How to Become a Surgical Technologist

11 Min Read Published April 11, 2024
How to become a surgical tech

Surgical technologists, commonly referred to as operating room technicians, surgical techs, or scrub techs, assist surgeons and the remainder of the healthcare team before, during, and after a surgical procedure.  If you're wondering how to become a surgical tech, we'll explain what a surgical tech does, how to become one, how much they make, and more.

According to U.S. News and World Report, surgical techs are ranked the 17th highest paying job without a degree and the 27th best health care support job. Surgical tech programs take just 12-24 months to complete and can also be an excellent entry point into another healthcare career, such as a registered nurse or physician assistant. Read on to find out all the steps to become a surgical tech.

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What Is a Surgical Tech?

A surgical technologist’s primary duty is to assist physicians with operations. They prepare operating rooms, arrange equipment, and help doctors during surgeries. 

Skills Required for Surgical Technologists

In order to be a good surgical tech, you must be highly organized, proactive, conscientious, and stable enough to handle the fast-paced environment of the operating room.

Surgical techs must be able to anticipate the next move of the surgeon to ensure the operation goes as smoothly and efficiently as possible.

This demands extensive knowledge of hundreds of different surgical procedures and the steps and equipment needed to complete them. This can be a very stressful position. 

Surgical Tech Specialties

Although many surgical techs are generalists, you can choose to specialize in specific types of surgeries, including:

  1. Obstetrics and gynecology (OB/GYN)
  2. Cardiovascular
  3. Orthopedic
  4. Neurology
  5. Reconstructive
  6. Urology
  7. Ear/nose/throat (ENT) 

Specializing typically requires additional training, but allows the technologist to broaden skills in techniques such as microsurgery, organ transplantation, and surgical robotics. 

How do you get specialized? Oftentimes there are in-hospital courses, on-the-job training, or national training programs for learning advanced skills. 

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Enrollment: Nationwide except UT

What Does a Surgical Technologist Do?

Surgical techs have a variety of duties before, during, and after surgical procedures. The primary responsibility of a surgical tech is to ensure the operating room and surgical instruments are sterile, and ensuring the surgeons have all the instruments and materials they will need for the procedure.  

Other main responsibilities include:

  1. Applying dressings to surgical sites
  2. Assisting in retracting tissues from the surgical patient
  3. Assisting other members of the team with terminal cleaning of the operating room
  4. Coordinating the camera or changes out robotic arms/instruments during endoscopic surgery as directed by the surgeon
  5. Helping surgeons during surgery by passing them instruments and other sterile supplies
  6. Helping to prepare the patient for surgery
  7. Participating in debriefing and quality improvement practices to ensure quality patient care
  8. Performing urinary catheterization
  9. Preparing operating rooms for surgery
  10. Sterilizing equipment 
  11. Transporting the patient to and from the operating room

How To Become a Surgical Technologist

How long does it take to become a surgical tech? Here are the four steps to become a surgical tech, starting with high school and ending in graduation.

Step 1: Graduate high school or earn a GED

High school students who want to become surgical techs should take courses in biology, anatomy, and hard sciences in order to prepare for advanced science courses. Gaining an internship at a local healthcare system is also helpful to gain general experience in a healthcare environment. 

Step 2: Enroll in an accredited surgical tech program

Surgical tech programs are typically 12-24 months and are often offered at community or technical colleges.

When choosing programs, students are advised to verify that their program is accredited by either the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). Graduates from schools without proper accreditation may not be eligible for certification exams.

Step 3: Gain hands-on training experience

The steps to become a surgical tech will always include hands-on experience -- this is one of the best ways to learn the necessary skills. Hands-on experience can be achieved through job shadowing and internships to earn more hours with patients or in the operating room. The more time you spend working on surgical tech skills, the more comfortable you'll feel once it's time for graduation and applying to jobs.

Step 4: Earn your certification and apply for individual state licensure

Each state has its own licensure requirements for surgical techs. It is important to check the state licensing website prior to applying. Graduates will have to take one of the national certification exams through the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting. There are two main certification exam options for surgical techs. 

