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Learn About Being a Neurosurgeon


Learn About Being a Neurosurgeon

Learn About Being a Neurosurgeon

What does a neurosurgeon do?

A neurosurgeon performs treat conditions that affect patients’ brains and spinal cords. They use a variety of processes and tests to diagnose illnesses and form plans to remove the cause and prevent recurrences. In most cases, they perform surgeries to heal patients. Typical duties for a neurosurgeon could include:

  • Meeting with patients to discuss symptoms
  • Ordering tests to assist in diagnoses, such as MRIs, biopsies and CT scans
  • Performing medical procedures that can last several hours
  • Using special medical equipment in a sterile environment
  • Working closely with a surgical team to provide the best care for patients

Average salary

Neurosurgeons often work in full-time positions. Their salaries may depend on their experience level and the size, type and location of the healthcare facility in which they work.

  • Common salary in the U.S.: $121,687 per year
  • Some salaries range from $14,000 to $379,000 per year.

Neurosurgeon requirements

Neurosurgeons require a high level of education and training to practice. They should also possess licenses and certifications, and have certain hard and soft skills to excel in the role.


Neurosurgeons need a medical degree to become doctors. Before earning a medical degree, they need to earn a bachelor’s degree. Degrees in pre-medicine, biology or psychology can prepare undergraduates for medical school. Students should focus on coursework in anatomy, microbiology, physiology and chemistry. In their junior or senior year of a bachelor’s degree program, students typically complete the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). Medical schools require MCAT scores as part of a medical student candidate’s application materials.

Students can complete an allopathic or osteopathic medical program. After finishing an allopathic medical program, students earn a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.). Osteopathic medical programs offer a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O). Both programs typically last four years and teach students a variety of medical techniques and practices.

In the first two years of school, students gain a foundational knowledge of medicine, including anatomy, biochemistry, pathology, patient interaction and infectious diseases. They receive most of their instruction through lectures and laboratory classes.

In the final two years of school, students undergo rotations in which they shadow doctors in hospitals and clinics. Rotations in the third year usually last four to six weeks and can focus on different medical specialties, such as pediatrics, emergency medicine and surgery. In the fourth year, students complete longer rotations in which they learn more about the specific field they wish to enter.

Throughout school, students must pass a series of exams called the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) to apply for a medical license. Students complete the USMLE in three steps:

Step 1

Tests a student’s basic medical knowledge in different fields. Students complete this day-long exam on a computer in an approved testing center. The most common time to sit for the USMLE Step 1 is in between the second and third year of medical school.

Step 2

Contains two exam portions—clinical knowledge and clinical skills. The clinical knowledge portion is a computer-based exam that students complete in an approved testing center. For the clinical skills section, students must perform patient encounters in which they complete basic examinations in a simulated environment. Most students complete Step 2 in their fourth year of school.

Step 3

Focuses on advanced knowledge in the medical field and the ability to apply practical concepts to real-life situations. Step 3 is a two-day exam in which students complete a multiple-choice test and undergo simulated patient encounters. Some students choose to complete Step 3 directly after graduating from medical school while others wait until their first year of residency.


Neurosurgeons gain most of their experience during residencies and fellowships. Once students graduate from medical school, they complete a one-year internship in a teaching hospital. After the internship, they undergo a residency that typically lasts seven to eight years. During this residency, they learn the complexities of the brain and spinal cord and how to treat conditions that affect this system. In the first few years of a residency, they assist in medical procedures and shadow experienced neurosurgeons in operating rooms. In their final years, residents perform surgeries under the strict guidance of licensed medical professionals.

Some neurosurgeons undergo fellowships directly following their residencies. A fellowship allows a neurosurgeon to specialize in specific areas, such as pediatric neurosurgery, spine surgery or cerebrovascular surgery. Fellowships could last one to three years.


All medical doctors must earn state licensure to practice. To earn a license, neurosurgeons need to submit an application that provides proof of completion of medical school and passing grades on the USMLE or COMLEX. These medical professionals also must renew their licenses based on their state board’s requirements.

Neurosurgeons also need to earn a neurosurgery board certification. The American Board of Neurological Surgery offers certification for neurosurgeons in which they must pass an exam to earn. This certification also requires renewal based on the board’s standards.


