Guide to Becoming a Surgical Nurse

What Does a Surgical Nurse Do?

surgical nurse during an operation

A surgical nurse is the backbone of a surgical team. Surgical nurses work in a dynamic and challenging environment, taking on key roles in life-saving surgical procedures and the surrounding care. The operating room is a complex work environment, with several well-defined roles filled by nurses – some with highly specialized training that enables them to participate directly in surgery.

  • A licensed practical nurse (LPN) can be involved in pre-operative and post-operative care, including taking vital signs, assisting patients with bathing and dressing, and assisting with documentation and procedures. However, the term “surgical nurse” applies to nurses whose roles in the operating room require an RN license at minimum. This article will focus on these nurses; visit our resource specifically focusing on LPNs to learn more about this career path.
  • Collectively, the group of nurses who prepare patients and their families for a surgical procedure, work in the operating room, and monitor the patient during recovery are termed “perioperative” nurses. All perioperative nurses are, at minimum, licensed RNs. Nurses who have two or more years’ experience in perioperative work can sit for a credentialing exam to become certified operating room specialists (RN, CNOR).
  • After two years of perioperative experience, an RN also becomes eligible to enroll in a course of study that will prepare her/him for work as an RNFA, or RN First Assistant to the surgeon. Unlike an instrument nurse (scrub nurse), the RNFA takes a direct part in the operation itself, working at the surgeon’s direction. The role of first assistant is one that may be filled by another surgeon, which gives some idea of the level of skill that these nurses exercise.
  • RNs who complete graduate nursing training have further options for surgical practice. Graduate-prepared nurses, termed APRNs (advanced practice RNs), can complete additional coursework and clinical work to qualify for the RNFA certification exam; alternatively, there are stand-alone training programs that prepare APRNs for RNFA certification. An RN might decide on a different career direction, and attend graduate school to become a certified nurse anesthetist. Finally, an APRN (for instance, an acute-care nurse practitioner) with sufficient operating room experience can become certified as a perioperative clinical nurse specialist (CNS-CP). The CNS role is both broad and deep, involving engagement with patients and their families during all stages of surgery, and expert supervision of the OR environment, with a focus on managing patient risks; this is a good role for someone who wants to support patients and families through the arc of surgical care.

Surgical nurses are also responsible for educating patients on procedures prior to surgery, adjusting treatment plans, and teaching patients about post-operative self-care.

The opportunities for a career in surgical nursing are diverse and rewarding. Surgical nurses specialize in any or all aspects of surgery, and many work in sub-specialties such as cardiac surgery, intensive care, or pediatric surgery. Doctors rely on these dedicated professionals who touch countless lives and who bring about positive improvements in the health and welfare of patients and their families.

Workplace Details

Traditionally, surgical nurses have worked in general care hospitals and inpatient healthcare facilities. However, cost-efficient trends in health care and advances in surgical technology are providing more opportunities for surgical nurses to work in ambulatory surgery centers that perform outpatient surgery or in physicians’ offices that provide surgical procedures, such as with surgical imaging, endoscopy, or cosmetic surgery.

The majority of surgeries performed are “elective,” meaning that they are medically necessary but are not urgent in nature. Because elective surgeries are often pre-scheduled to take place during the day, surgical nurses typically work during the day shift and through the evening hours. Nurses employed by inpatient hospital units that perform scheduled surgeries usually work during the day and overnight as well. Shifts are anywhere from eight to twelve hours long, and some surgical nurses are on call and ready to work at a moment’s notice.

Salary and Job Outlook

State
Average Wage
California
$101750
Texas
$70390
New York
$80830
Florida
$64630
Pennsylvania
$68770

Hover over any state to explore local income and job growth data.

