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Surgical Nurse Career Overview

NurseJournal Staff
Updated August 29, 2022
Reviewed by
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Surgical nurses are in demand. Learn how to get a nursing degree, earn a license, and start your career as a surgical nurse.
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How Long to Become

2-4 years

Average Annual Salary


Surgical nurses prepare patients for surgeries, assist surgeons and anesthetists during surgeries, and provide patient care before, during, and after procedures. This guide explains the necessary education and licensing, typical salary ranges, and different career paths for surgical nurses.

Keep reading to find out if this career is right for you.

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What Does a Surgical Nurse Do?

adn or bsn required
Certification required (medsurg-bc)

Surgical nurses are key to successful surgical outcomes. They prepare patients physically and emotionally, assist anesthesiologists and surgeons, and provide care and education for the patient after surgery.

To be a surgical nurse, you must communicate clearly with and reassure patients and their families, be an excellent team player, and be able to respond immediately should a patient’s condition change during surgery.

closeup of nurse hands on computer keyboard

JGI/Tom Grill / Getty Images

Key Responsibilities

  • Prepare patients for surgery: Make sure the patient understands and is ready for the surgery, start IV lines or other necessary feeds, administer any pre-surgery medications or treatments, and set up patient monitoring equipment
  • Assist surgeon, anesthetist, and patient during surgery: Monitor the patient, assist the surgeon and anesthetist as necessary, communicate with patient as needed
  • Care for the patient during recovery: Monitor patient vital signs, communicate with the patient about the results or findings, prepare the patient for discharge from the surgical unit

Career Traits

  • Surgical nurses must be excellent collaborators and able to anticipate surgeon or anesthetist needs.
  • Because so many things can go wrong during a surgery, surgical nurses must be able to respond immediately to the unexpected.
  • Surgical nurses need the stamina to maintain their attention to detail during even the longest procedures.

Where Do Surgical Nurses Work?

Surgical nurses primarily work in hospitals and health systems, but they also work in independent practices, especially in plastic surgery offices, and in disaster relief and military settings.


In hospitals, surgical nurses may work as part of the staff for the operating rooms.

Recovery Rooms

In a recovery room, surgical nurses communicate with patients and their families about the procedure’s outcomes or findings, monitor the patient, and determine if the patient meets discharge criteria.

Surgery Centers

In standalone surgery centers, surgical nurses are often responsible for follow-up phone calls to patients discharged to their home rather than to a hospital bed.

How to Become a Surgical Nurse?

You need a nursing license to become a surgical nurse. You can earn either a two-year associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a four-year bachelor of science in nursing (BSN). Because the BSN curriculum is more advanced, many employers prefer to hire BSN-holders as surgical nurses.

Once you graduate, you must pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) and earn a state license. The Competency & Credentialing Institute (CCI) offers the certified foundational perioperative nurse (CFPN), certified perioperative nurse (CNOR), and certified ambulatory surgery nurse (CNAMB) certifications.

The Medical-Surgical Nursing Certification Board also offers a certified medical-surgical registered nurse credential, and there are also specialty certifications such as the American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACN)’s cardiac surgery certification.

Most certifications require at least two years of experience as a surgical nurse, though the CFPN is designed for nurses with less than two years of experience. Unlike other surgical nurse certifications, you cannot renew the CFPN.

Surgical Nurse Certifications and Specializations

Plastic Surgery Nurse

Plastic surgery nurses work most often in specialty plastic surgery departments or practices. They may use a variety of aesthetic equipment and procedures.

(Payscale, Aug. 2022)

Nurse Anesthetist

Nurse anesthetists are advanced practice nurses, or APRNs (nurses with at least an MSN or DNP in nurse anesthesiology), who administer anesthesia during surgery. This is the highest-paid nursing specialty. New nurse anesthetists need a doctor of nursing practice (DNP), starting in 2025.

(Payscale, July 2022)

Perioperative Nurse

Perioperative nurses, sometimes called operating room nurses or surgical nurses, have many functions before, during, and after surgery. They educate and prepare patients, assist during surgeries, and monitor and care for patients after surgery.

(Payscale, Aug. 2022)

Transplant Nurse

Transplant nurses specialize in organ and tissue transplants. Most of these are done under general anesthesia and many patients are in a weakened condition, so these surgeries can be especially risky.


How Much Do Surgical Nurses Make?

According to August 2022 Payscale data, the average annual salary for surgical nurses is $76,567. Total compensation, including bonuses, ranges from $56,000 – $102,000. Demand, local cost of living, specialization, certifications and education, and level of responsibility all affect surgical nurse salaries.

Salaries for nurses are often highest in areas where the cost of living is highest. For nurses overall, the highest-paying states are California, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, D.C., and Alaska.

Frequently Asked Questions about Surgical Nurses

question-mark-circleHow long does it take to become a Surgical Nurse?

It takes at least two years to earn a nursing license and become an RN. The fastest way is to earn an ADN, which takes two years. A four-year BSN may be more valuable if you plan on a leadership role or earning a master’s degree.

question-mark-circleWhat’s the difference between a surgical nurse and a perioperative nurse?

Perioperative nurse, surgical nurse, and operating room nurse all refer to nurses working in operating rooms. However, depending on the setting, some surgical nurses have different responsibilities, such as scrub nurse, circulating nurse, RN first assistants, and post-anesthesia care unit nurses.

question-mark-circleDo surgical nurses perform surgery?

Surgical nurses are not licensed to perform surgery. They are licensed to prepare patients for surgery, assist during the procedure, and care for recovering patients.

question-mark-circleWhat skills do you need to be a surgical nurse?

To be a surgical nurse, you must be able to work well as part of a team. You must also be able to anticipate what the surgeon or anesthetist might need, be able to communicate honestly and empathetically with patients, and have excellent attention to detail.

Page Last Reviewed: August 7, 2022

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