Surgical Technologist: Job, Career Path, Salary, and More

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

This exciting job frequently tops lists of desirable entry level jobs in the medical profession. Learning about the duties, education, qualifications, and skills of a surgical technologist can help you decide if this career choice is right for you.

[Featured Image] A surgical technologist wearing scrubs organizes a tray of tools in an operating room.

As a surgical technologist, it's likely you'll be right where the action is — in the operating room. You're part of the surgical team who plays an important role in making sure everyone has what they need to do their jobs. This exciting job frequently tops lists of desirable entry-level jobs in the medical profession. Learning about the duties, education, qualifications, and skills of a surgical technologist can help you decide if this career choice is right for you.

What do surgical technologists do?

Also known as operating room technicians or surgery technicians, surgical technologists help prepare operating rooms and patients for surgery. They typically show up first to the operating room and get to work setting it up so that the surgical team can work in a safe, sterile environment. In addition, they assist with surgical procedures and provide postoperative patient care.

What are the main duties and responsibilities of a surgical technologist?

A surgical technologist’s main duties and responsibilities are setting up and maintaining a sterile environment in the operating room. They may inspect, sterilize, and set up surgical tools and equipment before the rest of the team arrives. The job also typically includes preparing the patient for surgery by helping them onto the operating table and getting them into place. During surgery, surgical technologists assist the surgeon and help maintain a sterile environment in the room.

However, like most medical jobs, the specific tasks surgical technologists perform can vary from day to day. To fully understand the day-to-day role of a surgical technologist, it helps to explore the range of tasks they may be asked to complete before, during, and after surgery as well as in between operations. These tasks may not be part of the daily routine, but they can be included in the scope of expected work.

Preparing operating rooms for surgery

Surgical technologists get the operating room ready by making sure it's set up with all the supplies needed for the particular surgery. Pre-op duties also include checking the equipment the surgeons and assistants will be using as they work. These supplies might include:

  • Surgical instruments like scalpels, sutures, and clamps

  • Anesthesia screens

  • Drapes and gowns

  • Monitors

  • Sponges

  • Suction tubing

  • Syringes and needles

  • Solutions and medications

As part of the pre-operative duties, surgical technologists also make sure that all items needed for surgery are in the proper place and sterile. In addition, they are responsible for making sure that any equipment used for surgery is working properly. 

Preparing patients for surgery

Preparing a patient for surgery is another part of a surgical technologist’s job description. They may review a patient's chart to identify them and transport them to the operating room. They'll also help the patient move from the stretcher to the operating table and prepare the incision area. This may involve shaving the area and disinfecting it before covering the patient with surgical drapes.

Assisting with surgical procedures

Part of the excitement of surgical technology is assisting with surgery. This starts when the surgical team enters the room and the surgical technologist helps them with their gowns and scrub in. As the team gets to work, the technologists will make sure each person has supplies throughout the procedure and replenishes them when they get low. As part of the role, you might do the following:

  • Hand instruments, sponges, and other supplies to the surgeon or surgeon's assistant

  • Use retractors to keep incisions open or to hold tissue in place

  • Pass solutions or medications to the surgeon

  • Dress the incision at the end of surgery

  • Handle tissue specimens that go to the lab 

Providing post-operative care

Post-op duties might include moving the patient from the operating table to the stretcher, counting tools, replenishing supplies, and disposing of used items like syringes, needles, bandages, and dressings. Surgical technologists may also transport patients to a recovery area.

What qualifications and certifications are required to become a surgical technologist?

To become a surgical technologist, you need to graduate from an accredited surgical technology training program. In the program, you will likely take courses in subjects like anatomy, microbiology, sterilization, infection control, and patient care. You'll also have opportunities to practice what you've learned in clinical settings. At some schools, you also may learn how to use robotic surgical equipment.

A variety of institutions offer these programs, including community colleges, vocational schools, hospitals, and universities. Some people complete their training through the military. Typically, you'll need a high school diploma or the equivalent to get into a surgical technology program, and you may need to complete prerequisite courses in science and medical terminology.