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ALABAMA
Median Salary: 
$55,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $41,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $76,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 17%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 1,870

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Birmingham$43,240$57,670$77,370
Huntsville$41,840$56,800$75,450

ALASKA
Median Salary: 
$88,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $65,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $116,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 10%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 190

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Anchorage$65,100$88,940$117,550
Fairbanks$69,190$98,120$119,580

ARIZONA
Median Salary: 
$71,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $52,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $96,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 22%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 3,500

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Phoenix$52,850$73,400$97,630
Tuscon$52,510$67,590$82,510

ARKANSAS
Median Salary: 
$55,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $40,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $76,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 15%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 870

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Little Rock$42,070$60,690$84,170
Fort Smith$39,910$52,140$63,430

CALIFORNIA
Median Salary: 
$100,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $64,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $147,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 17%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10,470

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Los Angeles$63,400$95,940$129,340
San Francisco Bay$83,120$132,970$167,920
San Diego$57,610$85,470$126,550
Sacramento$67,060$116,690$155,890

COLORADO
Median Salary: 
$68,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $51,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $95,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 33%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 2,350

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Denver$51,510$70,580$97,080
Colorado Springs$51,430$63,590$88,590

CONNECTICUT
Median Salary: 
$76,500
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $55,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $100,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 6%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 990

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Hartford$55,130$76,020$97,630
Bridgeport$56,590$75,830$103,110
New Haven$57,470$78,720$105,440

DELAWARE
Median Salary: 
$71,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $53,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $93,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 17%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 420

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Wilmington$54,470$72,460$93,860
Dover$52,740$64,500$84,490

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
Median Salary: 
$79,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $55,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $103,800

2014-2024 Job Growth: 11%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 380

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Washington DC$53,890$76,030$101,360

FLORIDA
Median Salary: 
$62,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $46,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $82,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 25%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 8,110

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Miami$50,250$65,560$91,660
Orlando$43,490$61,570$79,250
Tampa$49,770$62,990$84,660
Jacksonville$48,910$61,610$79,810

GEORGIA
Median Salary: 
$63,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $44,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $80,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 20%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 2,980

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Atlanta$47,500$67,010$82,160
Augusta$46,880$65,910$88,340

HAWAII
Median Salary: 
$92,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $63,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $119,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 13%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 400

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Honolulu$63,930$93,970$120,600

IDAHO
Median Salary: 
$61,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $44,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $78,400

Job Growth Data Not Available

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Boise$46,390$61,760$78,900

ILLINOIS
Median Salary: 
$67,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $45,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $99,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 11%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 3,970

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Chicago$51,580$73,220$103,790
Rockford$43,920$59,400$87,180

INDIANA
Median Salary: 
$57,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $41,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $78,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 19%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 2,510

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Indianapolis$43,290$61,450$81,840
South Bend$43,460$58,310$76,100
Fort Wayne$40,640$53,490$73,350

IOWA
Median Salary: 
$53,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $40,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $73,800

2014-2024 Job Growth: 16%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 1,280

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Des Moines$41,010$56,420$75,160
Cedar Rapids$39,730$50,730$74,600

KANSAS
Median Salary: 
$56,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $41,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $76,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 8%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 760

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Wichita$41,060$51,440$72,980
Kansas City$44,940$63,260$81,370

KENTUCKY
Median Salary: 
$58,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $42,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $77,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 36%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 2,670

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Louisville$44,330$61,510$78,730
Lexington$44,220$59,870$76,890

LOUISIANA
Median Salary: 
$59,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $42,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $83,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 16%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 1,910

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
New Orleans$49,930$66,140$99,220
Baton Rouge$42,650$56,830$78,160
Lafayette$40,670$55,480$80,510

MAINE
Median Salary: 
$62,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $46,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $85,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 11%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 510

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Portland$49,850$64,470$91,370
Lewiston$45,100$63,890$78,040

MARYLAND
Median Salary: 
$72,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $53,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $97,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 20%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 3,250

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Baltimore$53,920$72,460$98,440
Frederick$55,480$75,920$98,980

MASSACHUSETTS
Median Salary: 
$83,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $55,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $135,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 7%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 2,490

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Boston$60,060$92,190$145,530
Worcester$52,460$82,700$142,480
Springfield$47,590$72,530$101,550

