How to Become a Neurosurgeon

Find out if a career in this exceptionally and demanding field is for you

Neurosurgery, brain operation Surgeon
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A neurosurgeon is a surgeon who specializes in operating on the brain, spine, and peripheral nerves. Because neurosurgeons are some of the most highly paid surgeons, the field is extremely competitive. Additionally, the complexity and high-risk nature of brain surgery contribute to the level of surgical skills and knowledge necessary to become a successful neurosurgeon.

Job Responsibilities

Neurosurgeons may be called brain surgeons, but because the nervous system is a network that runs throughout the body, they may be called on to do everything from removing a brain tumor or a herniated disc to reconstruct a spine or perform carpal tunnel surgery.

The field is ever-changing, with new advancements and techniques being developed to help neurosurgeons treat a number of neurological issues that can be traced to physiological abnormalities that can be repaired via surgery.

Education and Training

The education and training to become a neurosurgeon is rigorous and extensive. To start, you must first complete the basic requirements of becoming a physician: obtaining a bachelor's degree, preferably in a field that will prepare you for medical school, such as biology, chemistry, or physics, then spending four or more years in an accredited medical school to obtain an M.D. or D.O. degree.

After successfully obtaining a medical degree, you must then gain acceptance into a neurosurgery residency training program. There are dozens of such accredited programs nationwide. The average length is seven years, with a few programs lasting six years and many requiring eight years of training.

Due to the length of the training program, most programs only accept one to three residents each year. Some neurosurgeons also complete a fellowship after residency to specialize in a particular area.

As you can see, if you're interested in becoming a neurosurgeon, you have a long road ahead. Neurosurgery often attracts some of the best and the brightest of the medical field, due to the extremely challenging and dynamic nature of the field.


Compensation is among the highest of any physician or surgeon. The average annual income for neurosurgeons is about $660,000. The top 10 percent of all neurosurgeons earn about $1,050,000.

Environment and Lifestyle

If you thrive in an extremely high-pressure environment and can endure the additional years of rigorous training, neurosurgery may be for you.

The demands of neurosurgery careers probably cannot be overemphasized, so one must be extremely level-headed, calm, and collected under extreme pressure. Neurosurgeons require excellent critical thinking and analytical abilities.

The physical demands can be great too: Spending long hours in the OR takes stamina. In addition, neurosurgeons must have top surgical skills and optimal dexterity to be able to perform delicate procedures. There are robotic devices, imaging equipment, and cameras that can assist with precision, so neurosurgeons must also be comfortable with the most advanced, complex technology as well.

Though a more practical consideration, neurosurgeons must be available to take a call (within the call-rotation schedule) and to perform emergency surgeries at all hours. In addition, neurosurgeons are the most likely medical specialists to get sued, according to one 2011 report; on an annual basis, 19 percent of neurosurgeons experience at least one lawsuit.

However, if you can deal with the high risk and stress of the field, the financial rewards are great, as are the intrinsic rewards of performing such advanced surgeries that are often life-saving.

Related Careers

If becoming a neurosurgeon doesn't seem like a good fit for you, there are other related careers that you can consider:

  • Orthopedic surgeon: Some aspects of neurosurgery overlap with these spine-surgery specialists.
  • Neurologist: These physicians focus on the diagnosis and treatment of diseases and disorders of the brain and nervous system, but don't perform surgery.
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