Many states require you to have board certification in order to work as a surgical technologist. This certification is offered through the NBSTSA (National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting). To earn this certification, you must provide transcripts showing you've completed a surgical technology program and you must pass the Certified Surgical Technologist (CST) exam. 

How long does it take to train as a surgical technologist?

You can complete surgical technology training in as little as 12 to 18 months if you choose to attend a community college or vocational school. However, if you want to earn an associate degree, you should plan to spend at least two years in a surgical technology associate degree program at a college or university. Ultimately, the time you spend studying and training to be a surgical technologist depends on which educational program you choose. 

What skills do I need to become a surgical technologist?

To be successful as a surgical technologist, you'll need a combination of technical and human skills, such as sterilization techniques and the ability to work in a high-pressure situation. You often work in a fast-paced and high-stress environment but also spend time interacting with team members and patients. Your skills help you navigate these situations so you can do your job safely and effectively.  

Top technical skills needed by surgical technologists

Surgical technologists need a thorough knowledge of surgical procedures and equipment. For instance, you'll be required to identify hundreds of medical instruments and supplies. When the surgeon asks you for a specific tool during surgery, you need to quickly select the correct tool. More technical skills needed in this line of work include:

  • Knowledge of operating room safety and sterilization techniques

  • Ability to care for patients and make them comfortable

  • Ability to perform CPR and other basic life support procedures

Top human skills needed by surgical technologists

Successful surgical technologists also have certain human skills that help them deal with the stress of the job and communicate with others. Being able to listen to and communicate with others is important when issues arise during surgery and when you're transporting patients to and from the operating room. Paying attention to detail also is essential in this line of work. Other skills you may find beneficial include:

  • Ability to work well under pressure

  • Ability to work well alone and with a team

  • Critical thinking

  • Dexterity

  • Organization

  • Stamina

  • Time management

Where can I work once I’m qualified as a surgical technologist?

Most surgical technologists work in hospitals, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. In addition to public and private hospitals, surgical technologists may work in doctor's offices, outpatient facilities, and dental practices. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, medical personnel are a sought-after commodity, which can make it easier to find a job in the field after you graduate.

How much do surgical technologists earn?

The median salary for surgical technologists was $48,530 in 2021. Where you work will play a role in how much you make. For surgical techs working in outpatient surgical centers, the median wage was $56,470 in 2021, while the median wage for those working in a dentist's office was $48,070 [1].


What does career progression look like for a surgical technologist?

You may start your career as a surgical technologist, but you may decide to advance your career by specializing in a specific type of surgery or pursuing a supervisory position. Not only is it possible to increase your salary by choosing a specialization, but the training you receive also can open additional work opportunities. Common specialties for surgical technologists include the following:

  • Cardiovascular

  • Obstetrics and Gynecology

  • Orthopedic

  • Neurology

  • Reconstructive

You can also get additional training and experience to become a first surgical assistant. People who work as first surgical assistants have more expertise and more skill than surgical technologists. As such, they take on a leadership role in the operating room and tend to work more closely with the surgeon. Their tasks in surgery are also more complex.

If you’d like to work outside the operating room, consider a job as a central supply supervisor. In this role, you would monitor supply rooms to ensure they are clean and organized. Central supply supervisors also coordinate supply orders and verify deliveries. Surgical technology training is a common requirement for this position, and you’ll be more familiar with operating supplies that need to be ordered.

Another route surgical technologists may take is as a teacher for future surgical technologists. Typically, you'll need at least three years of experience working as a surgical technologist in an operating room. Then, you need to pass a certification exam to become a licensed instructor. This exam is given through the National Board of Surgical Technicians and Surgery Assistants. 

Get started today

To decide if you're suited for a job as a surgical technologist, it might help to take one or two of the prerequisite courses you'll need to get into a surgical tech program. Consider enrolling in Medical Terminology offered by Rice University or Anatomy offered by the University of Michigan. These classes on Coursera are both designed for beginners, and they're ideal if you're preparing for future studies in the field of medicine. 

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Article sources

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Surgical Technologists," Accessed June 12, 2022.

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