MICHIGAN
Median Salary: 
$65,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $50,600
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $89,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 12%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 3,370

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Detroit$52,500$69,600$105,020
Grand Rapids$48,130$60,180$76,730

MINNESOTA
Median Salary: 
$72,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $49,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $98,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 12%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 2,010

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Minneapolis - St. Paul$53,730$77,400$100,460
Rochester$41,210$59,810$94,640

MISSISSIPPI
Median Salary: 
$55,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $40,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $77,500

2014-2024 Job Growth: 14%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 1,070

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Jackson$42,150$60,990$88,630
Gulfport$42,590$57,050$76,120

MISSOURI
Median Salary: 
$57,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $41,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $80,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 14%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 2,530

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
St. Louis$42,050$59,020$83,960
Kansas City$44,940$63,260$81,370

MONTANA
Median Salary: 
$60,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $47,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $81,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 22%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 450

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Billings$51,200$62,670$88,330
Missoula$50,750$62,420$87,110

NEBRASKA
Median Salary: 
$58,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $42,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $77,600

2014-2024 Job Growth: 14%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 840

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Omaha$43,460$59,630$80,340
Lincoln$42,500$56,230$75,400

NEVADA
Median Salary: 
$81,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $58,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $104,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 19%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 860

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Las Vegas$62,700$84,080$108,390
Reno$55,940$75,620$98,560

NEW HAMPSHIRE
Median Salary: 
$65,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $47,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $93,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 15%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 490

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Manchester$46,320$67,900$94,190
Nashua$46,310$63,890$91,400

NEW JERSEY
Median Salary: 
$79,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $57,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $102,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 13%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 3,000

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Newark$58,110$81,250$104,130
Trenton$52,450$71,710$93,130

NEW MEXICO
Median Salary: 
$64,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $50,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $87,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 17%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 660

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Albuquerque$52,550$66,430$88,630
Las Cruces$27,720$60,700$92,420

NEW YORK
Median Salary: 
$78,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $52,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $111,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 17%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 7,450

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
New York City$62,140$86,520$116,630
Buffalo$50,970$70,090$93,740
Rochester$46,960$60,760$77,900
Albany$44,640$61,640$79,960

NORTH CAROLINA
Median Salary: 
$58,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $43,300
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $79,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 22%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 4,190

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Charlotte$44,010$59,750$78,850
Raleigh$44,970$60,090$79,230
Greensboro$43,130$61,120$86,440
Winston - Salem$43,770$58,270$77,490

NORTH DAKOTA
Median Salary: 
$57,900
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $43,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $75,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 24%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 400

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Fargo$43,820$58,380$76,530
Bismarck$43,580$57,070$73,580

OHIO
Median Salary: 
$61,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $47,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $80,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 14%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 4,830

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Cleveland$52,280$65,220$80,050
Columbus$46,330$61,330$90,830
Cincinnati$47,490$62,580$81,990
Dayton$48,440$59,850$78,710

OKLAHOMA
Median Salary: 
$58,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $42,700
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $77,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 14%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 1,160

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Oklahoma City$43,130$60,220$78,470
Tulsa$43,630$58,820$76,640

OREGON
Median Salary: 
$85,200
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $61,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $109,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 15%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 1,280

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Portland$58,970$86,940$112,620
Salem$63,450$80,010$103,720

PENNSYLVANIA
Median Salary: 
$65,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $47,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $93,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 14%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 4,890

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Philadelphia$53,320$76,110$100,010
Pittsburgh$47,760$61,520$80,320
Harrisburg$51,160$64,360$92,930
Allentown$51,170$63,980$86,160

RHODE ISLAND
Median Salary: 
$76,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $55,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $98,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 12%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 450

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Providence$55,000$76,050$99,370

SOUTH CAROLINA
Median Salary: 
$59,300
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $42,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $80,100

2014-2024 Job Growth: 15%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 1,600

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Greenville$42,380$57,960$77,620
Columbia$33,930$57,080$78,000
Charleston$49,680$65,020$92,470

