How to Become a Surgical Tech – The Complete Guide

November 11, 2022

Before surgery, surgeons collaborate with a team of experts who prepare the operation theater (OT). They administer anesthesia to the patient, set up monitoring devices, arrange for blood transfusions, and more. These professionals are surgical technologists or surgical techs.

A Surgical technologist is one of the highest-paying professions in the U.S. and is also a gateway for other healthcare careers such as physician assistants and registered nurses. You may also refer to surgical technologists as surgical assistants, scrub techs, or operating room technicians.

Continue reading to discover how to become a surgical tech, the career path, certifications and licenses, job outlook, and salaries in the United States.

Group of veterinarian doctors in operation room

What Does a Surgical Technician Do?

Veterinarian assistant in operation room

An operating room is a precision-oriented environment that follows a hierarchy of steps and commands. Surgical techs are critical for preparing operating rooms and patients and assisting during and after the surgery. They have a range of responsibilities before, during, and after the surgery.

Before the Operation

Surgical techs work with a surgical team to prepare the patients before the surgery. The preparations start almost 24 hours before the surgery. It may include debriefing the patient’s family, getting the necessary signatures on the forms, and inspecting the reports of medical examinations. Other tasks include:

  • Prepare the patient for surgical procedures.
  • Set up the operating room for surgery.
  • Assist other members in terminal cleaning of the operating room.
  • Transport the patient to and from the operation theater.
  • Cover the patient with sterile drapes and fasten the arms to the table.
  • Ensure the body is warm to prevent sudden blood flow to the feet.
  • Prepare sterile solutions, medications, and surgical instruments.
  • Help the anesthesiologist administer the anesthesia to the patient.
  • Prepare robotic surgical equipment if it is robotic surgery.

During the Operation

Surgical techs are the extra pair of hands for the team of surgeons. They ensure that the lead surgeon has the necessary medical equipment to focus entirely on the patient. The tasks include:

  • Act as an assistant to the surgeon and the team.
  • Hand out sterile instruments and other supplies.
  • Hold organs or retractors in place while the surgeon works on the patient.
  • During laparoscopic surgery, adjust the robotic arms and equipment or the camera.
  • Perform urinary catheterization.

After the Operation

While a surgeon’s job ends after the surgery, a surgical technologist has to take care of the following things.

  • Count all the instruments and accessories and ensure nothing is left inside the patient’s body.
  • Apply bandages or dressing over the wound.
  • Before transferring the patient to the main ward, take them to the recovery room.
  • Stock the operating room again for the subsequent surgery.
  • Debrief the patient’s family and attendants.
  • Provide observations to the hospital for quality improvement and better patient care.

Most surgical techs are generalists. But you can also specialize in different surgeries in the following departments:

  • Cardiovascular
  • Neurology
  • Urology
  • Ear/nose/throat (ENT)
  • Reconstructive
  • Orthopedic.
  • Obstetrics and gynecology (OB/GYN)

Skills of a Successful Surgical Technologist

Veterinarian surgeons in operation room

Apart from formal education, a surgical technologist needs many interpersonal skills to perform in a demanding environment. The skills and traits required to complete surgical tech programs include:

  • Ability to work closely with a team of surgeons and other support staff.
  • Listen and communicate effectively with the team and the surgeon to complete a specific task smoothly.
  • Maintain attention to detail in an operating room, from scheduling the procedure to sterilizing and setting up the surgical tools.
  • Surgical techs must have laser-sharp focus and pay close attention without any distractions.
  • Have manual dexterity in the operating room while assisting the surgeons.
  • Be sensitive to and anticipate possible problems during the surgery and take proactive actions.
  • Monitor the behavior of team members, self, and the medical equipment.
  • Surgical techs work as surgical first assistants. They listen carefully to all the instructions from the surgeon and respond clearly.

Steps to Become a Surgical Technologist

Veterinarian doctor in operation room for laparoscopic surgical

Becoming a surgical technologist requires planning and a formal pathway. Knowing the fundamentals of the profession can assist you in taking your first steps toward becoming a surgical technology professional.

After completing your program, you will enter a competitive job market with skills, education, and experience that employers value. Review the five steps listed below to help you in your surgical technology career.

Step 1

Complete the graduation or get a high school diploma or GED, which takes up to four years. It is a prerequisite for any surgical technology program.

Students must take biology, hard sciences, and anatomy courses to prepare for college-level classes. Internships at local hospitals can also help you gain broad healthcare experience.

Step 2

Get an associate degree from a community college or a technical school. This is a two-year surgical tech program with hands-on experience.

The U.S. military training program also provides formal surgical training that lasts anywhere between 12 and 14 weeks.

Aspiring students must choose accredited programs from a recognized agency such as the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) or the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP).

Step 3

It is best to participate in a practical learning type of training program while enrolled in an educational program, such as an internship or observing other surgeons. It facilitates knowledge growth and business relationships.

Step 4

After graduation, students could attend national certification exams from the National Board of Surgical Technology. Not all states require surgical techs to have certification exams, but it increases the prospects in the job search.

Step 5

Graduates can commence their careers with entry-level technologist positions. They can also gain experience and become members of the Association of Surgical Assistants (ASA) or the National Surgical Assistant Association (NSAA). These memberships help you with networking opportunities in the industry.

Exam Eligibility Criteria

Students must provide valid proof of a high school diploma or GED to take any of the certification exams. They must provide a copy of the surgical technology program and a certificate of completion that includes the graduation date.

Surgical Technologist Certification

The National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA) certifies surgical technologists and first assistants.

