How to Become a Certified Surgical Technologist: Education & Testing

With operating room dramas being a popular genre for TV, most of us have seen depictions of a surgeon being passed a scalpel by an unidentified technician in a brightly lit OR. But who is that technician and what other responsibilities do they have?

Surgical technologists, more commonly known as surgical techs, assist doctors and other medical personnel before, during, and after operational procedures. They’re trained individuals who often hold advanced certifications and work long hours as key members of the surgical team.

What Does a Surgical Tech Do?

Surgical technologists help with the general functions in and around the operating room. First and foremost, surgical technologists prepare the operating room for procedures. This can range from sterilizing the equipment to making sure that all of the necessary supplies are present and well stocked. When it’s time for the operation, they help transfer the patient and get them ready for surgery by setting them up on the operating table and cleaning the incision site.

During the procedure, surgical techs pass nurses and surgeons the proper tools and ensure that everything stays sanitized. They might also connect drains and tubing, operate suction machines, or prepare specimens for analysis. When the surgery is over, they’re often tasked with dressing the incision site, transferring the patient back to their room, and setting up the OR for the next surgery.

Surgical technologist vs. surgical technician

Surgical technologists and surgical technicians are interchangeable terms. When looking for surgical tech programs or even jobs in the field, you may find one term used in lieu of the other, but both involve the same general skill set. You might also come across titles such as scrubs or operating room technicians used in similar ways.

Surgical technologist vs. surgical assistant

Surgical assistants, often called first assistants, have many of the same responsibilities as technologists, however they often work more hands-on with patients. They usually collaborate more closely with the surgeon to perform technical tasks that include inserting catheters, stopping bleeding, opening and closing surgical incisions, and using tools to hold back tissue and organs that may interfere with surgery.

In the past, surgical technologists who hadn’t graduated from a program specific to surgical assisting could pass an exam to work as a Certified Surgical First Assistant (CSA). However, as of 2019, only physicians and properly trained military personnel are eligible to sit for the CSA exam without having completed a surgical assisting program. If you’re a current surgical tech and wish to advance into a CSA position, you’ll need to complete a formal program that’s approved by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP).

Surgical Technologist Schools

Surgical tech programs usually take between 12 and 24 months to complete.

surgical technologist length of study graphic

While many medical careers require a specific degree to join the field, surgical technologists have 3 options for their level of education: a certificate, diploma, or associate’s degree.

For those interested in joining the field as quickly as possible, certificates and diplomas are typically earned in as little as 1 year, thanks to coursework that focuses specifically on surgical technology without courses on general knowledge or electives. These programs are often completed through technical or vocational schools.

Associate’s degrees typically take students between 18 and 24 months to complete. Unlike with certificates and diplomas, an associate’s degree for surgical technology will include coursework in general science, English, and math. These are often completed at community colleges, but can also be found at technical and vocational schools and even some universities.


No matter what program you choose, it must be accredited by either the CAAHEP or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) if you want to be eligible to take the Certified Surgical Technologist (CST) exam. Some states require CST certification for the employment of surgical technologists, but even if your state doesn’t, you’ll likely come across employers who will expect you to be a CST.

Admission requirements

Surgical technologist programs require candidates to hold a high school diploma or GED at minimum. Some schools might require prerequisite courses ranging from biology to English, and it’s likely that you’ll need to complete a course in CPR as well. Because your education also includes hands-on experience with patients, many schools require students to complete a criminal background check before beginning the program.

What you’ll study

Surgical technologist programs involve courses that give you practical, real world experience. Many programs even go a step further by including a practicum or internship in which you’ll utilize your learned skills in a hospital setting. Accredited programs will cover the same basic courses:

  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Sterilization techniques
  • Intro to surgical technologies
  • Pharmacology for surgical techs
  • Patient care
  • Surgical procedures

Are There Surgical Tech Programs Online?

If this is your first step into the field of surgical tech, then online opportunities aren’t an option as courses are extremely hands-on. That said, with more and more programs trying to meet students where they are, you may find flexible options that offer nighttime or weekend classes.

However, if you already have experience with surgical technology, then online options may be available. These are designed for students who have received on-the-job training as surgical technologists or who graduated from a non-accredited program. Because candidates of this nature have previous experience, these programs can often be offered at an accelerated rate.

How to Earn Your Surgical Tech Certification

Gaining certification is a great way to distinguish that you have the practical skills and knowledge that’s necessary to perform entry-level job duties. Earning a surgical tech certification is a 2-step process:

  1. Successfully complete an accredited surgical technician program
  2. Take and pass the Certified Surgical Technologist exam

Some states are now requiring surgical technologists to earn their certification before becoming eligible for employment. As of 2019, Arkansas, Indiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas require this credential. With the list projected to grow, you’ll want to consider earning your CST no matter which state you call home.

The CST exam

So, what exactly is the CST exam? Administered by the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA), the exam consists of 175-questions, out of which 150 are scored. You need to earn a score of roughly 70% in order to pass. To do so, your surgical tech program should have prepared you with knowledge in 3 key content areas:

  1. Perioperative care
    1. Perioperative preparation
    2. Intraoperative procedures
    3. Post-perioperative procedures
  2. Ancillary duties
    1. Administrative and personnel
    2. Equipment sterilization and maintenance
  3. Basic science
    1. Anatomy and physiology
    2. Microbiology
    3. Surgical pharmacology

Certification renewal

Once you have your certification, it’s necessary to renew it every few years. As of 2019, the renewal cycle for CSTs is every 4 years, with candidates being required to complete 60 hours of continuing education (CE) credits within each cycle. However, beginning in January of 2020, the renewal period shortened to 2 years and the CE requirements will be cut to 30 credits per cycle.

If you don’t complete the necessary CEs, you can also opt to renew your certification by retaking the initial CST exam.

Finding Surgical Technologist Jobs

As you might expect, the majority—about 70%—of surgical technologists work in hospitals. But while that may be the most popular place of employment, it’s not the only work environment available. Physicians’ offices, outpatient care centers, and even dentists’ offices employ surgical technologists and CSTs.

When you begin your job search, you can check the openings for these various settings in your area. Organizations designed for surgical technologists are also there to help. Both the National Board of Surgical Technology and the Association of Surgical Technologists have online career resources for job opportunities.

Surgical Tech Salary & Job Growth

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, surgical technologists report earning an average annual salary of $50,110. While this is a good number to consider, keep in mind that potential wages vary by state, work environment, and seniority. At the top end of the field, the highest 10% of surgical technologists have reported earning more than $71,400 a year.


Average Annual Salary

With the length of life increasing and the advancement in medical equipment and procedures, surgical operations are happening more frequently than ever before. At an overall growth rate of 7% through 2029, the field of surgical technology can look forward to seeing increased opportunities for employment.

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