SOUTH DAKOTA
Median Salary: 
$53,400
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $41,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $74,700

2014-2024 Job Growth: 12%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 420

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Rapid City$42,750$57,830$75,800

TENNESSEE
Median Salary: 
$56,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $41,800
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $76,300

2014-2024 Job Growth: 25%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 2,440

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Nashville$41,930$58,810$78,640
Memphis$46,000$60,500$78,810
Knoxville$40,920$54,240$70,650
Chattanooga$41,680$56,130$74,340

TEXAS
Median Salary: 
$68,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $50,100
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $95,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 31%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 10,820

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Dallas - Ft. Worth$52,170$71,920$96,640
Houston$55,040$76,670$98,900
San Antonio$45,920$65,450$89,960
Austin$51,570$66,340$86,640

UTAH
Median Salary: 
$59,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $44,200
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $79,200

2014-2024 Job Growth: 33%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 1,150

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Salt Lake City$46,020$61,730$81,490
Ogden$42,940$57,090$76,880

VERMONT
Median Salary: 
$62,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $47,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $91,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 11%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 230

VIRGINIA
Median Salary: 
$63,600
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $43,400
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $90,900

2014-2024 Job Growth: 14%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 2,380

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Virginia Beach$43,130$61,350$79,450
Richmond$44,170$64,510$85,180

WASHINGTON
Median Salary: 
$77,000
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $52,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $110,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 20%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 2,470

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Seattle$55,410$80,960$113,850
Spokane$50,630$73,400$104,950

WEST VIRGINIA
Median Salary: 
$56,700
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $40,500
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $78,400

2014-2024 Job Growth: 8%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 590

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Huntington$39,560$55,600$76,120
Charleston$41,380$55,920$75,860

WISCONSIN
Median Salary: 
$65,100
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $49,900
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $90,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 10%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 1,860

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Milwaukee$51,600$67,980$91,900
Madison$54,670$73,910$100,370

WYOMING
Median Salary: 
$60,800
Bottom 10% (Entry Level): $44,000
Top 10% (Lots of Experience): $81,000

2014-2024 Job Growth: 20%
Projected Annual Job Openings: 210

SALARY BY METRO AREA:

CityEntry LevelMedianLots of Experience
Cheyenne$47,920$64,100$88,730
Casper$40,880$57,560$77,510

Click here to see interactive state-by-state information for licensed practical/vocational nurses or nurse practitioners.

The median annual wage for LPNs reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics is $43,170. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, eighty percent of RNs earn between $46,360 and $101,630; their median annual income is $67,490. As a general rule, those who work in major cities usually make more than nurses in rural areas due to differences in cost of living.

There will always be a need for skilled surgical nurses, and the demand for nursing services continues to increase. With many older nurses leaving or expected to leave the workforce between 2014 and 2024, opportunities for RNs are projected to grow substantially – by 16 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With technology allowing more seniors in the rapidly expanding aging population to undergo surgery for a greater number of medical conditions, the need for surgical nurses will also increase.

Compare Salaries by City

New York City NY Median Pay

$86520 Per Year

$41.59 Per Hour

Los Angeles CA Median Pay

$95940 Per Year

$46.12 Per Hour

Steps to Become a Surgical Nurse

1

Decide what type of nurse you want to become.

The educational requirements for a surgical nurse vary according to the professional level of the nursing candidate. A surgical nurse may be a registered nurse or advanced practice nurse. Therefore, educational requirements can range from a yearlong certificate program to a doctorate degree.

2

Complete an undergraduate program.

Registered nurses attend college and obtain either a two-year associate’s degree or a four-year bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN). Coursework and preparation for a nursing degree includes academic prerequisites, such as math and life sciences. Students must also complete nursing-specific classes such as pharmacology, medical terminology, patient assessment, and care planning. These candidates receive skills training in a clinical environment and practice in a range of health care settings. An ever-growing number of employers are requiring newly hired RNs to have a bachelor’s degree.

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3

Become licensed in your state.

