The Résumé Rx

The Ultimate Guide to a Surgical Nurse Career: Duties, Salary, Education, and More!

Amanda Guarniere

If you want to start a career as a surgical nurse, there are many exciting paths you can take! But with so many options, it’s hard to decide which is right for your skills, traits, goals, and career. 

In this guide, we’ve broken down all the industry-related terms to ease your path to becoming a surgical nurse. You’ll be able to understand the various options and make the best choice for your goals!

Table of Contents

What Does a Surgical Nurse Do?

Also known as a “perioperative nurse” or “operating room (OR) nurse,” a surgical nurse is a Registered Nurse trained to help physicians during surgeries.

Overall, the role of a surgical nurse is to create a seamless process from the beginning stages of an operation to its conclusion. They provide care and organization before, during, and after a procedure, ensuring the patient’s comfort throughout the process. 

Specific duties of a surgical nurse include: 

  • Preparing patients before surgery – this may include communicating with patients and family, starting IV lines, giving pre-surgery medications, and preparing surgical equipment. 
  • Helping doctors during surgery – this may include monitoring the patient, assisting the surgeon, providing necessary tools, and communicating with the patient. 
  • Providing postoperative care after the procedure – A surgical nurse may check vital signs, communicate results, and prepare the patient for discharge from the facility. 

Between organizing equipment, communicating with doctors, and helping patients understand the surgery, a surgical nurse has to juggle many roles.

How Much Do They Make? – Surgical Nurse Salary Information

Surgical nurses serve a critical role in healthcare. Because they are so important, they are often highly compensated. 

Here is income information for surgical nurses from a few of the biggest salary data resources: 

From these numbers, it appears that the vast majority of surgical nurses earn a strong income. For example, ZipRecruiter says that 50% of all surgical nurses have an annual income between $100,500 and $139,000. 75% of all surgical nurses, according to their data, earn over $100,000.  

Surgical Nurse Specialties: Roles, Requirements, and Salaries

Surgical nurses assist with different forms of surgery, but specific roles vary widely depending on the nature of the surgical environment. In fact, there are many types, or subcategories, of surgical nurses.

These are a few examples of the different types of surgical nurses:

Scrub Nurses

What Does a Scrub Nurse Do?

Scrub nurses do a surgical scrub and go into the operating room with the doctor and patient.

Duties include:

  • Preparing the operating room for the patient
  • Setting up surgical tools
  • Handing tools to the doctor or surgeon during the operation 
  • Performing tasks related to the surgery

However, they are not certified to do other tasks like checking or monitoring a patient’s vital signs.

What’s Required to Become a Scrub Nurse? 

There is a specific process for becoming a scrub nurse: 

  1. Gain perioperative nursing experience: First, you must work in the field of perioperative nursing for a minimum of two years. This involves assisting with surgical procedures. You must acquire a minimum of two years of perioperative nursing experience, with at least 2,400 hours dedicated to perioperative nursing and 1,200 hours specifically in the intraoperative nursing role.
  2. Pursue certification: Consider obtaining the Certified Nurse Operating Room (CNOR) certification, which requires a current and unencumbered RN license, relevant perioperative nursing experience, and the completion of the CNOR exam. This certification demonstrates expertise in the field of operative nursing.

How Much Do Scrub Nurses Make?

According to Salary.com, the majority of scrub nurses have an average annual salary of $49,886. However, top earners can expect salaries over $68,000. 

Remember that pay depends on experience, certifications, education, and more. Scrub nurses with RN licenses and certifications can expect much higher salaries.

Circulating Nurses

What Does a Circulating Nurse Do?

Circulating nurses serve as advocates for patient safety during operative procedures. They must have a thorough understanding of perioperative nursing practices, be able to assess patient needs and ensure the safety and well-being of patients throughout the surgical process.

Duties involve:

  • Sterilizing equipment
  • Obtaining signatures from content forms 
  • Performing checks to ensure patient safety

They typically work outside the operating room and collaborate with other members of the surgical team. 

Circulating nurses work closely with other members of the surgical team, including surgeons, anesthesiologists, surgical technologists, and surgical assistants. Strong collaboration and teamwork skills are essential to effectively coordinate and provide quality care during surgical procedures.

What’s Required to Become a Circulating Nurse?

To become a circulating nurse, you need to follow these specific steps:

  1. Education: Complete a bachelor’s degree in nursing, a relevant diploma, or an associate degree in nursing. This provides the foundational knowledge and skills needed for perioperative nursing.
  2. Relevant experience: Specialized education and training in perioperative nursing are required. This includes courses and programs that focus specifically on perioperative care, surgical procedures, and patient safety during operative procedures. 
  3. Certification: Obtaining certification in perioperative nursing is highly recommended and demonstrates a commitment to the specialty. There are various post-nursing courses that offer certification in perioperative nursing, which should be accredited by a legitimate accrediting body.

How Much Do Circulating Nurses Make?

According to Salary.com, the average annual salary for a circulating nurse is $66,983. However, there are top earners who make over $70,000 per year. 

RN first assistants (RNFA)

What Does an RN First Assistant Do?

An RNFA coordinates perioperative care, helping to reach better patient outcomes. They serve under the direction of a doctor or surgeon and perform many medical tasks that help the operation run smoothly. 

