Surgical Tech
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Learn What It Takes to Make the Cut as a Surgical Technologist

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Surgical technologists (ST) support operating room procedures before, during and after an operation to ensure professional teamwork and patient safety. They keep conditions sterile, hand instruments to the surgeon, and assist in wound care. Healthcare career schools and community colleges provide the necessary education for entry level “scrubs,” as they’re sometimes called. Students can choose among one-year diplomas and two-year associate of science degrees in surgical technology. Learn what it means to be a surgical technologist, from school to post-graduation, and what the career and salary potentials look like for this field.

Find Surgical Tech Programs

Starting a career as a surgical tech means finding the right program to fit individual career goals, which can be a tough call when faced with the long list of diploma and degree programs available. This search tool can save time and energy, allowing aspiring students to sort through prospective schools by name, location, or degree level.

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Surgical Tech Schools & Programs

There are two major educational pathways into the profession:

  • Career and technical schools to earn diplomas and certificates
  • Community colleges to earn associate degrees.

The pathways vary on the amount of time it takes to graduate and the depth of the surgical curriculum. Community college programs, for example, can take twice the amount of time to complete, but the curriculum satisfies general education requirements for students who intend to go on to a four-year school.

Career & Technical School

Time to Complete:Nine months to one year

Credential Earned:Graduates earn a surgical technology diploma, preparing them for entering the field and take national certification examinations for surgical technologists. (CST).

Description:This fast-track program combines classroom learning with supervised lab/clinical experiences to prepare students for scrub work in a range of medical settings. Studies focus on patient care, anatomy, aseptic technique, surgical procedures and microbiology.

Curriculum: The 54-unit curriculum combines surgical technology studies with practical coursework in mathematics, composition, and patient communication. In-depth studies cover topics in medical terminology, surgical instrumentation, sterilization and infection control, pharmacology, psychology, legal and ethical considerations, and a supervised clinical practicum.

Sample Courses:

Medical Terminology for Surgical Techniques

Students learn the terminology for communicating in the operating room. Lessons include the study of word roots that enable students to understand the meanings of new surgical terms.

Introduction to Surgical Procedure

The surgical team depends on the communication and technical skills of each member. Students learn about the OR environment, asepsis and sterile techniques, prepping, patient positioning and final instrument counts.

Surgical Specialties

Students are introduced to endoscopic and laser surgeries along with readings in robotics and physics required for the national certification examination.

Clinical Practicum

Under direct supervision, students walk through preoperative, intraoperative, and postoperative surgical procedures in a clinical setting.

Community College

Time to Complete:About 24 months

Credential Earned:Graduates earn an associate of science degree, qualifying them to take national surgical technologist certification examinations (CST).

Description:An associate of science degree program includes 60 hours of theoretical classroom instruction along with supervised clinical experience. Students may be required to take prerequisite college courses in medical terminology, anatomy, and psychology to enter the fall core course programs. Upon graduation, students can work in hospital and clinical settings.

Curriculum: Courses in the 60—80-unit major include didactic studies in microbiology, surgical procedures, pharmacology, anatomy and physiology, healthcare ethics and law, writing and research. Students also participate in supervised surgical practice in clinical settings. The curriculum may also include coursework in sterilization methods, patient assessment, infection control, wound classification, robotics, and CPR.

Sample Courses

Surgical Microbiology

Students examine the organic causes of infection, the defense systems of the body, and cell processes.

Advanced Surgical Procedures

This course covers protocol for the vascular, neurology, and cardiothoracic operating room procedures, including equipment, supplies and pathophysiology.

The Surgical Patient

Students discover aspects to address when assessing and treating the range of patient populations entering the surgical setting. Considerations include using Maslow’s hierarchy to inform patient-centered care.

Surgical Technology

This fundamental course covers essential scrub and circulator duties including safety standards, equipment, sterile technique, and anesthesia.

Timeline to Career as a Surgical Tech

The voyage to a surgical technologist career can be completed in as little as three semesters of post-secondary training or in two years for those seeking a college degree – that’s if you have a map. The real journey begins in high school, where students interested in science or medicine start on required and elective classes. They can then advance after graduation to scrub training or degree programs that prepare them for work under nurse supervision. Graduates then typically sit for voluntary certification programs that may be required for employment or for advancement in the field.

Complete high school (or GED)

Many colleges and career schools look favorably upon applicants who completed required science courses and took electives in subjects such as biology, physiology, chemistry and math. Without a high school diploma or GED, the journey stops dead in its tracks right here. Consider summer school for adding science units.

Choose an education program and apply

A career school diploma can cut a year of schooling, but the associate degree might be better for those intending to go on to nursing school. Look at application requirements and the commitments to time and money. Check application deadlines and prerequisites required before the first semester of the program.

Complete an accredited degree or diploma program

Accreditation standards set by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs ensure that formal surgical technology schools combine theoretical/classroom learning with supervised clinical experience. While completing degree requirements, students often use clinical experiences to build a network of mentors and job contacts.

Add real-life experience

Surgical technologist training programs and degrees may require hands-on experience, but students can prosper from adding voluntary clinical hours where possible. If the school or college has clinical arrangements with area hospitals and clinics, find ways to volunteer or gain credit. Between job applicants, experience can tilt the balance.

Get certified

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that it is beneficial to hold certifications when seeking entry level jobs or advancement. In many states, surgical technologists are not allowed to work without certifications from a national credentialing organization. Certifications benchmark technologists’ skill sets, showing employers that they’re qualified for the role.

