How to be a neurosurgeon
So, you want to be a brain surgeon? Image: Nixx Photography/Shutterstock

What you need to know about becoming a neurosurgeon

5 Dec 2017

We thought about giving you five easy steps but, let’s be honest, none of it is easy.

We’ve told you before how to follow your dreams and become a marine biologist, a forensic scientist or even a geologist in an easy(ish) step-by-step guide.

However, a step-by-step guide to becoming a brain surgeon would be both incredibly short and to the point yet, at the same time, extremely difficult to achieve.

For the sake of full disclosure, that step-by-step guide would look something like this:

Step 1: Get into medical school

Step 2: Complete an intern year

Step 3: Complete two years of core training in surgery

Step 4: Complete six years of higher specialist training in neurosurgery

Step 5: Pass all your exams

See? Five easy steps. It’s not brain surgery, right? Oh, wait.

The steps to neurosurgery in detail

Looking into those steps a little closer, entry into medical school requires high CAO points and completion of the Health Professions Admission Test (HPAT). Alternatively, you can obtain a 2.1 bachelor’s degree first, perhaps in biology or anatomy.

Towards the end of your medical school education, you must apply for your intern year. Following that, you will receive a Certificate of Experience, which will help you down the route of training to be a specialist.

Entry into core training in surgery is competitive and interview-based. The two years of core surgery training will include a performance appraisal and an exam for membership of the Royal College of Surgeons.

After trainees complete two years of core surgery training, they must compete to progress to the next stage: higher specialist training in neurosurgery.

This stage is made up of six years of biannual assessments, training courses, wet labs and modalities such as the Intercollegiate Surgical Training Programme. Trainees need to complete the curriculum and a final fellowship exam in order to receive their certificate of completion.

Now that you know the kind of education you’re getting yourself into on the path to brain surgery, what else should you know about becoming the next Derek Shepherd?

Personal skills

Aside from the obvious ‘hard skills’ that you will develop throughout your very long medical education, there are some other skills, traits and qualities that would be beneficial to a budding brain surgeon.

Dexterity might seem like an obvious one, but it may be one you overlook until you really have to start testing it. Dexterity can be enhanced with practice – the sooner you know you have to hone this skill, the better.

Problem-solving skills are also essential. Any Grey’s Anatomy fans will know about the torturous hours surgeons spend to find the right way to tackle a problem and, with such a delicate organ to work on, every possible outcome must be thoroughly thought through.

On the flip side, trauma surgeons will have mere seconds to make decisions, so those problem-solving skills must go hand in hand with some quick thinking.

Patience, understanding and empathy are all essential soft skills, not just for a neurosurgeon but for anyone in the medical profession. For surgery in particular, a serious amount of physical stamina will be necessary for those long brain operations.

What is being a neurosurgeon really like?

Dr Uzma Samadani is a neurosurgeon at Minneapolis VA Medical Center and an associate professor of neurosurgery at the University of Minnesota.

Last year, she spoke to Cosmopolitan about the things she wished she knew before she became a neurosurgeon.

Samadani described the high stakes that are at play every day when it comes to neurosurgery. “The first question the family asks when someone’s had a traumatic incident is: ‘Are they going to live?’”

‘You never want to be in a situation when you’re not at your best’

“For many families, it’s the most harrowing experience they’ll ever have; for neurosurgeons, this is just the daily routine. Nearly every patient is a high-stakes case, which can make this work feel incredibly important but also nerve-racking.”

Samadani also talked about the importance of self-care when someone else’s brain is literally in your hands.

“If I’m operating, I make sure to go to bed early the night before, eat a hearty breakfast and drink tons of water. I’m vigilant about that stuff because you never want to be in a situation when you’re not at your best,” she said.

Leading brain surgeon Henry Marsh pioneered the first awake craniotomy and has written two books on life as a brain surgeon, the latest of which is entitled Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery.

In his book, Marsh noted that patients often pine for supreme confidence in their surgeons because they’ve left their lives in their surgeon’s hands. He said that patients want hope as well as treatment.

“So, we quickly learn to deceive, to pretend to a greater level of competence and knowledge than we know to be the case, and try to shield our patients a little from the frightening reality they often face. And the best way to deceive others, of course, is to deceive yourself,” he writes.

Medtech and neurosurgery

As it’s Medtech Week here at, it would be remiss of us not to mention the medtech advances within the field of brain surgery for those looking to become neurosurgeons.

Earlier this year, we wrote about how medtech can advance neurology, specifically with the Lucid System from Neural Analytics, which works to monitor brain health.

We also spoke to TSSG researcher Ian Mills, who is exploring how VR games can battle major brain diseases and disorders.

Those interested in a career as a neurosurgeon will be looking further into how medtech can help in surgery.

Neurosurgeon Dr Eric Leuthardt believes the future will include us allowing doctors to insert electrodes into our brains so we can communicate directly with computers and each other.

He told MIT Technology Review: “A true fluid neural integration is going to happen. It’s just a matter of when. If it’s 10 or 100 years in the grand scheme of things, it’s a material development in the course of human history.”

Now that you know how to get to your dream job as a neurosurgeon, what to expect once you get there and what’s coming over the horizon in the world of medtech, it’s time to get started on those five steps.

Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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