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How to Become a Surgical Nurse

NurseJournal Staff
Updated December 6, 2022
Surgical nurses take care of patients before, during, and after surgeries. Learn about this rewarding nursing field, including salary expectations, schooling, and certification requirements.
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Surgical nurse at work during an operationCredit: Westend61 / Getty Images

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average earning potential$58,180SOURCE: PayScale as of December 2021

Surgical nurses and surgical nurse practitioners provide nursing care before, during, and after surgical procedures. Surgery nurses work in various settings and specialties, making this a versatile field.

This guide can answer your questions about how to become a surgical nurse or surgical nurse practitioner, what kind of work to expect, and how much surgery nurses make.

What Is a Surgical Nurse?

What do surgical nurses do? A surgical nurse (also known as an operating room nurse or scrub nurse) cares for patients before, during, and after surgical procedures. They work in hospitals, physicians’ offices, and military settings.

Before surgery, surgical nurses prep the patient, administer needed medicines, insert catheters or prepare other medical equipment, and educate the patient and their family on the procedure.

During surgery, surgical nurses monitor the patient and assist the surgeons, while continuing to update the family.

Steps to Becoming a Surgical Nurse

After completing your nursing program, you must pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN), then develop professional experience. You may also want to earn a certification in medical-surgical nursing. State requirements for nurses vary, so be sure to check your state board of nursing’s regulations.

Earn an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN)

To become an RN, you need to earn a two-year ADN or a four-year bachelor of science in nursing degree from an accredited nursing school. While an ADN is faster, many employers prefer or require a BSN for certain positions.

If you have an ADN, you can enroll in an RN-to-BSN bridge program. If you have a bachelor’s in a field other than nursing, you can enroll in an accelerated BSN program.

Pass the NCLEX exam

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

Gain experience in surgical nursing

As a surgical nurse, you can start in an entry-level nursing position in a hospital, physician’s office, or other healthcare setting. You will work with more experienced nurses and also participate in continuing education for nurses, especially if you want to earn certification as a medical surgical nurse.

Improve job prospects by becoming certified

While certification is not a legal requirement, many employers require or strongly prefer certification. The American Nurses Credentialing Center offers the Medical-Surgical Nursing Board Certification. You must have two years of nursing experience, 2,000 hours in surgical nursing in the last three years, and 30 hours of continuing education credits.

Find employment

Surgical nurses work in various hospital settings, including the emergency department, oncology, cardiology, obstetrics, and dermatology/plastic surgery. They also work in private practices, such as birthing centers and military nurse settings.
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Surgical Nurse Schooling

Becoming a surgical nurse takes at least two years if earning an ADN or four years for a BSN. It takes six years to earn a master of science in nursing (MSN) and become a nurse practitioner.

To become certified, you need at least two years of experience in nursing and at least 2,000 hours of work as a surgical nurse.

BSN Degree

Many employers require or strongly prefer a BSN versus an ADN for higher-level surgery nurse positions. You must also hold a BSN or enroll in a bridge program to earn an MSN. However, if time is an issue or if you aren’t sure if nursing is right for you, you can earn an ADN as a starting point.

  • Admission Requirements: BSN programs typically require at least a 3.0 GPA, passing grades in math and science courses, a letter of intent describing why you want to become a nurse, and at least two references.
  • Program Curriculum: The curriculum includes nursing practice, using medical equipment, monitoring patient health, and common nursing procedures like inserting catheters and taking blood samples.
    Other courses covered are communications, infection and disease prevention, clinical reasoning and evidence-based practice, and the legal/ethical aspects of nursing. It also requires clinical hours in a healthcare setting.
  • Time to Complete: A BSN typically takes four years of full-time study, but if you have Advanced Placement course credits or an ADN, you can complete your coursework sooner.
  • Skills Learned: As a nurse, you make health assessments under a physician’s guidance by performing tests and taking measurements. You also offer culturally competent nursing care through effective communication; understand hygiene and disease prevention for individual patients and the public health; and perform routine nursing tasks, such as inserting feeding tubes or catheters.

MSN Degree

To become a surgical nurse practitioner, you must earn an MSN from an accredited program. While this isn’t a requirement to be a surgery nurse, it is a valuable credential. It usually brings a greater salary and better opportunities for higher-level roles.

  • Admission Requirements: MSN programs typically require at least a 3.0 GPA (some programs require a 3.25 or higher), references, an application essay, and up to two years of nursing experience. All require an unencumbered and current RN license.
  • Program Curriculum: MSN programs include courses in pharmacology, health diagnoses, and nursing leadership, as well as advanced courses in nursing practice and the legal/ethical aspects of nursing.
  • Time to Complete: MSN degrees can take two years if you have a BSN, though some schools offer 18-month accelerated programs. If you have an ADN, the program may take three years. Attending part time extends completion time.
  • Skills Learned: You gain advanced coverage of BSN topics. Additionally, advanced practice MSN programs include pharmacology and diagnosing conditions. These are included in the advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) scope of practice.

Surgical Nurse Certification

Surgical nurses can earn certifications in medical-surgical nursing. To earn surgery nurse certification, you must pass an exam, hold continuing education credits, and have experience as a surgical nurse. Many employers help pay the cost of continuing education and certification.

Surgical nurse certification demonstrates that you have the required specialized knowledge. It also shows that you have engaged in continuing education to keep your knowledge updated. Many employers require or strongly prefer certification for surgical nurses.

Certification is available from groups such as the Medical-Surgical Nursing Certification Board or the American Nurses Credentialing Center. You must maintain certification through professional education and renewing every five years.

Working as a Surgical Nurse

To develop experience as a surgery nurse, you will likely work an entry-level position in a hospital or other healthcare setting, such as perioperative nursing. If possible, it is important to find a nursing mentor to help you understand and deal with the stress that comes with being a surgical nurse.

The median salary for a surgical nurse, according to Salary.com as of December 2021, is $99,310. This includes all levels of surgical nurse education and experience, including advanced practice nursing.

Hospital emergency department

Surgical nurses prepare patients for surgery, assist physicians and surgeons, monitor patients’ vital signs, and communicate with patients and their families.

Hospital specialty department

Surgical nurses educate patients and families on what to expect before and after surgery. They also make sure the patient is ready for surgery, monitor the patient, and instruct patients on wound care.

Birthing center or other standalone facility

Surgical nurses give postsurgical instructions, communicate with patients and families, prepare patients for their procedure, and observe patients’ vital signs.

FAQ’s About Becoming a Surgical Nurse

Is surgical nursing hard?

Surgical nursing is demanding physically and emotionally. It requires flexibility, observational skills, collaboration, and keeping calm and making good decisions under pressure. Stress levels vary by setting. An emergency department, for example, is typically more stressful and unpredictable than dermatology.

Do surgical nurses get paid more?

Surgical nurse salaries vary based on education, experience, and certification. Advanced practice nurses earn more, and typically ADN surgery nurses earn less. Salary also varies based on setting and shifts. As of December 2021, the median salary for a surgical nurse, according to Salary.com, is $99,310, compared to a median salary of $64,740 for a level 1 nurse.

Do surgical nurses perform surgery?

Surgical nurses are not licensed to perform surgery. APRNs are licensed to perform some invasive procedures, but not the same ones as a licensed surgeon. Instead, surgical nurses monitor patients, operate medical equipment, and assist surgical staff.

How do you become an operating nurse?

To become a surgical nurse, you must go to nursing school and earn an ADN or a BSN. Then, you must get your nursing license by passing the NCLEX-RN exam and applying for licensure. Once you get your RN license, you can start in an entry-level surgery nurse job. When you have experience, you can become a certified surgical nurse.

Learn More About Surgical Nurses

Are you ready to earn your online nursing degree?

Whether you’re looking to get your pre-licensure degree or taking the next step in your career, the education you need could be more affordable than you think. Find the right nursing program for you.