Plastic surgery is often associated with cosmetic procedures like nose jobs or liposuctions. And while these are an important aspect of what plastic surgeons do, they’re not the only focus.
These doctors also frequently correct congenital birth defects, such as cleft palates, and perform restorative surgeries. Such cases are often covered by medical insurance, while elective cosmetic surgeries are paid for out of pocket.
Plastic surgeons are well-compensated, but this career requires top academic credentials and considerable education and training. If you’re considering embarking on the lengthy academic journey that is necessary for this field, here’s what you need to know.
What to Study If You’d Like to Be a Plastic Surgeon
Future plastic surgeons in the U.S. need to obtain a bachelor’s degree and a medical degree, and they must spend a minimum of six years on specialized residency training after med school.
Anyone who knows early on they have a dream of becoming a plastic surgeon should learn about visual art and start making art themselves, and they should study hard in their science classes, according to experts.
Once in college, aspiring plastic surgeons must take all the premed classes mandatory for acceptance into medical school and fulfill explicit or implicit admissions requirements at their target schools, including expectations for GPAs, MCAT scores, clinical experience and research projects. During med school, future plastic surgeons should aim for high grades, especially in surgery-related courses, since matching into a plastic surgery residency typically requires impeccable academic credentials.
The preferred and fastest route into the field after medical school is via an integrated residency in plastic surgery, which covers the essentials of reconstructive or cosmetic procedures and involves an abundance of supervised practice. These residencies last about six years and are highly selective. Some candidates instead pursue a residency in a related field like general or ear, nose and throat surgery, and then get hands-on training in plastic surgery, though this approach takes longer.
If prospective surgeons would like to become experts in a particular segment of plastic surgery, such as gender reassignment operations, they may need to pursue a fellowship in that area after they finish residency and before they start their careers.
Once these individuals have completed their training, they should seek board certification from the American Board of Plastic Surgeons. They will also need a medical license in whatever jurisdiction they intend to work in, and they may seek certification from a professional organization that is devoted to a specific branch of plastic surgery.
Other Skills and Credentials Needed
Plastic surgery requires significant spatial awareness, an eye for visual detail, strong artistic skills and precise hand-eye coordination. The field involves reimagining and reshaping human anatomy, so plastic surgeons must be able to visualize what their work will accomplish and — since the same operation can often be performed in multiple ways — be strategic about which methods and techniques they use.
Creative hobbies like drawing or 3D printing cultivate the aesthetic sensibility necessary for plastic surgery, experts say. Future surgeons should also learn as much as possible about human anatomy, so experts suggest taking intensive courses in this area in college and med school.
However, the most important thing potential plastic surgeons can do to increase their odds of success is to study hard and excel in school throughout their academic careers, says Dr. Jordan Frey, a plastic surgeon at Erie County Medical Center in New York.
“There are certain grade cutoffs and test score cutoffs that are used in the application process for residencies,” Frey says, adding that plastic surgery residencies are particularly competitive.
Plastic surgeons are generally people who have received near-perfect grades throughout high school, college and medical school, with especially stellar results in science courses, experts say.
Future plastic surgeons should also get as much exposure to plastic surgery as they can via doctor shadowing as premeds and through clinical rotations during med school, according to experts.
Attending lectures and discussions on plastic surgery is a great way to make contacts in the field and meet potential mentors, says Dr. Nicholas Jones, a prominent Atlanta-based plastic and reconstructive surgeon who runs the Nip & Tuck Plastic Surgery practice.
“If you have earlier exposure, it will allow you to know what kinds of things you need to do to set yourself up for success,” he says.
Reasons to Consider a Career in Plastic Surgery
Plastic surgeons can restore the aesthetics of a person’s body after cancerous or infected body parts are removed, and they can excise scar tissue and replace it if a patient has suffered a major burn. Plastic surgery is sometimes a follow-up procedure after an organ amputation.
Individuals who are disfigured by accidents or illnesses often wish to remove marks of those painful experiences from their bodies. Dr. Bruce Mast, chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at the University of Florida College of Medicine, notes that giving injured patients back an aspect of their original appearance that they lost is often deeply fulfilling.
Strictly cosmetic operations can also be satisfying, says Mast, board vice president for academic affairs with the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, or ASPS. “It can make a huge difference for people, and that’s very rewarding, too.”
Plastic surgery is one of the most lucrative areas of medicine. A compensation study published by Medscape, a media outlet for health professionals, revealed that plastic surgeons were the best-paid doctors in 2021, earning an average annual salary of $576,000 that year.
Over the past two decades, demand for plastic surgery has sharply increased. The number of plastic surgery procedures in 2019 – the year prior to pandemic lockdowns, which shut down many U.S. plastic surgery offices – was about 41% higher than it was in 2000, according to statistics published by ASPS.
What’s unique about plastic surgery, according to doctors in the field, is that it addresses all demographics in the general population, ranging from children to seniors, and encompasses nearly every external component of the human body.
And even for elective surgery, not all clients are wealthy — Dr. Jones says he sometimes sees people of modest means who save up money to pay for their operations.
Who Should Consider Plastic Surgery Education
Because the path into this job is arduous and the day-to-day work is demanding, compensation can’t be the sole focus for someone entering the career. “It’s manual labor,” Jones says, adding that plastic surgery tends to be more time-consuming than other forms of surgery.
Dr. Jennifer Sivak-Callcott, president of the American Society of Opthalmic Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, says keen visual observation and imagination skills are a must in the plastic surgery field.
“If you aren’t able to see things in three dimensions, then it’s going to be hard to be a really good aesthetic or reconstructive surgeon,” she says.
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