible to take the exam if they have graduated from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES), have been previously CST certified or have been trained in the military.

Surgical technologists may also take the National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT) examination. To qualify to take the exam, candidates must have completed an accredited training program, completed an on-the-job hospital training or worked for 7 years as a surgical technologist. The exam is also open to licensed doctors and nurses with extensive experience in the operating room. After passing the exam, candidates are allowed to use the designation Tech in Surgery-Certified (TS-C).

Continuing Education

Surgical technologists must make an additional time commitment to continue their studies while they are working. Continuing education provides surgical technologists with knowledge of surgical specialties, which increases their job opportunities. Continuing education is also required to maintain professional certification. The NCCT requires recertification every year for the TS-C designation, requiring completion of continuing education courses and payment of a recertification fee. The NBSTSA recertifies Certified Surgical Technologists every 4 years. CSTs have the choice of taking the examination or earning and submitting 60 credits of continuing education. For either option, payment of a recertification fee is required.

Advancement Opportunities

Surgical technologists with an undergraduate certificate or an associates degree have limited opportunities for advancement. Even with years of experience, you will need to continue your education to advance to more complex duties and higher wages. If you obtain a degree in nursing, you can become a scrub nurse or a surgical nurse. If you pursue training in surgical assisting, you can become a surgical assistant, also known as a first assist. Surgical technologists also advance by moving out of the operating room and into administrative positions.

Questions & Answers

Select a category to find answers to your questions

Resources

What are some other resources that can help me learn more about studying a degree in surgical technology?

Bureau of Labor Statistics – Surgical Technologists

O*NET Online – Surgical Technologists

AST – Association of Surgical Technologists

AST Journal – The Surgical Technologist

National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Testing

CAAHEP – Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs

ABHES – Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools