How to Become a Surgical Nurse

Gayle Morris, MSN
Updated May 23, 2024
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Surgical nurses care for patients before, during, and after medical procedures. Learn how to become a surgical nurse, including salary and licensure details.
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Surgical nurse at work during an operationCredit: Westend61 / Getty Images

Surgical nurses prepare patients for surgery, assist surgeons in the operating room, and provide comprehensive post-operative care. This exciting profession offers new challenges and experiences every day.

There are roughly 40 million major surgeries in the U.S. each year — or 110,000 surgeries every day. Physicians, patients, and their families depend on the skills and expertise of surgical nurses to ensure positive patient outcomes. Explore the steps to becoming a surgical nurse, salary data, and potential work settings in this helpful guide.

How Long to Become

2-4 years

Degree Required


Optional Certification

Certified Perioperative Nurse (CNOR)

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What is a Surgical Nurse?

A surgical nurse, also known as an operating room nurse, scrub nurse, or circulating nurse, cares for patients before, during, and after surgical procedures. They work in hospitals, physician’s offices, and military settings.

Before Surgery: Surgical nurses prep the patient, administer needed medicines, insert catheters, prepare other medical equipment, and educate the patient and their family on the procedure.

During Surgery: These nurses monitor the patient, assist the surgeons and anesthesia care team, and communicate with the patient or their family. The circulating nurse calls the time to ensure the right patient, procedure, and surgical site. They also include date, time, surgeon, and time.

After Surgery: Surgical nurses assist during recovery by managing pain, monitoring vital signs, and providing wound care to ensure proper healing.

Steps to Becoming a Surgical Nurse

A surgical nurse must earn an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree, pass the NCLEX-RN to earn licensure, and meet additional state-specific requirements.

Continuing education is essential, and most employers require basic life support and sometimes advanced cardiac life support certifications. These optional credentials improve career prospects and validate competence.

  1. 1

    Earn An Associate Degree In Nursing Or A Bachelor Of Science In Nursing

    To become an RN, you must earn a nursing degree from an accredited nursing school. While an ADN is faster, many employers prefer or require a BSN for certain positions. You can enroll in an RN-to-BSN bridge program with an ADN and an active nursing license. If you have a bachelor’s in a field other than nursing, you can pursue an accelerated BSN program.

  2. 2

    Pass the NCLEX Exam to Receive RN Licensure

    The NCLEX-RN exam is a multiple-choice test covering nursing practice, infection and disease prevention, communication, and the legal/ethical aspects. You must pass this exam to receive your state nursing license.

  3. 3

    Gain Experience in PeriOperative Nursing

    Hospitals often prefer candidates who have demonstrated an ability to function well in fast-paced settings, which demonstrates their preparedness for the rigors of surgical nursing. Surgical nurse candidates may consider specialized operating room (OR) residency programs.

    These programs equip nurses to manage patients through each phase of surgery, offering hands-on experiences under the supervision of seasoned professionals. Additionally, work experience in closely related specialties, such as critical care, emergency room, or telemetry nursing, can be advantageous.

    These areas of nursing provide exposure to high-acuity patients, which is crucial when working in an OR environment. Gaining foundational experiences in these fields can make RNs more competitive for surgical nursing positions.

  4. 4

    Consider Becoming a Certified Surgical Nurse

    RNs seeking surgical nurse certification can pursue certified nurse operating room (CNOR) credentials from CCI. Eligibility requires an active RN license, two years of perioperative nursing experience, and at least 1,200 hours in an intraoperative role.

    Certification validates specialized knowledge and skills sought by employers. Hospitals and professional organizations may offer resources to help nurses prepare for the examination. Certification can enhance career opportunities and credibility in the field.

Surgical Nurse Education

Surgical nurses can enter the field with ADNs, but most employers prefer BSN-level nurses. After graduating from an accredited program, candidates must pass the NCLEX-RN to obtain a state license. ADN-prepared nurses can advance their education through RN-to-BSN programs while continuing to work. Some employers also offer tuition reimbursement.

ADN Degree

An ADN may be an option for individuals who wish to enter nursing quickly. It fulfills the minimum requirements for RN licensure. While an ADN offers a faster pathway into nursing, employers may prefer candidates with BSNs, which they can earn in traditional and online RN-to-BSN programs.

  • Admission Requirements: These programs generally require a minimum 2.5 GPA, high school or college chemistry and biology classes, an admission test, and a background check.
  • Program Curriculum: An ADN curriculum includes anatomy, physiology, microbiology, psychology, and several electives.
  • Time to Complete: ADN programs typically require 4-5 semesters. Some schools allow students to accelerate their learning or choose part-time enrollment.
  • Skills Learned: Candidates learn foundational skills necessary for entry-level positions, including patient care, medical technology, nursing ethics, and emergency response.

BSN Degree

A BSN degree equips students with extensive clinical expertise, critical thinking, and leadership skills, which are essential in surgical nursing. Although students can complete ADNs more quickly, BSNs have more credibility with employers, may command higher salaries, deliver more career opportunities, and boost potential for leadership roles. Nurses in New York must earn BSNs within ten years of associate-level graduation.

  • Admission Requirements: BSN programs typically require a 3.0 GPA, a minimum C grade in math and science courses, a letter of intent, and at least two references.
  • Program Curriculum: The curriculum includes courses like nursing practice, using medical equipment, monitoring patient health, and common nursing procedures like inserting catheters and taking blood samples. Other classes cover communications, infection and disease prevention, clinical reasoning and evidence-based practice, and the legal/ethical aspects of nursing. Enrollees also complete clinical hours in healthcare settings.
  • Time to Complete: A BSN typically takes four years of full-time study, but if you have advanced placement credits, a non-nursing bachelor’s degree, or an ADN, you can complete your program in less time.
  • Skills Learned: BSN candidates learn crucial skills to function effectively as surgical nurses, including critical thinking, decision-making, and management.

Surgical Nurse Licensure and Certification

To obtain a state license, surgical nurses must complete an accredited nursing program and pass the NCLEX-RN exam. Maintaining RN licensure requires ongoing continuing education, which varies by state, to ensure nurses stay current with advancements in healthcare.

Certification is not mandatory for becoming a surgical nurse but is highly recommended. One of the primary certification options for surgical nurses is the CNOR credential. Eligibility requires having a current RN license and a minimum of two years (2,400 hours) of experience in perioperative nursing, with at least half of that time spent in the intraoperative setting.

Other certifications include the certified surgical services manager for people interested in management roles within surgical services, along with the clinical nurse specialist perioperative certification for master’s-prepared nurses.

Working as a Surgical Nurse

After finishing your education, you can improve your job prospects by networking, obtaining relevant certifications such as CNOR, and participating in residency programs to gain experience. Consider joining professional organizations like the Association of periOperative Registered Nurses to increase your networking opportunities and access surgical nursing job listings.

Surgical nurses can find employment in many settings, including hospitals, where they handle preoperative preparations and post-operative recovery. In ambulatory surgery centers, surgical nurses assist in shorter, less complex procedures. Surgical nurses in specialty clinics handle procedures such as orthopedics or cosmetic surgeries, along with managing patient follow-up care.

According to Payscale data from May 2024, the average annual salary for a combination of ADN and BSN-prepared surgical nurses is $67,160. The salary potential for surgical nurses ranges from $51,000-$107,000.

Common work settings for surgical nurses include:

  • Ambulatory Surgery Centers: Surgical nurses assist in outpatient procedures by preparing patients for surgery, assisting surgeons during operations, managing anesthesia recovery, and educating patients on post-operative care. These nurses ensure patient safety and facilitate rapid recovery.
  • Hospitals: Surgical nurses can work in the OR, post-op unit, and emergency room. In the OR, they assist surgeons and protect patient safety. After surgery, they monitor the patient’s recovery, manage pain, and prevent complications. In the emergency room, they help stabilize patients, perform minor procedures, and prepare patients for emergency surgeries.
  • Physician’s Offices and Outpatient Clinics: Surgical nurses prepare patients for procedures, help manage anesthesia or sedation, and provide post-procedure care. After procedures, they educate patients and families on recovery and wound care, providing a comprehensive approach to outpatient surgical services.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Surgical Nurse

Surgical nurses must stand for extended periods, manage complex patient care situations, and handle stressful developments with quick decision-making. While those working in ambulatory care or outpatient clinics have relatively normal business hours, those in hospitals typically work long hours, including nights and weekends. While physically challenging, many find it rewarding to become a surgical nurse.

Page last reviewed on May 19, 2024

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