What is a Surgical Technologist?
When you have surgery, the surgeon doesn’t just walk in and get to work. Instead, surgical technologists (commonly known as surgical techs) prepare the surgical room for the procedure. This might involve laying out all necessary equipment, sanitizing the surgery space, and ensuring the proper machinery is in the room and that all machinery is in proper working order.
Depending on the setting, surgical techs might also prepare you for the surgery. They might come to your room, clean and sanitize the areas that the surgeon will operate on, and wheel you to the operating room.
During an operation, surgical techs are often in the room with the doctors, nurses, and other medical team personnel. They might be asked to replenish supplies, clean tools or parts of the room, or even hand equipment to the surgeons.
A surgical technologist has post-operative duties, too. They are responsible for tending to your incisions, such as dressing and cleaning the wound.
So, while surgical technologists are not nurses or doctors, they are an integral component of the medical team that helps ensure your health, safety, and comfort before, during, and after a procedure. Whether you have an inpatient or outpatient procedure, the chances are good that you’ll be taken care of by a surgical technologist.
What are the Pros and Cons of Being a Surgical Technologist?
Pro No. 1 – Surgical Technologists are in Demand
The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that jobs in this field are expected to grow at a nine percent rate through 2030. This represents a slightly above-average rate of growth.
While this isn’t a fast-growing field, it is one that is constantly in demand. Surgeries happen on a daily basis all around the country, and surgical technologists are a critical component of the team that makes medical procedures a success.
In the coming years, Baby Boomers will retire in greater numbers, which could lead to more expansive growth of surgical technologist jobs. A greater focus on healthcare and an expansion of healthcare services to rural areas could also help improve the job outlook in the coming years.
Pro No. 2 – The Salary is Good
We’ll discuss the earnings potential of this career in more detail a little later, but for now, just know that surgical technologists can make a very good living. Depending on your level of education and experience, plus where you work and your area of expertise, you could earn well over $100,000 per year.
Pro No. 3 – Little Education is Required
Unlike many careers in the medical field, this one has a low educational requirement. You can start a career as a surgical technologist with little more than a high school diploma and a certificate from a training program that might only be a year in length.
To advance your career, you’ll need more education and training. Many surgical technologists get an associate’s degree as well as specialty certifications that give them a much larger set of skills. This also helps improve one’s earnings potential.
This job doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree, let alone an advanced degree like a master’s or doctorate. Instead, once you have the basic training out of the way, you learn on the job. This allows you to earn money as you work and learn from more experienced surgical technologists.
Pro No. 4 – You Have a Hand in Treating Patients
One of the best parts of this job is that you’re responsible, in part, for treating and caring for someone that’s had a major illness or injury that required surgery. Your expertise enables the procedure to move forward without any hiccups and allows doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals to do their jobs effectively.
As noted earlier, being a surgical technologist means you’ll look after patients before, during, and after their procedure, so perhaps more than anyone else on the team, you’ll be in close contact with the patient through this phase of their treatment. Being able to provide quality care, help improve someone’s life, and give them a better future is a wonderful way to spend a day at work!
Related Reading: 13 Pros and Cons of Being a Nursing Administrator
Pro No. 5 – There are Many Advancement Opportunities
Another benefit of working as a surgical technologist is that you can advance your career with additional training, be that on-the-job training, additional college courses, or certifications (or a combination thereof).
For example, you might complete a short surgical tech program right out of high school and then begin your career. Then, after a few months or years on the job, you might go to college and get an associate’s degree in this field. Doing so provides you with added knowledge and skills that allow you to perform your job even better.
Additional training like this could also help you advance your career, gain more responsibilities, and earn a higher salary.
Pro No. 6 – Choose from Many Options for Certification
As noted above, one of the ways you can advance your career is to become certified.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are around 500 programs for surgical technology in the United States that are accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP). With so many programs available, there is ample opportunity to find a program that fits your needs and helps you achieve your career goals.
Pro No. 7 – You Can Work in Any Geographic Location
Anywhere there’s a hospital or another medical facility, there is a need for qualified surgical technologists. You can work in small communities and large ones. You can work in small hospitals or big ones. You can work here in the United States or abroad in another country, too.
Really, whatever you desire your career to look like, you can make it happen because surgical technologists are needed at every medical facility in the world.
Pro No. 8 – You Can Expect Relatively Normal Working Hours
Most surgical technologists work a typical 40-hour work week. Since planned surgeries usually take place in the mornings, you might need to report to work fairly early, but by starting the workday early, you also get to end it early!
There will be times when emergencies arise, and you have to work outside of normal hours, but, by and large, you can rely on a consistent daytime work schedule.
