Guide to Becoming a Surgical Nurse


Reviewed By Meg Brannagan, RN, BSN
Surgical nurse assisting the surgeon 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. Because nursing professionals at practically any level are able to provide care for surgical patients, their day-to-day duties often vary according to their levels of expertise.

  • A licensed practical nurse (LPN) may handle pre-operative and post-operative care, including taking vital signs, assisting patients with bathing and dressing, and assisting with documentation and procedures.
  • A registered nurse (RN) or advanced practice nurse assists the surgical team in the operating room and coordinates all room activity. The RN may also provide bedside care in the recovery room.

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.

Work Environment

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.



The educational requirements for a surgical nurse vary according to the professional level of the nursing candidate.

Becoming a licensed practical nurse (LPN) requires completion of a twelve-month diploma or certificate program, which is available at some community colleges, vocational high schools, and health career academies. The LPN curriculum includes essential topics such as anatomy, physiology, and human growth and development, as well as nursing skills practice and training in real-world clinical settings under an instructor's supervision.

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.

To become an advanced practice nurse, a student 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.


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.

Licensing and/or Certification

All practicing nurses must hold a valid state license. This license is obtained 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.

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).

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.

Necessary Skills and Qualities

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.

Skilled surgical nurses have the ability to think critically. They are highly observant of subtle changes in patients' behaviors or symptoms, which help them to detect surgical complications like bleeding or infection. 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.

Opportunities for Advancement

There is considerable room for advancement in the world of surgical nursing. Licensed practical nurses with surgical roles can advance academically to become RNs through such offerings as LPN-to-RN bridge programs, which are available through community colleges and four-year universities.

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.

If you would like to gain the necessary education to become a surgical nurse, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.


The annual wage range for LPNs reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics was $31,640 to $58,710 in 2014. That same year, eighty percent of RNs earned between $45,880 and $98,880. As a general rule, nurses with bachelor's or master's degrees earn higher salaries, and those who work in major cities usually make more than nurses in rural areas.

Job Outlook

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 2012 and 2022, opportunities for LPNs and RNs are projected to grow substantially – by 25 percent and 19 percent, respectively, 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 proportionately.

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Also, check out our Health Careers page for more career guides.

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