How to become a plastic surgeon in 6 steps (plus tips)
Updated 21 January 2023
Plastic surgeons focus on restoring, reconstructing and altering the human body. This career path is quite rewarding and offers numerous job opportunities for medical professionals seeking to specialise in surgery. Understanding the training, education and steps required to become a plastic surgeon helps you pursue this role. In this article, we explain what a plastic surgeon does and how to become a plastic surgeon in six simple steps with some useful tips to help you.
What is a plastic surgeon?
A plastic surgeon is a medical professional who performs reconstructive procedures on patients with injuries, deformities, burns and illnesses. They aim to restore the function and appearance of tissue and skin, ensuring it's as close to normal as possible. The specific procedures a plastic surgeon performs vary depending on their speciality. For instance, cosmetic surgeons change the appearance or aesthetic of a patient through procedures such as face lifts, rhinoplasty and breast augmentation. Burn surgeons reduce scarring on burn victims by removing dead skin and grafting new skin.
How to become a plastic surgeon
Here's how to become a plastic surgeon in six steps:
1. Attend medical school
The first step to becoming a plastic surgeon is attending medical school. The standard medical training takes five to six years at university, and the General Medical Council (GMC) has to recognise your medical degree. Universities have exceptionally high requirements for medical students, with most requiring you to have high A-level grades. Ideally, this includes grades in subjects such as biology, maths, chemistry and physics. Check the entry requirements for the medical school you wish to attend to determine whether you qualify. Entry into medical school is highly competitive, and universities typically only choose top candidates.
2. Enrol in a foundation programme
Once you complete medical school, you enrol in a foundation programme to gain experience in various healthcare settings. The foundation programme usually is two years, and you spend time in general practice and other forms of medicine and surgery. Foundation programmes don't normally include a plastic surgery placement, but such a placement isn't necessary for becoming a plastic surgeon. After completing your foundation, you become fully registered with the General Medical Council.
3. Get core surgical training
Being registered with the GMC allows you to apply for core surgical training. This stage of training is highly competitive, with candidates passing through a national selection process based on their work portfolios and interviews. If accepted, you're assigned a series of jobs in different surgical specialities on rotation, lasting between four and six months for a total of two years. You're required to spend at least six months in a plastic surgery post to qualify for future plastic surgery training. During core surgical training, the following happens:
Membership of the Royal College of Surgeons (MRCS) exam
You take an MCRS test, which is a basic surgical competence exam that allows you to apply for speciality training. This exam covers all areas of surgical practice. You're required to pass the exam and rank the areas you wish to work in for future training. You get a job according to your interview scores.
Application for plastic surgery speciality
After passing your MRCS exam, you're required to apply for plastic surgery speciality training. The application window for this training happens once a year, and it's one of the most competitive branches of surgery. These training programmes normally choose applicants based on a wide range of qualifications and abilities, including their portfolio, experience, clinical skills and assessments of their communication and presentation skills.
4. Get speciality training
Once you're accepted for your plastic surgery speciality training, you spend six years of training focusing exclusively on plastic surgery. The six years are typically divided into two levels:
Intermediate (ST3-6): Here, you gain universal plastic surgery skills.
Final (ST7-8): At this level, you become a senior trainee and undergo training in your specialist area of plastic surgery to refine your skills.
You may also spend your senior years working in a TIG (Training Interface Group) fellowship. Some of the plastic surgery fields you might specialise in include:
palate and cleft lip surgery
head and neck surgical oncology
therapeutic use of lasers
5. Obtain certification
After completing your speciality training, you become eligible to take the Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons (FRCS) exam. This test is mandatory for obtaining one of the two required certifications, including the Certificate of Eligibility for Specialist Registration (CESR) or the Completion of Training (CCT). The Joint Committee on Intercollegiate Examinations (JCIE) regulates this exam, and you sit it with the royal college of your choice. When you attain your CESR or CCT certification, you're added to GMC's specialist register. This makes you eligible to apply for a fellowship for more specialised training or a consultancy post.
6. Choose a consultancy post
The consultancy post is the pinnacle of the plastic surgery training pathway. It's highly competitive and may take up the rest of your working life, making it vital to choose a post that aligns with your interests, goals and ambitions. Choosing a consultancy post is like applying for a job position. You select a post based on numerous factors, including clinical resources and facilities, locality and travel times and opportunities for research. Candidates are usually accredited by the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (BAAPS) and the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) for consultancy posts.
Tips for becoming a plastic surgeon
Here are some useful tips to help you become a plastic surgeon:
Get high grades
The entry requirements for medical school are high, so make sure you get good grades in secondary school. Most universities accept applicants with at least five GCSEs in grades 9 to 7 (A* or A), including maths, English and science. You also require three A-levels or an equivalent, including chemistry and biology. Each medical school has slightly different entry requirements, but your A-level grades are usually the determining factor for acceptance. Aim to get top grades in hard science subjects like chemistry and biology to secure a place in a medical school.
It takes a total of 15 to 16 years to become a fully qualified plastic surgeon. This makes it vital to be patient and motivated with your education and training. Remember, although becoming a plastic surgeon takes many years, earning an income doesn't require you to be fully qualified. Once you enrol in a foundation programme, you start earning a salary even though you're only a trainee. Core surgical and speciality training are also paid training programmes.
Study early and often
Each level of a plastic surgeon's training pathway is highly competitive, and there are numerous examinations and tests to take. Only the top candidates gain entry and move forward with their training, so it helps to put a lot of effort into studying. Since you're competing with smart and qualified candidates, try to study early and often to pass all the necessary tests and examinations. This way, you make a good impression on both employers and clients.
Determine if it's the right career path for you
Becoming a plastic surgeon requires a significant amount of personal sacrifice and dedication, especially when it comes to training. If you don't have great motivation, the sacrifice may not be worth the reward. Assess your reasons for wanting to become a plastic surgeon to determine if it's the right path for you. Don't stop at wanting to help people. Delve deeper by reviewing your competency in the following areas:
Plastic surgeons put in a lot of effort and time to complete their training and perform their duties and tasks correctly. They also work extremely long hours and are on-call 24/7 in case of emergencies. If you're hardworking and have no problem putting in the hours necessary to achieve your goals, a career in plastic surgery may suit you.
Plastic surgeons are highly-ambitious individuals with a strong personal desire to accomplish meaningful goals. This ambition helps them thrive in extremely competitive environments like plastic surgery, where most training programmes only accept one applicant out of every two or three qualified candidates. Ensure that you have strong ambitions that drive you to be a constantly high achiever.
Compassion, maturity and emotional intelligence
Plastic surgeons are compassionate and kind. They're aware of suffering in living things and wish to help alleviate this suffering. They're also aware of other people's emotions and consider their needs to provide the necessary support. As a plastic surgeon, you showcase empathy and harness your emotions to solve problems.
Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.
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