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Surgical Technologist: Careers, Degrees & Certification

Find out what a surgical tech does on the job and how you can become one.

woman tech preps before going into surgery
Home » Surgical Technologist

What Does a Surgical Tech Do? 

Even though the surgeon gets all the credit for a successful surgery, the life of a patient depends in a very large part on the diligence and competence of the surgical technologist. 

Surgical technologists are key members of the surgical team and as you’ll need a cool head, a quick mind, and an iron stomach to perform your job. Your duties will include preparing and sterilizing the OR for surgery, transporting patients to and from the OR, passing instruments to the attending surgeon, retracting the patient’s tissues, and suturing incisions. 

Because contamination in the OR could be life-threatening for the patient on the table, the importance of the surgical tech cannot be underestimated. 

Job Responsibilities

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. 

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. 

Where the Majority of Surgical Techs Work

Hospitals

73%

Outpatient care centers or doctors’ offices

20%

Finding Surgical Technologist Jobs 

As you read above, the majority—over 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. 

Getting Your Degree

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

While many medical careers require a specific degree to join the field, surgical technologists have three 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 one 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. 

For those interested in joining the field as quickly as possible, certificates and diplomas are typically earned in as little as one year.

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. 

Accreditation

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.

Surgical Technologist Personality Traits and Skills

You are…


  • An active listener
  • Coordinated
  • A critical thinker
  • Comfortable working with the public
  • Detail oriented

You should have…


  • Oral and speech comprehension
  • Time management skills
  • Medical software skills
  • People skills
  • Integrity

Surgical Tech Salaries

Annual Median Salary

Surgical Technologist

$49,710

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, surgical technologists report earning a median annual salary of $49,710 per year. 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, surgical technologists have reported earning more than $73,110 a year.

Advancing Through Professional 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: 

  • Step 1 – Complete a program
    Successfully complete an accredited surgical technician program
  • Step 2 – Pass the exam
    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 2021, Idaho, Indiana, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, 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. These three states require surgical techs to register in order to work in the state: Colorado, North Dakota, Washington.

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 three key content areas: 

Ancillary duties: Includes administrative work, and equipment sterilization and maintenance

Basic science: Includes anatomy and physiology, microbiology, and surgical pharmacology

Perioperative care: Includes perioperative prep, intraoperative procedures, and post-perioperative procedures

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 four years, with candidates being required to complete 60 hours of continuing education (CE) credits within each cycle. However, as of January 2020, the renewal period shortened to two years and the CE requirements were 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.