How to Become a <br>Surgical Assistant

How to Become a
Surgical Assistant

Gabriela Bercenas
By Gabriela Bercenas - Content Strategist
Last Updated: August 02, 2023
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Were you a natural caretaker as a child? Did you leap to offer first aid to your friends and family? Consider a career as a surgical assistant — this how-to guide provides advice on what classes to take and how to develop surgical skills.

We also created these helpful surgical assistant resume samples with the help of our intuitive Resume Builder to give you a leg up over your fellow job seekers.

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What Does a Surgical Assistant Do?

A surgical assistant assists the surgeon under the surgeon’s indirect and direct supervision before, during and after operations. Some typical surgical assistant duties and responsibilities include:

  • Prepare and position the patient safely according to the surgeon’s orders and the patient’s physical limitations before surgery.

  • Assist other medical professionals, such as the anesthesiologist, in preparing the patient for surgery.

  • Complete operational tasks such as removing tissue, removing devices and drains, closing surgical sites and applying appropriate dressings to surgical wounds.

  • Assists in the post-operative transfer of the patient to the surgical recovery wing.

  • Check patient information for accuracy.

  • Operate diagnostic medical equipment.

  • Ensure a sterile operating field is maintained.

  • Protect patients and staff via the use of safety techniques and equipment.

  • Implement life-supporting techniques as needed.

How Do You Become a Surgical Assistant?

Demand for surgical assistants is growing at a much faster-than-average rate. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a 6% growth for surgical assistants through 2031, amounting to 9,600 annual job openings over the next decade.

This is how to become a surgical assistant:


Step 1: Find an appropriate training program.

According to our analysis of online job postings, employers are looking for surgical assistant candidates with a postsecondary certificate or an associate degree. Accredited programs in surgical assisting are available from various community colleges and vocational institutions. The National Surgical Assistant Association (NSAA) offers a comprehensive list of certified surgical assistant programs to help you narrow your search.


Step 2: Earn your associate degree.

The length of surgical assisting programs can last from a few months up to two years. Graduates can expect a certificate, diploma or associate degree after their program. Candidates who have completed a certification or degree program can often more easily secure a job.


Step 3: Consider a bachelor’s degree for more opportunities.

Surgical assistant bachelor's degree programs offer courses in medical terminology, biology, microbiology, anatomy and physiology, pharmacology and various other topics.


Step 4: Find a surgical assisting program.

Look for academic programs that include hands-on surgical training related to caring for patients, keeping them safe pre- and post-op, sterilization techniques, setting up medical equipment and infection control protocols. You may also work in clinical settings to gain real-world experience in the field. These additional courses and experience can make you a valuable candidate for an open role.


Step 5: Pass a certification exam.

Depending on your state, you may need to pass an approved certification exam to work as a surgical assistant. The following two organizations oversee the certification exams and procedures for nationally recognized licenses.


Step 6: Apply for a surgical assistant opening.

Every well-planned surgical assistant job search starts with crafting a high-quality resume highlighting your skills and experience. For help creating a resume, look at our library of surgical assistant resume samples.

Once your resume is ready, search online for surgical assistant job opportunities. As you search for openings, leverage your professional network, including people you worked with in the health care or medical fields.

When applying for surgical assistant positions, create a cover letter that expresses your interest in the work and highlights your qualifications and what you can bring to the role. Need some inspiration for your cover letter? Check out our collection of cover letter samples.

Surgical Assistant Skills

The ability to monitor, make decisions and assist the surgeon are three of the most important skills a surgical assistant will be expected to possess. Surgical assistants should also be able to think critically.

Key surgical assistant skills include:

Hard skills:

1Medical comprehension skills to read, comprehend and follow through with surgical orders.
2Surgical prep knowledge.
3Sterilization knowledge.
4First aid and triage knowledge.

Soft skills:

1Active listening skills to successfully interact with medical staff and patients.
2Attention to detail to monitor patients and the medical equipment and diagnostic devices related to their care.
3Strong social perception skills to understand people’s reactions and reasoning.
4Service-oriented mentality to effectively work and interact with patients throughout the surgical preparation and post-operative care.
5Hand-eye coordination to safely handle and distribute surgical instruments.

Insights from a Surgical Assistant

Surgical Assistants told us all about their experiences and thoughts regarding their profession. Read this insightful Q and A section for more information about being a Surgical Assistant.

What should someone consider before becoming a Surgical Assistant?

A Surgical Assistant will usually be standing up and moving most of their time on the job. Most of the time we're in closed corridor environments with temperatures of 60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Sometimes we may need to work 12 hours shifts and be on call. Someone one day may call in sick and you may get a call at 4 in the morning to come to work. These are things you should definitely consider especially if you have a family.

What is the common career path for a Surgical Assistant?

The most common Surgical Assistant education pathway is to enter into a two-year associate degree program in surgical technology. You can also pursue a certification program which is usually a one year program but an associate program can be a little bit more hands-on though. Now, to become a certified surgical assistant you would have to enter into a certification program from the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting or the National Center for Competency Testing. These programs often offer incentives so it would be a good idea to do some research.

What type of person excels in this job?

Reliable and dedicated people with a calm nature who are ready for the unexpected and are excellent team players. People who can handle watching very graphic scenes without being squeamish.

What are some of the most important skills for Surgical Assistants have?

You need excellent dexterity, great communication skills and the ability to remain calm in stressful situations. A focused mind and quick decision-making skills are also a must in this line of work.

What do you find to be the most rewarding aspect of being a Surgical Assistant?

Being part of an important team of professionals dedicated to saving lives, is the most rewarding part of the job. You also get a competitive salary and a high demand job.

How Much Do Surgical Assistants Get Paid?

Surgical Assistants earn a median hourly wage in the United States of over $21.00. The lowest-paid Surgical Assistants make around $15 hourly, while the highest-paid can earn around $30 per hour.

Top 10 States for Surgical Assistant’s Salary

Surgical Assistants in the following states make the highest median hourly wage in the U.S.:





    District of Columbia






    New York










    Surgical Assistant Resources

    Need more information? We put together this list of extra resources to assist you as you continue exploring a career as a Surgical Assistant.

    On the Web

    Surgical Assistant Pathways
    Official blog of the Association of Surgical Assistants

    Surgical Assistant Resource
    Comprehensive resource for surgical assistants with articles, industry news and helpful links

    Industry Groups

    The National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting, which provides professional certification of surgical assistants

    National Surgical Assistant Association, which promotes national certification of surgical assistants


    Assisting at Surgical Operations: A Practical Guide
    A well-written guide for those interested in assisting in surgical operations

    Basic Surgical Techniques
    a clear, concise guide for all aspects of surgical skills

    The information in this article comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job postings and other online sources.