You must certify as a Surgical technologist in various states before you can work. Certification, on the other hand, enables surgical technologists to demonstrate their knowledge and competency in a field and their ability to meet job demands. It also shows that you qualify and are actively looking for work.

Finally, it lays the groundwork for ongoing learning and improvement through continuing education and recertification.

CST Certification

The National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA) offers the Certified Surgical Technologist (CST) certification if you meet the following criteria –

During your enrolment, the program must have proper accreditation by either CAAHEP or ABHES. You must submit the following documents:

  1. Copy of your graduation certificate
  2. Transcript
  3. A notarized letter with your name, graduation date, and degree type on the institution’s letterhead

NCCT certification

The National Center for Competency Testing offers the Certified TS-C certification to current students, experienced professionals, and those from the military. It would help if you met the following criteria:

Current student/graduate:

  • Submit a copy of the surgical technologist program diploma, certificate from the surgical technologist program, or transcript.
  • You have two years from the test date to complete the case documentation, including the apprenticeship programs registered with the U.S. Department of Labor.

Experienced Professionals:

  • Three years of provable full-time work experience as a Surgical Technology professional.
  • You must show experience under the direct supervision of a Certified/Licensed Physician Care Provider or RN.

Both experienced professionals and graduates must complete the Tech in Surgery – Certified (NCCT) Critical Skills Competency form and be U.S. high school students or hold a GED.

State Licensing for Surgical Technologists

Each state in the U.S. has its licensing requirements for surgical technologists. It is important to check the state licensing website before applying for the license. Graduates would need to take one of the certification exams mentioned above.

The Association of Surgical Technologists (AST) requires graduates of all surgical tech programs to complete the following:

  • Graduation from CAAHEP accredited surgical technology program.
  • Get a Certified Surgical Technologist (CST) credential from NBSTSA.
  • Keep the CST certification valid by completing the mandatory continuing education (CE) hours.

Rhode Island does not mandate a certification exam for surgical technologists. The neighboring states of Massachusetts and New York have a law that requires surgical technologists to have a license according to the ACT recommendations.

The following states require surgical technologists to have education and license as per the ACT recommendations:

  • Idaho
  • Indiana
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • Oregon
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Texas

The following states require a surgical technologist to register but not earn the CST credential:

  • Colorado
  • North Dakota
  • Washington

The following states offer optional registration and title protection:

  • Arkansas
  • Illinois
  • Virginia

Continuing Education (CE) Requirements for Surgical Technologists

Surgical technologists must maintain their certification by paying a fee and meeting the CE hours. Certified surgical technologists must complete a minimum of 30 CE credits in two years, including these specific requirements:

  • 30 CE credits, including 4 advanced credits before the two-year cycle expires.
  • 60 CE credits before the four-year cycle expire.

You can earn the CE credits in the following ways:

  • AST distance CE
  • Hospital in-services
  • College courses
  • Live lectures at AST state assemblies, ACS Congress, and national conferences
  • Healthcare manufacturer’s live events

You can apply for both state licensure and national certifications.

Career Outlook

Surgery instruments

A surgical technologist works in various environments, including ambulatory care services, dental offices, clinics, private physician offices, outpatient care centers, and hospital surgical centers.

According to the data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the job growth for surgical technologists and assistants will be 6% between 2021 and 2031. This is as fast as the national average of all other professions.

Each year, there will be approximately 9,600 job openings for surgical assistants and technologists to add new workers and replace the existing ones that exit due to retirement.

Surgical Technologist Salary

So how much do surgical techs make? The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the median annual salary of a surgical technologist at $48,510 ($23.32 per hour). The highest 10% of surgical technologists earned $75,940 per annum.

The highest paying states for surgical technologists in the U.S. were:

  • Alaska – $65,690
  • California – $68,410
  • District of Columbia – $65,250
  • Nevada – $65,180
  • Connecticut – $65,250

The top-5 cities that pay the highest surgical tech salaries were in California, with annual median wages between $74,330 and $80,450.

Your work experience and practical knowledge matter a lot. While those with less than 1 year of experience earn an average salary of $19.68 per hour, those with more than a decade of experience earn $25.17 per hour.


How Long Does It Take to Become a Surgical Technologist?

It takes 12 to 24 months to become a surgical technologist. You can take the course from a community college but note that it should hold accreditation from either the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES).

Is Surgical Tech a Good Job?

Surgical technologists have stable and rewarding careers with good growth prospects. With experience, students can become surgical first assistants with further career growth.

Do Surgical Techs Make More Than Nurses?

No, surgical techs make less than a nurse. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows the median annual salary for a nurse as $77,600 ($37.31 per hour) and that of a surgical tech as $48,510 ($23.32 per hour).

Can You Be a Surgical Tech Without Certification Exam?

Yes, you can be a surgical tech without a certification exam. However, most employers want candidates that have completed the national certification program. Anyone with a degree from an institution certified by the ABHES or the CCHEP is eligible for this program. It improves your employment opportunities and financial outlook.


Although surgical technicians operate in the shadows, their role is crucial. Surgical technicians oversee various duties from the beginning of the surgical procedure to the end. They pay attention to the medical procedure, check off the items on the checklist, and guarantee a successful operation.

Surgical tech is the path to take if you desire a profession that needs significant responsibility and a variety of talents. You can work in the healthcare industry without the extensive education required of a doctor or a nurse.

The surgical technology degree program at NEIT offers you an opportunity to enter this exciting and fast-paced career. Our program provides a 160-hour surgical lab simulation and a 20-week clinical internship for a real-world experience.

For more information on the associate degree program, call us at 401-739-5000 or write to us.