All practicing nurses must hold a valid state license. RNs obtain this license after the completion of nursing education and by passing the National Council Licensing Examination (NCLEX), which is administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN). Detailed information about licensing requirements is available through each state’s nursing board.

4

Consider becoming certified.

The process of certification is optional for some surgical nurses and mandatory for others. A number of surgery specialty certifications are available for RNs, including adult cardiac surgery, plastic surgery, and intensive care. These and other certifications can be obtained through professional organizations such as the Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses (AMSN) and the American Society of Plastic Surgical Nurses (ASPSN).

5

Get surgical nursing experience.

Nurses with little or no experience in surgery are often trained at inpatient hospital surgery units. To go into surgical critical care, the operating room, or the recovery room, a nurse needs prior surgical experience and will then undergo training for a period of weeks or months in the specific setting.

6

Attain a master or doctorate's degree to become an APRN.

If your goal is to become an advanced practice nurse, you must complete a graduate education. This type of program is structured as a master’s degree or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree. A potential candidate must have nursing experience and an active RN license to be considered for admission to most programs, and the curriculum is specifically designed for the advanced practice specialty.

(Visit our nursing degree guide for information about all of these degree paths, from the associate level to master’s degrees.)

7

Get your certification.

Advanced practice nurses must be certified in their areas of expertise, such as in acute care or pediatrics, before beginning their careers as surgery nurses.

8

Consider opportunities for advancement.

There is considerable room for advancement in the world of surgical nursing. Registered nurses who begin working in general post-surgery care units are able to move among surgical specialties in a hospital or in ambulatory surgery, such as in the operating room, the recovery room, or the intensive care unit. They may also pursue graduate education, making them eligible to become clinical nurse specialists with a surgical focus or nurse practitioners who assist surgeons during procedures. Many surgical nurses choose to become certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs) to provide patients with anesthesia and sedation during surgery.

Explore Degree Paths

While you need an RN license to have a perioperative role in surgery, and a BSN degree to attend graduate school in nursing, there are a variety of paths you can take to the RN credential and BSN degree – some more circuitous than others. Going straight to a four-year college, earning a BSN, and subsequently qualifying as an RN is the quickest route, but it’s not for everyone. If you decide to become an AD-RN, LPN, or CNA as your entry into the nursing profession, you can “bridge the gap” between the academic degree and nursing credential that you hold, and the ones that you want to earn, by finding an appropriate nursing bridge program at a two- or four-year college.

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It’s important to understand that nursing programs at all degree levels have to earn accreditation from national boards – the CCNE (Collegiate Council of Nursing Education) or ACEN (Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing). There are nursing programs that go on operating and recruiting students without maintaining national accreditation. It’s understandable that there could be gaps in a program’s accreditation status, while curricular changes are reviewed by one of the boards, but you truly do not want to be stuck with a degree from a non-accredited program: this will materially injure your work prospects and your ability to continue your education. Make sure that the program you select is nationally accredited.

ASSOCIATE DEGREE

2-3 years initial study

An associate degree in nursing prepares students for the RN-NCLEX and work in hospital (acute care) environments. Students with many different kinds of backgrounds, including working professionals embarking on second careers, find that the course scheduling and duration of ADN/ASN programs are suited to their needs.

Associate degree programs run the gamut in quality – they can be excellent, so research your training options carefully, and don’t settle. If you’re interested in a career in surgical nursing, it behooves you to find out where a nursing program sends its students for their clinical rotations. Nursing students seldom are more than observers in an OR, but high-stress critical care settings are a good test of your interest in this kind of practice: you will want opportunities for rotations in ICU/ED and busy med-surg units, ideally in a large regional or city hospital.

Some of the courses you can expect to take include:

Pharmacology in nursing

Introduces students to commonly-prescribed drugs and how they act upon the body.

Caring for the acute patient

Expanding on techniques taught in foundational nursing classes, students learn hospital nursing skills and safety practices.

Nursing and the developing family

A course teaching students about appropriate care of women and infants during the perinatal period.