Pro No. 9 – There’s a Good Work-Life Balance
One of the perks of having normal weekly work hours is that you can maintain a good work-life balance. You don’t usually have to worry about working late, at night, on weekends, or on holidays. You typically don’t have to put in more than 40 hours of work in a week, either. This helps in planning off-time with friends and family, taking vacations, and otherwise relaxing away from work.
Pro No. 10 – Job Security is a Plus
If you’re good at what you do, you’ll all but be guaranteed to have a job until you’re ready to retire. That’s the kind of job security we all want!
Since surgical technologists are needed far and wide, there is consistent demand for qualified workers. If you demonstrate an ability to do the necessary work and do it well, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have plenty of job prospects now and in the future.
Pro No. 11 – You Can Travel
As explained later in this guide, travel surgical technologists are in high demand. If you enjoy traveling and experiencing new things, working on a travel basis could be a great option for you.
Con No. 1 – It’s a Physically Demanding Job
One of the biggest detriments of a career in surgical technology is that it’s a very physically demanding job. When you get to work, it’s highly likely that you’ll be on your feet for the vast majority of the day.
In addition to being on your feet all day, you’re responsible for prepping patients, taking them to the operating room, and caring for them after their operation. Likewise, you’ll need to maneuver equipment and tools around the operating room and might have to do heavy lifting as well.
Con No. 2 – An Extreme Level of Detail is Required
Surgical technologists can’t “skate” through the work day. Instead, their job is to be highly thorough and meticulous, ensuring that everything from the patient to the operating equipment to the rest of the medical team are ready for the procedure.
In many occupations, there’s downtime that you can use to unwind, even if you’re still on the job. But this is not one of them. You have to be attentive to the small details from the moment your workday begins until the moment you clock out. This can be mentally exhausting!
Con No. 3 – You Might Have to Be On Call
As mentioned earlier, you can expect normal working hours most of the time as a surgical technologist. But there will likely be times that you have to be on call, which means you have to report to work at a moment’s notice, no matter the time of day.
Additionally, some surgical technologists work 12-hour shifts – much like doctors and nurses. Being on call and working long hours can be very physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding.
Con No. 4 – It’s a High-Stress Job
There is no doubt that working in this field is very stressful. After all, the decisions you make, and the manner in which you go about your daily duties can literally determine if someone lives or dies. That’s a very heavy burden to bear.
But, as we’ve discussed, being in that position means you have the opportunity to help greatly improve someone else’s life. The stress isn’t a great part of the job, but a successful procedure and full recovery by the patient make it worth it.
What is a Traveling Surgical Technologist?
As the title indicates, a traveling surgical technologist moves from one location to the next, providing their expertise and services to hospitals and other care facilities in need.
For example, much like a traveling nurse, a traveling surgical technologist might sign an eight-week contract to work in a hospital in rural Iowa. During that time, they provide the same care and serve the same function as surgical technologists that don’t travel. The difference, of course, is that after the eight-week period, a traveling surgical technologist moves on to the next care facility.
The contracts for traveling surgical technologists vary widely in length. However, the average contract is usually eight or 13 weeks, though they might extend up to 26 weeks in some cases. Regardless of the contract length, traveling surgical technologists enjoy eight-hour work days, stipends for housing and food, and the potential for a very high income (in some cases, in excess of $5,000 per week).
Is It Worth It to Be a Surgical Technologist?
This is certainly a valuable job from many different points of view.
For example, as discussed earlier, this is a job that allows you to have an immediate and lasting impact on another person’s life. Your attentiveness before and after surgery, your skill in caring for surgery-related wounds, and your bedside manner can make all the difference in how a person experiences a major medical event.
Aside from this being a very satisfying line of work, it can also be very lucrative. As we’ll explore a little later in this guide, surgical technologists can make extremely good money, especially if you’re willing to travel.
Another reason why this is such a good job to pursue is that you don’t have to spend a lot of time in school to start your career. As explained above, the educational threshold is quite low, so you can quickly finish your training and begin your career.
Obviously, each of the pros listed in the previous section is a great reason why being a surgical technologist is worth it. But, as with any career, the most important factor is whether it’s something you enjoy and are passionate about. Loving what you do will make the job worthwhile, even if it’s a difficult job or the pay is low. Fortunately, you don’t have to worry about that if you become a surgical technologist!
Is It Stressful Being a Surgical Technologist?
There is definitely potential for this to be a stressful job. After all, your primary place of work will be in an operating room with someone’s life potentially on the line. It doesn’t get much more stressful than that!