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CST Certification

The National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA) provides those who pass an examination with the credential of Certified Surgical Technologist (CST).

Exam Eligibility Requirements

  • Program must have been CAAHEP or ABHES accredited during your enrollment.
  • Provide ONE of the following documents:
    • A notarized letter (on institutional letterhead) from the Program Director stating your name, date of graduation, and type of degree awarded.
    • A copy of your graduation certificate
    • Transcript 

NCCT Certification

The National Center for Competency Testing offers eligible individuals the Tech in Surgery – Certified TS-C (NCCT) certification. There are three paths for eligibility: current student/graduate, experience, and military. The most common routes to certification are as a current student or graduate and through experience. The exam fee is $199.

Exam Eligibility Requirements

  • Current Student/Graduate
    • United States high school student, graduate or GED
    • You must submit a copy of your diploma from your surgical technologist program, certificate of completion, or transcript with graduation date
    • You must complete and submit a Tech in Surgery - Certified (NCCT) Critical Skills Competency form. Candidates are allowed a maximum of two (2) years from the test date for completion of case documentation. 
    • These documents are not required to take the exam but your certification will not be released until they are received.
  • Experience
    • Three years of verifiable full-time experience as a Surgical Technology practitioner within the past five years
    • United States high school student, graduate or GED
    • You must submit a copy of your high school diploma (or equivalent) and the Tech in Surgery - Certified (NCCT) Qualification by Experience form completed by your employer
    • Three years of full-time employment or equivalent (6240 hours) in the past five years working as a surgical technologist under the direct supervision of a Certified/Licensed Physician, Primary Care Provider, and/or RN
    • Note: Working as an instructor is not equivalent to working as a practitioner.

Surgical Tech Salary

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median surgical tech salary in 2022 was $55,960 per year or $26.91 per hour, with salary ranges from $38,860 to $78,560, but conditions in your area may vary. 

Highest Paying States for Surgical Techs

The BLS reports that in May 2022, the highest-paying states for surgical techs were:

  1. Alaska - $73,960
  2. California - $72,860
  3. Connecticut - $71,430
  4. Nevada - $69,300
  5. Washington - $66,590

Highest Paying Cities for Surgical Techs

The BLS also reported that the top five metropolitan cities for surgical tech pay were:

  1. San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA - $87,200
  2. Vallejo-Fairfield, CA - $85,91
  3. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA - $85,030
  4. Napa, CA - $82,840
  5. Santa Rosa, CA - $82,140

Surgical Technologist Salary by Years of Experience

According to Payscale.com, the average salary for a surgical tech as of August 2021 is $23.98 per hour or $52,246 per year.

Specifically, surgical techs can earn a higher annual salary with increased years of experience.

  1. Less than 1 year of experience earn an average hourly wage of $20.22
  2. 1-4 years of experience earn an average hourly wage of $21.58
  3. 5-9 years of experience earn an average hourly wage of $23.93
  4. 10-19 years of experience earn an average hourly wage of $25.83
  5. 20 years and higher years of experience earn an average hourly wage of $27.97

Where Do Surgical Techs Work?

Surgical Technologists generally work in locations that have operating rooms or perform surgical procedures. Most commonly this is hospitals but surgical techs also work in the following locations: 

  1. Ambulatory care centers
  2. Clinics
  3. Dental offices
  4. Outpatient care centers
  5. Private physician offices
  6. Surgical centers

Popular Online Healthcare Programs

Sponsored
The University of Scranton

The University of Scranton offers multiple online degrees in the growing healthcare industry. The comprehensive coursework is based on real-world scenarios and is equally rigorous and rewarding. The return on investment will be as big as the change you can make in a variety of healthcare leadership roles!

Accreditation
Multiple
Location
Online

Enrollment: Nationwide

SNHU

A private, nonprofit, accredited institution with more than 3,000 on campus students, over 130,000 online learners and an alumni network of over 100,000. SNHU offers BSN, MSN, and Accelerated MSN Programs developed by doctoral-prepared nursing faculty.