Caring for the mental health patient

Students learn about depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders, and study treatment approaches.

BACHELOR'S DEGREE IN NURSING

4 years

The BSN is a four-year college degree, with pre-professional work (including courses in writing, social science, and math) occupying much of the first two years, and the nursing curriculum taking up most of the remainder. BSN students have strong preparation in science, including organic chemistry, microbiology, and physiology courses. A bachelor’s degree program not only readies students for hospital practice but also graduate study in their profession, and positions in leadership, research, and education. Students graduating with a BSN are eligible to take the RN-NCLEX and qualify as registered nurses.

Your nursing curriculum will likely include:

Acute and chronic care (2+ semesters, with clinical practicum)

Students acquire techniques and practice nursing skills in a variety of clinic and hospital settings.

Human growth and lifespan development

Students learn about the biological processes and physical/psychological changes that differentiate stages in human development.

Child and family health

Pediatric care is presented in context of whole-family health.

Psychiatric/mental health nursing

A theoretical and practical introduction to mental health nursing, giving students opportunities to develop clinical skill.

If you have a bachelor’s or higher degree in a different field, you may be qualified for an accelerated BSN (ABSN) degree program. ABSN programs tend to have high admissions standards, so your eligibility will depend on your undergraduate preparation in science and math, and your previous GPA.

ADVANCED DEGREE

2 years, MSN, full-time; 2.5-3 years, DNP, full-time

If you’ve practiced as a perioperative RN for two or more years, and you’re committed to pursuing surgical nursing in the long term, then you may decide that you also want a more active or supervisory role in the surgical setting. This could mean studying to become a nurse anesthetist, or an acute-care nurse practitioner with adult or pediatric population specialty.

If the perioperative clinical nurse specialist role appeal to you, with its supervisory and patient-centered emphasis, then it’s smart to find a graduate program that incorporates the courses you need to prepare for the CNS-CP certification; if you study to become a nurse practitioner, you should have no trouble meeting the requirements for the CNS certification.

If you are more interested in directly assisting in surgery as an RNFA, then you don’t need to become an advanced practice nurse, but there may be advantages to doing so in terms of your career mobility and leadership potential.

All APRNs with an acute-care focus can expect to take courses that include:

Advanced pharmacology

Students delve deeply into mechanisms of action of different types of pharmaceuticals.

Advanced pathophysiology

A course that scrutinizes the biological processes that cause symptoms and progress of disease.

Leadership for health professionals

Communication and decision-making techniques that prepare the APRN to guide a team of professionals.

Advanced health assessment

Students take their physical examination and diagnostic skills to new levels.

Keys to Success as a Surgical Nurse

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Empathetic

At all professional levels, a successful surgical nurse possesses empathy for patients, especially when it comes to pain management. Nearly all patients experience some pain or discomfort after surgery, and a nurse must monitor patients carefully to create and manage an effective pain control regimen.

Critical thinker

Skilled surgical nurses have the ability to think critically.

Detail-oriented

They are highly observant of subtle changes in patients’ behaviors or symptoms, which help them to detect surgical complications like bleeding or infection.

Strong communicator

Excellent communication skills are essential, as nurses are often the primary caregivers for surgical patients and they must communicate with fellow healthcare team members as well as the patients and their families.

Advanced Certification and Professional Development

  • Licensed RNs who have practiced as perioperative nurses for at least two years can obtain their specialist perioperative certification through CCI
  • Certification for perioperative clinical nurse specialists and RNFAs is also offered by CCI
  • The Association of periOperative Registered Nurses maintains an information-packed website, including conference, webinar, exam-preparation and continuing education links for nurses working in surgical settings
Meg Brannagan, RN, BSN

Meg Brannagan is a registered nurse with over fifteen years of experience working in clinical care, including pediatrics, obstetrics, and general surgery. She has spent a significant amount of time working as a neonatal nurse in a Level III NICU, and has served the needs of ill and premature infants and their families through bedside nursing care and neonatal transport. Meg spent the last several years working to meet the needs of medically fragile infants and young children.

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