Surgery Vs. Anesthesia: Which is the Better Career Choice?

If you’re interested in pursuing medicine as your career, you may have considered a surgical or anesthesia specialty. Both are widely respected and are necessary for the field of medicine. 

We’ll dive into what both careers would look like based on the education and training, career projection, and earning potential. 

If you’re struggling to decide, this guide might provide some clarity. 

Surgery Vs. Anesthesia: Which is the Better Career Choice? 

Pursuing surgery is a great career path in terms of earning potential, satisfaction, and job scope. However, anesthesia involves less training while still being financially rewarding. Both are in-demand professions that are necessary for the field. Which one’s better depends on your interest. Being a surgeon, you can choose between a wide array of subspecialties to work on. Comparatively, anesthesia only has several specialties to choose from. 

A surgeon performs surgeries to remove, repair, or replace internal organs. They are responsible for overseeing the entire surgical process. 

An anesthesiologist ensures the safety of patients during and after surgery. They help to prevent distress and pain they would otherwise experience. Typically, it involves putting patients to sleep, numbing or sedating them. 

Earning Potential 

Salaries for surgeons vary greatly by specialty and location. The national average for a general surgeon is $337,312 per year. Of course, certain specialties pay more than others. 

According to survey responses from 135,000 doctors, here are the surgical specialties that get paid the most: 

  • Neurosurgery – $736,544 
  • Thoracic Surgery – $668,350
  • Orthopaedic Surgery – $605,330
  • Plastic Surgery – $539,208
  • Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery – $538,590 

In comparison, the national average salary for an anesthesiologist is $232,587 annually

Related: How Much Do Doctors Make A Day: Specialty Breakdowns

Both are quite comparable in terms of average pay. However, surgeons have greater earning potential. That’s because many aspiring surgeons aim to go into a field they are passionate about. 

While there are different types of anesthesiology, they won’t drastically differ in salary. 

Overview of Surgery Education – 13 to 18 Years 

Becoming a surgeon is quite an extensive process that requires at least 13 years of education and training. You would need the following: 

  • Bachelor’s degree – 4 years 
  • Medical school – 4 years 
  • Residency – 5 to 10 years 

A general surgeon can complete their residency in five years. However, additional subspecialty residences add another one to five years. 


Here are the steps to becoming a surgeon: 

1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree and Take the MCAT

Your journey begins with earning your bachelor’s degree in a science major like biology or chemistry. 

From there, students must pass the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) and apply for medical school. 

2. Excel in Medical School 

Aspiring surgeons must earn their Doctor of Medicine or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine. Typically, the first two years consist of coursework, while the third and fourth years focus on clinical work. Students will participate in supervised patient care to receive hands-on experience. 

3. Become a Surgical Intern 

Most residencies refer to the first year of the residency term as interns. During the third year of medical school, students will decide which residency program is best suited for them. Getting into residency can be quite difficult. 

Many competitive students have the following qualities: 

  1. Scored in the upper 10% on the licensure exams
  2. Ranked in the top 10% of their class 
  3. Elected to the Alpha Omega Alpha 
  4. Outstanding letters of recommendation
  5. Have research publications 

4. Complete Residency

Students will develop basic and advanced surgical skills during residency. They’ll attend classes while also working closely with surgeons in various settings. 

Related: 6 Best General Surgery Residency Programs (Key Info & Data)

5. Obtain Licensure and Certification 

You must pass the U.S. Medical Licensing and Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing exams. It’s also recommended that surgeons are board certified. For example, the American Osteopathic Board of Surgery offers general surgery certification. 

Overview of Anesthesia Education – 12-14 Years 

Similar to surgeons, becoming an anesthesiologist requires a lot of education and training. However, the residency doesn’t take as long as surgery. That’s because surgery students need to spend additional years learning their subspecialty. 

You’ll need: 

  • Bachelor’s degree – 4 years 
  • Medical School – 4 years 
  • Residency – 4 years 
  • Fellowship (optional) – 1 to 2 years 


We’ll break down the exact steps you need to take to become a full-fledged anesthesiologist. 

1. Earn Your Bachelor’s Degree and Pass the MCAT

You begin your path by earning your undergraduate degree, ideally in subjects related to science or math. 

Then you’ll need to pass the MCAT, a four-part exam to test your critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Getting a high school in MCAT will help you to get into your desired medical school. 

2. Graduate from Medical School 

The application for getting into medical school is quite extensive. You’ll complete the AMCAS application, which consists of nine sections. This includes personal essays, letters of evaluation, coursework, and background. 

You’ll want to attend an accredited medical school that offers a Doctor of Medicine or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine. Once you’re accepted to medical school, you’ll spend four years there. 

3. Pass the USMLE 

While in medical school, it’s best to prepare and take the United State Medical Licensing Exam. This allows you to obtain your medical licensure. You’ll complete the first two portions of the exam in medical school, while the third portion must be done after getting your M.D. or D.O. degree. 

4. Complete a Residency Program 

After medical school, you’ll need to complete an anesthesiology residency program. Residents receive specific training in clinics or hospitals in their chosen specialty. 

The residency experience can be grueling. However, it’s one of the final stages to finally achieving the career you’ve wanted. 

You can choose to complete a fellowship following the residency to gain specialized training. For anesthesiologists, this may include obstetric anesthesia, pediatric anesthesia, or pain management. 

Related: 5 Best Anesthesiology Residency Programs (Key Info & Data)

5. Become State-Licensed and Board-Certified 

After finishing your residency, you’ll need to receive your license before being able to practice medicine. 

While board certification isn’t required, about 75% of anesthesiologists are board-certified. This helps to prove your expertise to employers and patients. 

Surgery Vs. Anesthesia: Which Career Is Most Stressful? 

There’s no clear winner since both are exceptional career choices. 

Both require extensive education and training. Surgeons likely need more specialized training, which requires more time. However, surgeons do tend to get paid more. 

Overall, you’ll want to factor in your personal interest. Do you want to be the person performing surgeries, or do you want to provide preventative care to ease the discomfort? 

Anesthesia may be less stressful from a responsibilities perspective. However, surgery may provide more personal fulfillment. 

Ultimately, it’ll come down to what you value most. 

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