But, while you are responsible, in part, for the health and well-being of patients, you aren’t alone in that endeavor. Surgical technologists work with medical doctors, nurses, nursing assistants, and other medical professionals as part of a large team dedicated to providing the best possible care. Having so many knowledgeable and skilled professionals alongside you can help ease the stress of this job.
Nevertheless, it’s important to recognize that there will be situations in which your stress level is through the roof. If a patient codes, for example, or develops a serious illness after surgery, you might feel stress, anxiety, worry – the whole lot.
As with any stressful occupation, it’s necessary to do what you can to help release the stressors of work. Eating right, getting plenty of rest, exercising, and making time for fun should be part of your overall plan to prevent mental and physical exhaustion.
Is Becoming a Surgical Technologist Hard?
As noted earlier, this job doesn’t require an extensive period of education or training. But that doesn’t mean that it’s an easy job that you can skate through.
Being a surgical technologist is indeed hard work. There will be long days (and nights), periods in which you have to work on the weekends or holidays, and stretches in which you’ll have patient after patient after patient for which you’re responsible.
Not only can this be a physically demanding job – you’ll be on your feet the vast majority of the workday – but it can also be emotionally and mentally draining. Even if all your patients do well and there’s no problems before, during, or after surgery, it’s still a stressful task to literally have someone’s well-being in your hands.
Again, it’s important to commit yourself to a self-care plan. Not taking time to unwind and de-stress will only make this job harder – that’s not something you want to do!
How Much Does a Surgical Technologist Earn?
In addition to all the pros of this career that were outlined earlier, it’s also a job with excellent income potential.
While the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the mean annual salary for this job is $48,530, there are some surgical technologists that make six figures each year. More details on those high-paying positions are in the next section of this guide.
Typically, surgical technologists make anywhere from $36,930 to $75,940 per year. These numbers represent the mean yearly wages for the lowest and highest 10 percent of earners, respectively.
Surgical technologists whose earnings are closer to the lower portion of the pay scale are those with the least education and experience. For example, if you’ve completed a year-long training program and have just begun your career, you might expect your salary to be around the $36,930 mark noted above.
But, as you get experience and undergo more training, your expected salary might rise, say, to the high $40,000s or into the $50,000s. If you have several years of work experience, an associate’s degree, and a certification, you might be able to command a salary on the higher end of the pay scale.
The amount you can earn as a surgical technologist also depends on where you work. In many cases, surgical technologists that work in large hospital systems earn more money than their counterparts in small hospitals.
The geographic area in which you work can also affect how much money you earn in this career. Generally speaking, surgical technologists that work in urban areas make more money per year than their colleagues that work in rural areas. This is not always the case, but it is very common. For example, surgical technologists in the Los Angeles area earn $67,020 per year, on average. By comparison, surgical technologists in rural Eastern Kentucky earn $44,200 per year.
Likewise, the area of the country in which you work can influence your earnings. Surgical technologists in California earn an average of $68,410 per year. Alaska, Washington, D.C, Connecticut, and Nevada round out the top five states in terms of income for this career.
Conversely, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, and Vermont are among some of the lowest-paying areas for surgical technologists. Each of these states has an average yearly wage of $46,390 or less. Other states among those with the lowest surgical technologist salaries include:
- New Mexico
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
What are the Highest Paying Surgical Technology Specialties?
In addition to all the factors discussed in the previous section, there’s another element that affects how much you can earn as a surgical technologist: your area of specialty.
Surgical technologists can work in all sorts of settings for all sorts of procedures. But, certain specialties offer much higher pay than normal.
As discussed earlier in this guide, traveling surgical technologists can earn an excellent living. As of January 2023, according to Glassdoor, traveling surgical technologists earn a base pay of $76,495, but also earn bonuses of $42,561 per year. This results in a yearly average of $119,056 – far above the average for this occupation.
Another high-paying specialty in this field is a cardiovascular operating room technician. As of January 2023, according to ZipRecruiter, these specialists can earn up to $116,500 per year.
Surgical services techs are also at the top of the pay scale for this line of work. ZipRecruiter notes that these specialists earn up to $114,500 per year.
Other high-paying specialties in surgical technology include:
- Operating room technologist – Up to $112,500 per year
- Cardiovascular surgical technologist – Up to $104,000 per year
- Surgical neurophysiologist – Up to $100,000 per year
- Scrub tech – Up to $87,500 per year
- OR scrub tech – Up to $83,000 per year
So, as you can see, there are many different paths you can take in surgical technology that allow you to make far more than the average. Likewise, these specialties allow you to pursue more specific passions and applications of your knowledge and skills. The result of that can be a highly satisfying job that also happens to be financially lucrative!