Surgical Technologist Careers At-a-Glance

Surgical technologists play a key role on the operating room team, working side-by-side with surgeons, registered nurses and anesthesiologists. The role is well suited to individuals who sweat the details, have dexterity and the ability to work under stress. They prepare for their careers by graduating from accredited one- and two-year programs that lead to diplomas, certificates or associate degrees. To build credentials for employment or advancement in the field, surgical technologists take tests to qualify for certifications from professional technologist associations. They undertake continuing education to maintain certification and to learn about advancements in theory, practice and emerging technologies.

Surgical Technologist: Career Basics

Surgical technologists prepare the physician’s tools in hospital operating rooms and medical/dental outpatient clinics. They sterilize tools prior to procedures and hand them to surgeons, anesthesiologists, and surgical nurses. Routine duties may include preparing patients for surgery and transporting them to the operating room, applying dressings and returning them to their rooms following the operation.

Surgical Technologist: In Depth

Surgical technologists participate in the entire medical procedure, from set-up to the suturing of patents and inventory of the tools following the procedure. During the surgery, the technologist anticipates the needs of physicians and nurses, adjusting lights, bringing up fresh sterile sponges and dressings when needed, and monitoring equipment. STs also work directly with patients, preparing them for surgery, transporting them or greeting them in the operating room. They hold certifications that attest to their skills and take courses in continuing education to build expertise. Specializations can include pediatrics, geriatrics, obstetrics and orthopedics. Some go on to emergency-room nursing careers.

Surgical Technologist Career & Salary Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has predicted that job openings for surgical technologists during the 2014-2024 decade could increase by 15 percent, adding an expected 24,600 professionals. Hospitals are predicted to play a key role in adding technologists to serve an ever-growing clinical population. The increases are sparked by aging baby boomers requiring care and increased access to health insurance. Top employers include medical/surgical hospitals, outpatient clinics, and the offices of physicians and dentists.

Industries with the Most Surgical Technologists

Industry Total Employment (2014) Mean Hourly Wage (2014) Annual Mean Wage (2014)

General Medical and Surgical Hospitals




Offices of Physicians




Outpatient Care Centers




Offices of Dentists




Specialty (except Psychiatric and Substance Abuse) Hospitals




Top 5 States with the Highest Concentration of Surgical Technologists

  • Massachusetts 3,440
  • Tennessee 2,780
  • Mississippi 1,220
  • Idaho 680
  • South Dakota 460

Highest-Paying States for Surgical Technologists

  • Nevada $60,770
  • California $59,380
  • District of Columbia $54,700
  • Hawaii $54,440
  • Connecticut $53,380


Certifications & Salary Boosters

Graduates of accredited surgical technology education programs or approved military training schools are eligible to take voluntary exams for their certifications. While voluntary credentials are not always required by all employers, technologists who obtain certifications may find a greater range of career opportunities and options. Some states might only allow state credentials to those already holding a CST certification. Certified technologists are required to undertake continuing education for credit, building their knowledge base and qualifications to assume advanced positions on the surgical team. Continuing education can also increase skills sets for higher pay. Certifications can positively affect wages. According to Payscale, adding vascular skills can increase surgical technologist pay by 14 percent. In addition, surgical technologists may use their additional certifications and continuing education as a springboard toward operating room nursing.

Here are some common certifications for the profession:

  • Surgical Assistant–Certified (SA-C)

    The American Board of Surgical Assistants offers its own voluntary certification program that evaluates the applicant’s skills in surgery and perioperative medicine. Test preparation and application information is available on the website. SA-C holders are also qualified to take the Certified Surgical Technologist credentialing examination if they can document 200 cases from their first assistant role.

  • Certified Surgical Technologist (CST)

    The National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting offers formal CST certification examinations for graduates of Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)-accredited surgical technology programs and those with relevant education and experience. The Board has test subject and exam preparation materials at its website. The passing rate is 66.7 percent.

  • Tech in Surgery–Certified (TS-C, NCCT)

    The National Center for Competency Testing offers testing for the NCCT credential to graduates of accredited schools or approved training programs. To retain a TS-C certification, professionals are required to earn 60 credits of continuing education. The rate for passing renewal requirements is 86 percent.

Additional Resources

Accreditation Review Council on Education in Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting.

ARCSTSA offers a database of information for students on surgical technology and assisting programs accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs. The Council awards $30,000 in scholarships for students in the field.

Association of Surgical Assistants.

The ASA promotes recognition of professionals with certified surgical first assistant (CSFA), certified surgical assistant (CSA), and surgical assistant–certified (SA-C) certificates and designations. ASA advocates for optimizing care, supports legislation positively affecting the quality and safety of surgical practice, and offers continuing-education opportunities for members.

Association of Surgical Technologists.

AST was founded in 1969 to promote professional excellence and to create standards for educating surgical technologists for the workplace. It offers its current 7,000 members a national conference, career resources, school guides, and online opportunities for earning continuing education credits.

Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs.

Students can find a wealth of information at the CAAHEP website, including details on allied health programs, certifications, eligibility requirements for professional exams, and an FAQ page on accreditation and academic quality.

National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting.

Established in 1974, the NBSTSA is the certifying agency for professional surgical assistants, providing students and professionals with relevant examinations. The Board maintains certification standards recognized in the United States for certified surgical technologists (CST) and certified surgical first assistants (CSFA).

Student National Medical Association.

The SNMA supports current medical students hailing from underrepresented minorities. In addition to sponsoring national and local events for educators and students, it provides community outreach to educate potential students about health care careers.