Duties include:

  • Assessing the patient’s condition
  • Creating a discharge plan
  • Monitoring surgical wounds
  • Helping to control bleeding
  • Creating postoperative bandages

What’s Required to Become an RN First Assistant?

To become an RN First Assistant, you need to follow these specific steps: 

  1. First, you must graduate from an accredited nursing school (with a bachelor’s degree) and pass the NCLEX-RN exam to become a Registered Nurse.
  2. With a bachelor’s degree, you can enroll in an RNFA program, which may be offered through a school of nursing or the National Institute of First Assistants (NIFA).
  3. You will then need at least two years of experience and Certified Nurse Operating Room (CNOR) credential. 
  4. Once you have completed these steps, you can take on your first role as an RNFA. 

How Much Do RN First Assistants Make?

Salary.com says that the average annual salary for a “Registered Nurse (RN), Surgical First Assistant” is $105,400. They also state that the top 10% earn over $128,000 annually. 

Post-anesthesia Care Unit Nurses (PACU Nurses)

What Does a PACU Nurse Do? 

These nurses specialize in helping patients recover from anesthesia. They help patients return to full alertness and health after a surgical procedure. 

Duties include:

  • Monitoring the patient as they recover from anesthesia
  • Treat the after-effects of anesthesia or the surgery
  • Educate the patient on their future care plan
  • Update medical records
  • Explain the findings or results of a procedure to the patient


What’s Required to Become a PACU Nurse?

To become a PACU nurse, you will become an RN, then gain specialized experience and certification. 

Here’s the process:

  1. Obtain an RN license: You must first become a Registered Nurse by meeting education requirements and passing the NCLEX-RN exam. 
  2. Complete related experience: Specific requirements vary, but you should start working in a surgical or post-operative setting. 
  3. Complete the American Board of Perianesthesia Nursing Certification (ABPANC). This requires 1,200 hours of direct patient care and passing a certification exam. 

How Much Do PACU Nurses Make?

Salary.com says that the average salary for a “Post Anesthesia Care Unit Nurse” is $93,970. The range for most PACU nurses is between $84,000 and $106,000, while the top 10% earn over $116,000. 

Career Path to Becoming a Surgical Nurse

Regardless of the specific type you choose, the process of becoming a surgical nurse is fairly universal, at least before specialization sets in. Here is the process for becoming a surgical nurse: 

Step 1: Get an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) Degree

You first need to become a Registered Nurse (RN), which requires an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Earning an RN license requires the completion of a two-year Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). 

If you want to maximize your career, completing your BSN is the preferred strategy. That will also give you an edge in looking for employment. Also, some specializations require a bachelor’s degree, so a four-year education will open more career opportunities.

Step 2: Pass the NCLEX-RN Exam

The National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) is a nationally-mandated exam that all nurses must pass to become licensed Registered Nurses.

Step 3: Get Certified

Other than an RN license, additional certifications are required to become a surgical nurse.

Specialized certifications for surgical nurses include: 

Step 4: Gain Clinical Experience

Most certifications, as well as many employers, require direct experience in a surgical setting. You will likely need at least two years of full-time experience before you can enroll for certification testing and take on a surgical nursing role. 

Continuing Education Requirements for a surgical nurse

While all surgical nurses are required to hold an RN license, there are also requirements for continuing education, which vary by state.

Examples of state requirements include:

  • California: 30 CEUs every two years
  • Florida: 24 CEUs every two years
  • Hawaii: 30 CEUs every two years
  • Texas: 20 CEUs every two years
  • Washington: 8 CEUs every year

Complete list: Nursing Continuing Education (CE) Requirements by State 2023 (nurse.org)

Most states do not require surgical nurses to maintain an RN license. 

Core Skills Required to Become a Surgical Nurse

To become a surgical nurse, you need to meet specific education, experience, and certification requirements. However, to have a successful, long-lasting career, you need the right skills, including clinical skills and soft skills. 

Skills for a successful surgical nurse include:

  • Compassion: Surgical nurses need a caring, compassionate approach to their work. 
  • Organization: These nurses work to ensure a smooth operation, which includes many people. Keeping everything organized is part of their responsibilities. 
  • Mental and physical stamina: You need to have the mental stamina to pay close attention to details, and the physical stamina to make it through long, exhausting shifts. 

Surgical Nurse FAQs

How long does it take to become a surgical nurse?

It takes two to four years to become a surgical nurse, although it may take longer if you want to complete certifications. At a minimum, you’ll need two years to complete an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN).

Do surgical nurses perform surgery?

No. They assist doctors who perform surgery and work with patients before and after operations. 

Are surgical nurses in demand?

Yes. Based on the fact that many surgical nurses earn above $100,000 a year, it’s safe to assume that this is a high-demand career. 

What is the career outlook for surgical nurses?

While the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not have data on surgical nurses specifically, they state that employment in all healthcare occupations will grow by 13% between 2021 and 2031. Registered Nurses, the required credential for surgical nurses, will grow by 6%.


  1. elastic man

    All surgical nurses must possess an RN license, but each state has its own criteria for ongoing education.

  2. musichd

    I really hope there will be a lot more content like this. I am grateful that you shared your information with me. Your blog has been bookmarked because I discovered some extremely useful information on it.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *