How to Become a Surgical Nurse

16 Min Read Published March 29, 2024

Surgical nurses care for patients before, during, and after surgical procedures. From the classroom to the operating room, this article discusses how to become a surgical nurse and what to expect from this career.

Surgical Nurse Career Guide

What is a Surgical Nurse?

A surgical nurse is specially trained in pre-, intra-, and post-operative care. Also called perioperative or operating room (OR) nurses, surgical RNs provide intraoperative support to the surgical team, pre- and post-op patient care, and education about surgical expectations and recovery. 

Surgical Nurse Fast Facts

Annual Salary

$117,052

Career Outlook

6% Growth 2022-2032

Program Length

2-8 Months


Popular Online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Programs

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GCU's College of Nursing and Health Care Professions has a nearly 35-year tradition of preparing students to fill evolving healthcare roles as highly qualified professionals. GCU offers a full spectrum of nursing degrees, from a pre-licensure BSN degree to a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program.

Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
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RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide

Western Governors University

WGU's award-winning online programs are created to help you succeed while graduating faster and with less debt. WGU is a CCNE accredited, nonprofit university offering nursing bachelor's and master's degrees.

Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide

Georgetown University
Nursing@Georgetown delivers Georgetown University’s MS in Nursing program online, preparing RNs with a BSN to pursue certification in an APRN specialty. Students can earn their degree in as few as 19 months.
Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide, excluding NY and 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
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide

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Surgical Nurse Roles & Responsibilities

What does a surgical nurse do? The answer largely depends on their role. Like most RNs, perioperative nurses select subspecialties. Surgical nursing specialties include:

  • Neurosurgery

  • Cardiology

  • Trauma

  • Pediatrics
  • Oncology

  • General Surgery

  • Urology

  • Ophthalmology
  • Ear/nose/throat

  • Dental

  • Orthopedics

  • Plastic/reconstructive

Perioperative nurses can assist with all aspects of surgery. The following is a non-exhaustive list of surgical nurse roles and the duties they perform:

Scrub nurses are a surgeon's right hand, anticipating surgical needs, passing equipment, and accounting for tools. They are essential to ensure the proper flow of a procedure and maintain a sterile environment.

In most hospitals, all surgical nurses know the scrub nursing role and rotate through it during procedures. However, some hospitals assign this role to specific nurses. In these cases, the scrub nurse does not perform other duties in the OR.

Some responsibilities scrub nurses perform include:

  • Performing surgical scrub on the patient prior to the procedure
  • Setting up the OR
  • Sterilizing and accounting for all surgical tools
  • Scrubbing in during procedures
  • Passing tools to the surgeon during the procedure
  • Counting equipment, including sponges pre and post-procedure
  • Communicating with the surgical team

In teaching hospitals, scrub nurse duties are often performed by surgical residents or fellows instead.

Circulating nurses work outside the sterile field and manage activities in the operating room. They inspect surgical equipment, ensure that consent forms are signed, review pre-op assessments with the patient, and perform many other tasks.
PACU nurses care for patients immediately after surgery and anesthesia, monitoring them closely as they stabilize and preparing them to be transferred to the medical-surgical or intensive care unit as appropriate.
OR directors assume the business functions of running an OR. This includes managing budgets, staffing, and ordering equipment and supplies. This position can also prepare you for roles in management consulting, clinical nurse education, or work in medical technology and supply companies.
Medical-surgical nurses care for patients recovering from surgery. They provide close monitoring immediately post-PACU and critical care and apply a range of technical and assessment skills to ensure patient safety and recovery (fluid and medication administration, monitoring for signs of bleeding and infection, wound care, and many others). They also provide post-op education for patients and caregivers.
RNFAs work with the surgeon to help with controlling bleeding, suturing,  watching for signs of complications, applying dressings and bandages, and carrying out many other functions. Additional education and training are required before becoming an RNFA.


>> Related:
Top 10 RNFA Programs

Where Do Surgical Nurses Work?

Since surgical nurses can work in several roles, they also get to experience diverse work environments. Some settings you'll work in as a surgical nurse include the following:

  1. Inpatient and ambulatory operating rooms at hospitals
  2. Hospital recovery units
  3. Hospital medical-surgical care units
  4. Ambulatory surgery centers or day surgery centers
  5. Clinics
  6. Physician offices

Surgical Nurse Salary

The average annual surgical nurse salary is $117,052 or $56 per hour, according to reports from ZipRecruiter. Similarly, Indeed reports that med-surg nurses earn about $111,713, based on over 400K reported salaries.

Surgical nurse salaries far exceed the national median RN salary of $81,220 per year, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

>> Related: OR Nurse Salary

Highest Paying States for Surgical Nurses

  • New York: $129,863 per year | $62.43 per hour

  • Vermont: $127,628 per year | $61.36 per hour

  • California: $125,351 per year | $60.27 per hour

  • Maine: $121,731 per year | $58.52 per hour

  • Idaho: $120,425 per year | $57.90 per hour

Source: ZipRecruiter

Highest Paying Cities for Surgical Nurses

  • Sitka, AK: $150,368 per year | $72.29 per hour

  • Santa Clara, CA: $149,181 per year | $71.72 per hour

  • Burlingame, CA: $144,544 per year | $69.49 per hour

  • Mountain View, CA: $144,204 per year | $69.33 per hour

  • San Francisco, CA: $142,480 per year | $68.50 per hour

Source: ZipRecruiter

Popular Online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Programs

Sponsored
Grand Canyon University

GCU's College of Nursing and Health Care Professions has a nearly 35-year tradition of preparing students to fill evolving healthcare roles as highly qualified professionals. GCU offers a full spectrum of nursing degrees, from a pre-licensure BSN degree to a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program.

Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide

Western Governors University

WGU's award-winning online programs are created to help you succeed while graduating faster and with less debt. WGU is a CCNE accredited, nonprofit university offering nursing bachelor's and master's degrees.

Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide

Georgetown University
Nursing@Georgetown delivers Georgetown University’s MS in Nursing program online, preparing RNs with a BSN to pursue certification in an APRN specialty. Students can earn their degree in as few as 19 months.
Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide, excluding NY and 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
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide

How to Become a Surgical Nurse

Your path to becoming a surgical nurse begins with attending nursing school to become an RN. You'll then earn experience, training, and credentials that will propel you into your desired perioperative role.

The following steps describe how to become a surgical nurse in more detail:

1. Attend an Accredited Nursing Program

To become an RN, you'll need an Associate's Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) from an accredited college or university. While several hospitals hire ADN nurses, most prefer those with a BSN. You'll also be more prepared and qualified for surgical nursing positions if you pursue a bachelor's first.

2. Pass the NCLEX-RN

After earning your degree, you can take the National Council Licensure Examination for RNs (NCLEX-RN). Passing this nationwide exam will qualify you for registered nursing licensure.

3. Earn Experience & Training

In most cases, you won't immediately enter a surgical role after becoming an RN. Many hospitals and surgical centers require at least one year of relevant experience before accepting nurses into perioperative training. 

You can also attend a surgical nursing program to prepare you for this role. A popular program from the Association of periOperative Registered Nurses (AORN) is "Periop101: a Core Curriculum," which includes coursework in anesthesia, surgical draping, and patient and equipment safety.

Experience and education will make you an excellent candidate for new surgical nurse training opportunities in your workplace.

4. Get Certified

Once you have experience in perioperative nursing, you can advance your knowledge and salary potential with certifications. The Competency and Credentialing Institute (CCI) offers three perioperative nursing certifications: CNOR, CFPN, and CNAMB. Additionally, med-surg nurses may pursue the CMSRN certification.

>> Show Me Online Nursing Programs

CNOR

CNOR refers to the Certified Perioperative Nurse certification offered by CCI. As the only accredited certification for perioperative nurses, earning this credential demonstrates your surgical nursing skills and knowledge. Surgical nurses with two years of perioperative experience can take this exam.

CFPN

CCI also offers the Certified Foundational Perioperative Nurse (CFPN) credential for surgical nurses with less than two years of experience. This early career credential lasts just two years and has no options for renewal. Its purpose is to provide a foundation for surgical nurses to pursue career-long professional development. 

CNAMB

The CCI designed its Certified Ambulatory Surgery Nurse (CNAMB) credential for perioperative nurses who work in ambulatory surgery settings. Ambulatory surgery has unique challenges that require specialized knowledge, skills, and competencies, which the CNAMB certification validates. Surgical nurses with two years of relevant experience who work in ambulatory surgery settings are eligible for this exam.

CMSRN (Medical-surgical Nursing)

Nurses with a passion for post-op care and teaching may wish to confirm their expertise with certification as a Certified Medical-Surgical Registered Nurse (CMSRN). Available through the Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses, the exam requires an active RN license, two years of med-surg experience, and at least 2,000 applicable practice hours in the past three years.

>> Show Me Online Nursing Programs

What are the Best Surgical Nurse Programs?

It can take three to five years to become a surgical nurse, and that timeline largely depends on your education. Nurses with an ADN enter the workforce in two years, while BSN-RNs have four years of schooling. 

You may also choose to enhance your skills and expertise by attending a surgical nursing program at an accredited nursing school. These programs last two to eight months and prepare you for perioperative nursing roles.

Methodology

Our nurse panel used Nurse.org's proprietary ranking methodology to find the top ten surgical nursing programs. We based this list on several factors, which include:

  • Reputation

  • Tuition

  • Accreditation
  • Acceptance rate

  • NCLEX pass rate

  • Student-to-faculty ratio

Nurse Panel

Our selection panel is made up of 3 Registered Nurses with years of experience and multiple degrees:

  • Tracy Everhart, MSN, RN, CNS
  • Tyler Faust, MSN, RN
  • Kathleen Gaines, MSN, RN, BA, CBC

Because individual nursing pathways and careers take various forms, we've ranked the top 10 surgical nurse programs in no particular order. 

1. California State University Northridge

  •  Program Cost: $6,826
  • Online: Hybrid
  • Program Length: 8 Weeks

The Tseng College of Graduate, International, and Midcareer Education at CSUN offers a non-credit professional development certificate in perioperative nursing. CSUN's program prepares students for perioperative nursing care during each phase of surgery. The 8-week course includes didactic learning, simulation labs, and clinical experiences and culminates in a certificate of completion.

2. University of Massachusetts Medical School

  • Program Cost: $3,000
  • Online: Hybrid
  • Program Length: 15 weeks

Created for RNs who already completed their BSN, the University of Massachusetts Medical School's perioperative nursing training course follows AORN standards and includes a free one-year membership to AORN. The hybrid program uses online modules but requires some in-person training at the university's campus in Worcester. UMass Medical School offers the program over the course of a semester, so full-time nurses don't have to commit much time each week. 

3. Molloy College

  • Program Cost: $3,995
  • Online: Hybrid
  • Program Length: 2 months

Based in Rockville Centre in Long Island, New York, Molloy College offers operating room training for current RNs. The program follows the AORN's guidelines for periop-101 and prepares nurses for surgical nursing careers in New York. Molloy College offers the programs four times a year, and students complete courses during the week either at the Rockville Centre or Suffolk Center campus, along with clinicals during the weekend. Nurses can complete most of the coursework entirely online, too. The program lasts just a few months, and while the tuition is steep, the costs include everything from training to required textbooks. 

4. Rutgers University 

  • Program Cost: $2,975 - $3,500
  • Online: No
  • Program Length: 10 weeks

Rutgers School of Nursing offers a 10-week operating nurse program at its Blackwood, New Jersey, site. The program uses a 10-week in-person immersion program and a cohort system. Rutgers follows AORN guidelines for the program, and students finish with 120 surgical nursing contact hours. Rutgers School of Nursing alumni, students, faculty, and preceptors can secure a reduced tuition rate. 

5. University of New Mexico

  • Program Cost: $980
  • Online: No
  • Program Length: 21-28 weeks

Through its hospital system, UNM offers a perioperative training program designed specifically for RNs looking to begin careers as surgical nurses. The program takes 21-28 weeks to complete, and students commit to a 3-year contract with a sign-on bonus to work as a surgical nurse at a UNM hospital. This option is perfect for any nurses currently located in or looking to move to New Mexico.

6. Bellarmine University

  • Program Cost: $399
  • Online: No
  • Program Length: 8 weeks

Nurses in Bellarmine University's surgical nursing program benefit from the location and enjoy the clinical experience at top hospitals in the area. The perioperative certificate only accepts 20 students each term, which lasts only eight weeks. Nurses must commit to four hours of classroom study and four clinical hours each week of the program.

7. Curry College

  • Program Cost: $3,995
  • Online: Hybrid
  • Program Length: 6 months

Curry College, located in Milton, Massachusetts, offers a non-credit perioperative 101 program to prepare nurses for AORN certification. The program utilizes online courses and learning activities, though nurses gain in-person clinical experience. Curry College estimates that most students graduate within six months, but many certificate students take up to one year to complete the six required credits.

8. Sinclair Community College

  • Tuition: Resident - $584 | Nonresident - $1,398
  • Online: Yes
  • Program Length: 3 months

Dayton, Ohio-based Sinclair Community College offers quality programs at an incredibly low cost. Those interested in surgical nursing enroll in the short-term perioperative nursing technical certificate, a three-month program that prepares nurses to join AORN and eventually sit for the CNOR exam. The course requires just four credits, though students must complete it over the course of a semester. Any nurses currently working in Ohio should definitely consider this low-cost program. 

9. Dallas College

  • Program Cost: Resident - $1,185 | Nonresident - $2,025
  • Online: No
  • Program Length: 2 semesters

RNs looking to transition into surgical nursing can complete Dallas College's perioperative nursing enhanced skills certificate. Offered at the El Centro Campus, applicants must have at least an associate degree and an active Texas RN license. The program takes two semesters to complete but includes 15 credit hours of nursing experience, perfect for anyone looking for a long-term career in surgical nursing. 

10. Delaware County Community College

  • Program Cost: Resident - $1,272 to $2,160 | Nonresident - $2,928 to $3,198
  • Online: No
  • Program Length: 3 months

Available at DCCC's campus in Marple Township, the perioperative nursing certificate program prepares current Pennsylvania nurses for careers in surgical nursing. The certificate consists of six credits completed over three months, and students earn at least 90 clinical hours at hospitals in the area before graduating. Pennsylvania residents can take advantage of the incredibly low in-state tuition costs. 

Popular Online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Programs

Sponsored
Grand Canyon University

GCU's College of Nursing and Health Care Professions has a nearly 35-year tradition of preparing students to fill evolving healthcare roles as highly qualified professionals. GCU offers a full spectrum of nursing degrees, from a pre-licensure BSN degree to a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program.

Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide

Western Governors University

WGU's award-winning online programs are created to help you succeed while graduating faster and with less debt. WGU is a CCNE accredited, nonprofit university offering nursing bachelor's and master's degrees.

Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide

Georgetown University
Nursing@Georgetown delivers Georgetown University’s MS in Nursing program online, preparing RNs with a BSN to pursue certification in an APRN specialty. Students can earn their degree in as few as 19 months.
Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide, excluding NY and 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
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide

Continuing Education Requirements for Surgical Nurses

Every nurse will complete continuing education units (CEUs) to maintain their RN license. Individual CEU requirements vary by state, and some do not require any CEUs for renewal. To learn more about your state's standards, read our guide to nurse continuing education requirements.

You may also need to complete CEUs to maintain your certifications:

  • CNOR RenewalEvery five years, you must complete at least 500 perioperative nursing hours, 250 of which must be in education, administration, research, or intraoperative clinical practice.

  • CNAMB Renewal: Every three years, you must complete 500 hours of ambulatory surgical nursing practice per year, a total of 1500 work hours per renewal period.

  • CMSRN RenewalEvery five years, you must complete 1,000 practice hours in a medical-surgical setting and 90 verified contact hours, as defined by the AMSN. You may recertify by exam if you cannot complete enough contact hours.

Career Outlook for Surgical Nurses

The ongoing nursing shortage and aging population will only increase the need for nursing professionals, including surgical nurses, in the coming years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that nursing employment will grow at a rate of 6% percent through 2032 – faster than the average for all jobs.

Additionally, healthcare is undergoing a tremendous change, with a focus on reducing inpatient stays in hospitals. These changes have created a trend of "day surgery," or procedures received at outpatient surgical facilities. Increased demand for this type of surgery can make it more accessible and may even lead to greater demand for surgical nurses.

Where Can I Learn More About Surgical Nursing?

Learn more about perioperative/surgical nursing by searching the web and networking to find and talk with nurses currently working in the field. The following organizations can provide more information about perioperative/surgical nursing:

  1. Association of periOperative Nursing (AORN)
  2. Competency and Credentialing Institute (CCI)
  3. American Society of Plastic Surgical Nurses (ASPSN)
  4. American Pediatric Surgical Nurses Association
  5. American Association of Nurse Anesthetists
  6. American Society of PeriAnesthesia Nurses

Find Surgical Nurse Jobs Near You

Perioperative nursing provides many opportunities to make a difference—improving patient outcomes, reassuring patients and family members, supporting surgical teams, and participating in life-saving work every day. But how do you find a surgical nursing job near you?

Of course, networking and seeking opportunities in your current workplace are always options. You might also pursue the "careers" pages on websites for hospitals and agencies that interest you. 

Additionally, online resources can help you land your dream job as a surgical nurse. Look for opportunities on want-ad websites, social media, and dedicated nursing sites like Nurse.org. Our job board has several surgical nursing opportunities from employers nationwide who are eager to hire the right candidate.

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