Neurosurgeons need a special skill set to be successful, including:


Neurosurgeons may be required to perform surgeries that last for several hours. They should be able to maintain their physical and mental stamina to provide the best outcome for their patients.


Neurosurgeons communicate constantly with physicians, nurses, other medical professionals and patients. The ability to make succinct requests and listen to symptoms allows them to make quick decisions in emergency scenarios. Neurosurgeons should also be able to explain complicated procedures to patients in simple terms. Neurosurgeons also complete patient medical files regularly, so excellent written skills are necessary.

Time management

Many healthcare facilities are fast-paced environments, so time management is important for neurosurgeons. They should manage their time so they can talk with patients, perform procedures and complete paperwork. Neurosurgeons may need to work additional hours to ensure they complete all of their administrative duties.


A critical skill for neurosurgeons, dexterity allows them to perform complicated procedures using specialized tools. They must be able to operate on specific portions of the brain or spinal cord without making mistakes.

Emotional intelligence

Every healthcare professional should have the emotional intelligence to listen and interpret patients as they explain their symptoms. Neurosurgeons pay attention not only to a patient’s words but also their body language to ensure they make the correct judgments. They may also need to deliver results and post-operation updates to patients in a professional manner.

Critical thinking

In emergencies, neurosurgeons make quick decisions that help patients. Critical thinking allows them to gather and evaluate all of the available information to make thorough, informed judgments. When reading and reviewing diagnostic results, they use critical-thinking skills to make a list of all possible diagnoses.

Neurosurgeon work environment

Neurosurgeons usually work in hospitals, special surgery centers and other healthcare facilities. When working in hospitals, they may expect to work extensive hours, including nights, weekends and holidays. Some shifts may last up to 12 hours in which the neurosurgeon stays within the hospital to respond quickly to emergencies. Neurosurgeons often work on-call shifts as well.

A work environment typically includes:

  • Standing and moving for extended periods
  • Working directly with patients and other medical professionals
  • Performing surgeries in highly sterile and controlled operating rooms
  • Wearing protective gear, such as gloves, close-toed shoes, scrubs, coat, mask and surgical cap
  • Using special tools and equipment regularly
  • Working with computers or tablets to take notes and complete patient files
  • Administering medications as needed

How to become a neurosurgeon

1. Earn a bachelor’s degree

You should earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Pre-Medicine, Biology, Psychology or a related field. Coursework for these majors will prepare you for medical school. Consider completing the MCAT during your junior year. You can take the MCAT as many times as you like, but some medical schools will only accept one of your first two or three test scores.

2. Complete medical school

You can go to an allopathic or osteopathic medical school, both of which last four years and offer similar training. During that time, you’ll gain foundational knowledge of medicine in a classroom setting, then receive hands-on practical experience in various specializations. During medical school, you’ll also complete the first two steps of the USMLE, which is necessary for earning a medical license.

3. Undergo residency

Neurosurgery residences typically last for seven to eight years. In a residency, you’ll shadow experienced neurosurgeons as they work with patients and perform brain and spinal surgery operations. In the final years of your residency, you will perform surgeries under the guidance of licensed medical professionals. If you want to specialize in a specific area of neurosurgery, you should also complete a fellowship, which may take one to three years.

4. Apply for licensure

You can apply for licensure after your first year of residency. You’ll need to submit proof of passing all three steps of the USMLE, completion of medical school and completion of at least one year of post-graduate training. Each state has a licensing board that issues licensure and may have additional requirements. Medical licensure also requires renewal based on your state’s board guidelines.

5. Earn a neurosurgery certification

Neurosurgeons need a certification from the American Board of Neurological Surgery. You must pass an exam to earn this certification, and it requires renewal based on the board’s current standards.

Neurosurgeon job description example

Prominent hospital in the Midwest is seeking a spinal neurosurgeon to join our team. The neurosurgeon will diagnose and treat patients, including performing spinal fusion procedures. They should be able to work with a team of five neurosurgeons and four experienced physical therapists who perform post-op recovery practices.

Option for research available. The right candidate will be board certified or board eligible and have completed a spine surgery fellowship. Some on-call availability and nights and weekends are needed. We offer generous PTO, retirement options and benefits.

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