Accreditation
NECHE
Location
Online

Enrollment: Nationwide, excluding WA

Liberty University

At Liberty, you’ll benefit from 30+ years of learning, growing, adapting, and innovating for the distance learner — and more than a decade of researching the needs of the online student. You can be confident that we’ve taken the time to learn what’s important to you.

Accreditation
SACSCOC
Location
Online

Enrollment: Nationwide

Ultimate Medical Academy

Ultimate Medical Academy is a nonprofit allied health school committed to helping students succeed in healthcare careers for the past 26 years. That’s why we offer students a connected support system from the start of their education to beyond graduation. 

Accreditation
ABHES
Location
Online

Enrollment: Nationwide except UT

What is the Career Outlook for Surgical Techs?

According to the BLS, in 2022, there were 109,200 surgical techs in the United States. By 2032, there will be a need for an additional 5,900 techs, which is an expected growth of 5%.

With the aging baby boomer population and the increase in advanced technology, knowledgeable surgical technologists are highly desirable. While most patients would prefer to avoid surgery, ultimately, surgery can improve quality of life, and surgical techs are needed. Each operating room requires a minimum of one surgical tech per surgical procedure. 

Interestingly, many surgical techs go on to become registered nurses, physician assistants, anesthesia assistants, and/or surgical first assistants. 

What are the Continuing Education Requirements for Surgical Technologists?

As with most healthcare careers, surgical techs are required to maintain their certification through a fee and continuing education hours.

Certified Surgical Technologists are required to meet a minimum of 30 CE credits in two years. Specific requirements include the following: 

  • 30 CE credits, including 4 advanced credits, prior to the two-year cycle expires
  • 60 CE credits before the four-year cycle expire 

CE credits can be earned in a variety of ways, including: 

  • AST Distance CE (journal tests or CE packages)
  • Hospital In-services
  • Live lectures at AST state assemblies, national conferences, and ACS Congress
  • College Courses  
  • Healthcare Manufacturer's Live Events. 

Each state also has specific CE credit requirements. Check your state licensing board for specifics. Hours earned can be applied for both state licensure and national certification.

Resources for Surgical Techs

Surgical Tech FAQs

  • How long does it take to become a surgical tech?

    • Most surgical tech programs take 12 to 24 months to complete. These programs are generally through a community college and should be accredited by a proper agency, such as the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES).
  • How much does a certified surgical technologist make an hour?

  • What does a surgical technologist do?

    • Surgical technologists ensure the operating room and surgical instruments are sterile and that the surgeons have all the instruments and materials they will need for the procedure.  
  • Is a surgical tech a good job?

    • Becoming a surgical tech is a stable and exciting career and is considered a good job. There is ample opportunity for career growth. One of the best benefits of getting into a healthcare career is that there will always be growth and room for advancement. 
  • Do surgical techs make more than nurses?

    • No surgical techs do not make more than a registered nurse. In 2022, the BLS reported an average annual salary for surgical techs of $57,500, while registered nurses earned $81,220.
  • Can you be a surgical tech without certification?

    • Yes; however, most employers are seeking surgical techs that have completed a national certification program. This certification exam is important, and it is open to anyone who has already earned an ABHES or CAAHEP-accredited degree.
Kathleen Gaines
MSN, RN, BA, CBC
Kathleen Gaines
News and Education Editor

Kathleen Gaines (nee Colduvell) is a nationally published writer turned Pediatric ICU nurse from Philadelphia with over 13 years of ICU experience. She has an extensive ICU background having formerly worked in the CICU and NICU at several major hospitals in the Philadelphia region. After earning her MSN in Education from Loyola University of New Orleans, she currently also teaches for several prominent Universities making sure the next generation is ready for the bedside. As a certified breastfeeding counselor and trauma certified nurse, she is always ready for the next nursing challenge.

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