Allied Health
April 1, 2024

Become a Surgical Tech: Steps, Salary & Career Growth

A step-by-step guide to forging a career as a surgical technologist — a vital role in the heart of the operating room.

Checkmark ShieldReviewed by Jennifer Trimbee, RN

Become a Surgical Tech: Steps, Salary & Career Growth

Surgeries—both big and small—can be life or death. Although surgeons perform surgeries, their entire health care team is crucial to ensuring a successful outcome and the well-being of patients. The primary objective of a surgical technologist is to prepare everything in the operating room for surgeons.

In this career guide, we'll discuss how to become a surgical technologist to help you pursue your goals in the right direction.

What Is a Surgical Technologist?

Surgical technicians, also known as surgical techs, ensure everything goes smoothly in the OR (Operating Room). They prepare the OR for surgery, help the healthcare team and surgeons during the operation, and clean the room afterward.

Surgical technologists need to learn human anatomy, the principles of surgical procedures, and the rules and application of sterile techniques. They work as a surgeon's right hand and help them perform surgery without hiccups and hurdles.

How to Become a Surgical Technologist?

First, you'll need to earn a GED or high school diploma, as it's compulsory for most surgical technologist programs. Opting for demanding science courses such as anatomy and biology in your high school would be best. It'll allow you to prepare for your surgical technologist course.

Once you have your high school diploma, you can use the following steps to become a surgical technologist.

1. Apply to a Surgical Technologist Certificate, Diploma or Degree Program

To enter the profession, surgical techs typically need a diploma or certificate from a surgical technology program. According to surgical technologists polled by O*Net, 41% of respondents said that an associate's degree was required to work as a surgical technologist, and 23% claimed that a post-secondary certificate was sufficient. Some states regulate surgical techs, but most don't. Surgical technologists typically need a certificate or an associate's degree. Certification can be beneficial in finding a job. A small number of states regulate surgical technologists.

Accreditation of the Surgical Technology Program

Remember that not all surgical technology programs and associate degree courses are accredited by a reputable and recognized agency.

It would be best to look for a program accredited by ABHES (Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools) or CAAHEP (Allied Health Education Programs). You can visit the ABHES or CAAHEP online directories for accredited surgical tech programs.

2. Get Certified (If necessary)

The next step in your journey to becoming a surgical technologist is to get certified. Although many states do not regulate the certification, it'll make your resume stand out and reflect your dedication and commitment.

So, getting a surgical technologist certification will make it easier for you to find a job. You can prepare for your certification exam through NCCT (National Center for Competency Testing) or NBSTSA (National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting).

3. Find a Job

Once you have completed your education as a surgical technologist, you can begin your job search. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, hospitals are the largest employers of surgical techs. They employ 71 percent of surgical technologists. 

4. Advance Your Career

There are two main paths for advancing your career as a surgical technologist. The first is to pursue further specialization, such as neuro, open heart or vascular. The other is to increase responsibilities in the operating room. 

  • First Assistant: As the first assistant, you are the primary surgical tech in the operating room and often perform more advanced duties.
  • Central Supply Supervisor: As a central supply supervisor, you are responsible for managing and sterilizing everything in the operating room

Pursuing either path requires additional training or experience but will also result in increased pay and responsibilities. 

How to Become Certified?

As mentioned above, you can become a certified surgical technologist through NCCT or NBSTSA.

National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT) Certification

Students and recent graduates of accredited surgical technologist programs must meet specific criteria to obtain the NCCT’s surgical technologist certification, the TS-C. Before receiving the TS-C, prospective certified surgical technologists must submit a diploma, transcript, skills competency form signed by a patient care supervisor and pass the NCCT certification exam.

The NCCT also allows those with existing experience as a surgical technologist and those who have completed surgical technology training through the military to apply for the TS-C. NBSTSA (National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting) Certification

Surgical techs must also complete an accredited associate degree program to qualify for the NBSTSA certification. You must mail your documents and the application form to the NBSTSA. After six weeks, you'll receive the ATT (Authorization to Test) from the organization.

However, you can opt for emergency processing by paying an additional fee to receive the ATT letter within three to five working days. Then, you'll need to appear in the exam and pass it to get your certification.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Surgical Tech?

Like most associate's degrees, an associate surgical technology program is typically based on 64 to 66 credits. For most programs, this will take two years if you enroll full-time. 

Remember that all surgical tech degrees have mandatory classroom instruction. Some courses, such as dermatology and pediatric surgical technologist programs, also involve specialized training.

Who Is Suitable for the Role of a Surgical Technologist?

A suitable candidate for the surgical technologist role is someone prepared to collaborate closely with a surgical team, playing a crucial part in medical procedures. Individuals looking to enter a professional field quickly may find this career path appealing.

Critical competencies for this role include attention to detail, which is necessary for preparing the operating room and equipment, as well as teamwork, active listening, focus, and problem sensitivity.

What Does a Surgical Tech Actually Do?

Surgical first assistants or surgical technologists work closely with a surgical team and perform the following duties.

  • Sterilize surgical tools and prepare the operating room for surgery.
  • Prepare patients for their surgeries by disinfecting and washing incision spots.
  • Select the proper surgical equipment for the surgery.
  • Help surgeons during the surgery by providing them with surgical instruments and supplies to carry out operations seamlessly.
  • Hold medical equipment or internal organs during the surgery if needed.
  • Count the number of instruments after surgery.
  • Make sure that no surgical item is retained in patients.
  • Minimize the risk of infection by keeping the environment clean.
  • Apply dressings and bandages to help patients recover.

What Is the Difference Between a Surgical Technologist and a Surgical Technician?

Some people use the terms Surgical Technologist and Surgical Technician interchangeably. While there are some similarities between these two roles, they're different.

Surgical Technologist

Surgical technologists have more education and are more involved with the surgical team and patients than surgical technicians. They prepare the operating room, aid surgeons during the surgical procedure, and monitor patients' health before, after, and during the surgery.

Surgical Technician

On the other hand, a surgical technician is a person who usually has on-the-job training and experience and needs to provide emotional support to patients. A surgical technician also transfers patients to the operating room before surgery and takes them to the recovery room after the operation. They're also responsible for the operating room's cleanliness and usually report to surgical technologists or nurses.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Being a Surgical Technologist?

The following are the pros and cons of being a surgical technologist.


  • The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the field of surgical technology will grow by 9 percent from 2020 to 2030.
  • It allows people to enter the field quickly as the surgical technology course can be completed within 12 to 24 months
  • According to ONET Online, the average annual salary of a surgical technologist is $48,530 ($23.33 per hour).
  • The role of a surgical technologist allows you to contribute daily by assisting in medical procedures, which can lead to high job satisfaction.


  • The surgical tech role is demanding and exhausting at times—you need to stay on your feet during your entire shift.
  • You may need to be on call for nights, weekends and holidays.
  • You must work with sharp tools like needles and blades and hazardous materials like bodily fluids and blood.
  • You won't have room to make mistakes. The surgical procedures are highly critical and require you to be extra careful while preparing the operating room, which can be stressful.

Final Words

While becoming a surgical technologist isn't as time-consuming as other specialized medical professions, it requires dedication and hard work. If you want to enter the field quickly and have a passion for helping save human lives, a career as a surgical technologist may be the right path for you.

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