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What Degree Does a Surgical Technician Need?

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There are several educational paths available to people who want to become surgical technologists. The degree that you need may depend on where you live.

Many states require that surgical techs are either certified or registered with their state’s health department or other regulatory body for health professions. Surgical techs in these states typically need to graduate from an accredited surgical technologist program and/or have a professional surgical technologist certification to qualify for state-issued certification/registration. Be sure to check out your state’s laws to determine what education is required for surgical techs, if any. The Association for Surgical Technologists (AST) has some information about state-specific laws that may help in your search.  

Although it may be possible to find jobs that provide on-the-job training in states where surgical techs are not regulated, even those jobs usually want you to have some health care education under your belt or will require that you have a professional certification. Therefore, it’s best practice to get trained by a surgical technologist program to successfully enter the field.

Surgical technologist degree options

There are two primary educational options to become a surgical technologist: certificate programs and associate degree programs. Both options have many similarities and a handful of differences which may influence which program is best for you and your professional goals.

The most important thing to remember is that no matter what type of program you choose, it should be accredited by either the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) and/or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES).

When a program is accredited by one of these institutions, you can be assured that your program will qualify you to apply for professional certifications or state-level certification, which may be necessary to work where you live. In addition, a quality program should offer numerous student support services to help you plan for your career, such as helping you find internship and/or job opportunities during or after the program.

Certificate programs

Program length: Approximately 12-18 months

Admission requirements: High school diploma or GED, standardized test scores (SAT or ACT)

Certificate programs are offered at community colleges, technical and vocational schools. They are usually shorter in length than associate degree programs and can typically be completed in about 12-18 months. Although every school’s admission process is going to be a little different, most certificate programs can be applied to directly without needing to take any prerequisite courses first. Because they are shorter, certificate programs usually cost less and can get you into the field faster.

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Associate degree programs

Program length: Two years

Admission requirements: High school diploma or GED, standardized test scores (SAT or ACT), prerequisite courses in anatomy and physiology, math and English

Associate degree programs are also available at community colleges and technical schools but take a little more time to complete than most certificate programs. That’s often due to the fact that associate degree programs usually require students to complete a certain amount of general prerequisite courses at the college first before applying to their surgical technologist program. Because of this, associate degree programs often take approximately two years of full-time study to complete. Each school is going to determine which courses are necessary for admission into their program, but could include introductory courses in anatomy and physiology, medical terminology, biology, math, psychology and English. 

What will you study?

Accredited surgical technologist programs consist of a variety of courses that will give you the knowledge and skills to prepare you for the job duties of a surgical technologist. They include a combination of classroom learning and hands-on clinical experiences so that you get real-world practice as a surgical technologist.

Each program has their own learning outcomes and curriculum designed to satisfy the education requirements of their accrediting body. Programs that are accredited by the CAAHEP, for example, must include coursework in the following areas:

Area:Courses in:
Healthcare sciences:Medical terminology
Anatomy and physiology
Pharmacology and anesthesia
Professional practice:Professionalism
Healthcare facility information
Biopsychosocial concepts
Technological science concepts:Information technology
Minimally invasive applications
Interventional radiology
Surgical technology:Equipment
Asepsis and sterile technique
Sterile processing
Perioperative case management
Assistant circulator duties
Surgical procedures by specialty
Surgical rotation and roles*

*Students must complete a minimum of 120 surgical cases to graduate from a CAAHEP accredited program.

Can I take a surgical technologist program online?

You cannot take a surgical technologist program without any prior training entirely online. That’s because the duties of a surgical tech are very hands-on and require in-person practice to ensure the health and safety of patients and yourself. If the convenience of online learning is enticing, you may be able to find programs that allow you to take the classroom courses online. However, you must do clinical surgical rotations in-person.  

Surgical technologist certifications

There are several professional certifications available to surgical technologists. In some states where surgical technologists must be certified or registered by the state itself, holding a professional certification may be required to qualify and therefore required to work. Even in states where this is not the case, many employers may want their surgical techs to have a professional certification to ensure they are getting quality applicants that are fit for the role. Certifications for surgical technologists include:

Each of these certifications have their own eligibility requirements—usually must be about to graduate or already graduated from an accredited surgical tech program—and involve passing an exam to earn the credential. Besides expanding the number of jobs available to you, holding a professional certification could make you a more competitive job candidate and possibly lead to a higher salary.  

Certificate vs Certification

A certificate is awarded by an educational institution, and signifies that a student has satisfactorily completed a given curriculum. Certificate programs can help students prepare for certification exams.
A certification is generally awarded by a trade group after an individual has met certain professional requirements (e.g. earned a specific degree, worked professionally in a given field for a set amount of time, etc.) and passed a certification exam.

In short, a certificate is evidence that someone has completed an educational program, while a certification denotes that someone has met a certain set of professional criteria and/or passed an exam.

Not all programs offered are designed to meet state educator licensing or advancement requirements; however, it may assist candidates in gaining these approvals in their state of residence depending on those requirements. Contact the state board of education in the applicable state(s) for requirements.

What’s next?

The first step in become a surgical technologist is completing an accredited surgical technology program. There are several different program types out there with a few differences that may determine which type is best for you, but you can be assured that you’re receiving a quality education if that program is accredited by the CAAHEP or ABHES.

After working as a surgical technologist for some time, you may wonder what other jobs are out there for someone with your skills. If you’re interested in moving up the career ladder, surgical technologists may choose to become a surgical assistant or a registered nurse with additional education and training.

Updated on: March 21, 2023