What does it take to become a plastic surgeon?

plastic surgeon
plastic surgeons have one of the most lucrative careers in the medical field. Source: Philippe Lopez/AFP

Being a plastic surgeon can be a fulfilling job. Though it is often associated with aesthetic procedures like nose jobs or face lifts, these are only among the areas plastic surgeons can specialise in. Other times, these doctors work tirelessly in hospitals to perform more serious procedures. An example can be restorative surgeries for burn victims. 

According to The Aesthetic Society, Americans have spent over US$9 billion on plastic surgery in 2020. From facelifts to eyelid surgeries and rhinoplasties, the demand for plastic surgery has surged tremendously since the 2000s. Statistics by the American Society of Plastic Surgery also demonstrate sharp increases especially post-pandemic, pushing the total market size value to US$68.9 billion.

Plastic surgeons are key to the medical field — and they’re well-compensated for their services. The average annual salary of plastic surgeons in 2021 was US$576,000, according to a study by Medscape.

High-paying careers like these often also require top academic credentials and considerable education and training.

If this is the path you seek, here’s all you need to know about becoming a plastic surgeon:

The reality of being a plastic surgeon

plastic surgeon

Plastic surgery is more time-consuming compared to other forms of surgery, making day-to-day work demanding. Source: Win Mcnamee/Getty Images North America/Getty Images via AFP

The compensation of being a plastic surgeon seems attractive at first. But according to Dr. Nicholas Jones, a prominent plastic and reconstructive surgeon based in Atlanta: “It’s manual labour.” Dr. Jones, who runs the Nip & Tuck Plastic Surgery practice, explains that plastic surgery is more time-consuming compared to other forms of surgery, making day-to-day work demanding. His advice for aspiring plastic surgeons? This career may not be for you if your sole focus is compensation. 

Another interesting fact about being a plastic surgeon is how performing cosmetic surgery is seen as a form of art. Various research has explored this correlation and how art can significantly improve a plastic surgeon’s skills. 

A group of surgeons from the Indiana University Medical Centre decided to test it out and promoted a simplified art course for plastic surgeons. The research proved successful where there was a noticeable difference between the before and after comparison of residents’ clay modelling after 16 hours of practice.

The exploration between surgery and art continues today. President of the American Society of Ophthalmic Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Dr. Jennifer Sivak-Callcott also emphasises that visual observation and imagination skills are a must in the plastic surgery field. She adds: “If you aren’t able to see things in three dimensions, then it’s going to be hard to be a really good aesthetic or reconstructive surgeon.”

Qualifications needed to be a plastic surgeon 

As mentioned, plastic surgeons require top academic credentials with considerable education and training. In college, aspiring plastic surgeons must take all the premed classes that are necessary for acceptance into medical school. Students should also be mindful of more implicit admission requirements – such as  GPAs, MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test) scores, clinical experience and research projects

During med school, it’s important for you to aim for high grades, especially in surgery-related courses. This is crucial since matching into a plastic surgery residency typically requires impeccable academic credentials.

Other than obtaining a bachelor’s degree and a medical degree, future plastic surgeons in the US must meet a number of other requirements such as: 

  • Complete a minimum of six years of specialised residency training after med school,
  • At least three years of plastic surgery residency training, 
  • Graduated from an accredited medical school.

The fastest route into the field students can opt for after medical school is an integrated residency in plastic surgery which is highly selective as it covers the essentials of reconstructive or cosmetic procedures under high supervision. To give you an idea, Indiana University’s School of Medicine only accepts two residents per year for the three-year independent fellowship and the six-year integrated residency.

Upon completion of their training, students need to seek a board certification from the American Board of Plastic Surgeons, a medical licence in their respective jurisdictions as well as a certification from a professional organisation that’s specialised in plastic surgery. 

If you’re looking to get certified as a plastic surgeon in a country outside of the US, most countries and even continents have their own national plastic surgery societies. To name a few, the European Association of Plastic Surgeons lists members from 28 countries (including some from outside Europe, like Israel, Japan, Brazil, Canada, and the US), the Australian Society of Plastic Surgeons, the Mexican Association of Plastic, Aesthetic, and Reconstructive Surgery, and the Brazilian Society of Plastic Surgery.