How to Become a Medical-Surgical Nurse: Career Guide

A medical-surgical nurse is a registered nurse (RN) who provides care to patients who are preparing for or recovering from surgery. These RNs may be found in hospitals, outpatient settings, homes and other places of pre- and post-op care.

Steps to Become a Medical-Surgical Nurse

The pathway to becoming a medical-surgical nurse varies for each person. Be sure to check with your state’s requirements for specific information. Here are some common steps to become a medical-surgical nurse:

  1. Complete a registered nurse education program. To work as a med-surg nurse, you must complete a degree in registered nursing and be licensed as a nurse in the United States or territory where you want to practice. This may include earning an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree.
  2. Pass the NCLEX-RN exam. The NCLEX-RN exam is designed to protect the public’s health and welfare by testing nurses for knowledge required for safe and competent nursing care.
  3. Become licensed as an RN. Check with your state nursing licensure board where you want to practice to understand the requirements you’ll need to meet. However, the Nursing Licensure Compact makes it possible for nurses to practice in 34 states with a single license.
  4. Work as a medical-surgical nurse. A position as a medical-surgical nurse may be an entry-level job in a hospital or other clinical setting. New graduate nurses will usually be assigned an internship with a preceptor for on-the-job training with an experienced nurse. 
  5. Become a certified medical-surgical registered nurse (CMSRN). Nurses can choose to pursue a credential as a CMSRN after two years and 2,000 hours of clinical experience. There may be a pay increase for those who complete the certification. Ongoing contact hours and proof of unencumbered licensure are also required.

Pathways to Becoming a Medical-Surgical Nurse

There are multiple pathways to becoming a nurse, depending on your prior education and career. You can choose the path that makes sense for your future, including online nursing program options.

Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)

An Associate Degree in Nursing is an undergraduate degree that may teach nursing students core knowledge and skills they needed to pursue licensure as registered nurses. Programs may take two years, but there are some programs that take as few as 18 months. Pursuing an ADN may allow you to enter the field quickly and prepares you to advance to a BSN or MSN if you desire. You’ll need some introductory science courses such as high school chemistry and biology in your background to get started.

Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing (BSN)

A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree involves coursework and clinical practice. Depending on the program, the coursework may include traditional bachelor’s degree subjects in addition to nursing-focused topics. If you’re starting from scratch, expect a BSN program to take four years as a full-time student. If you already have an associate degree in nursing and are licensed as a RN, you may pursue an RN to BSN program that takes two years. 

RN to BSN

For those with an ADN, the RN to BSN bridge program may be completed in one to two years. The additional coursework and clinical experience give nurses a broader understanding of patient care and health care issues. You can also specialize in nursing disciplines such as pediatrics or oncology. RNs with a BSN may earn more than their counterparts with an ADN.

Direct-Entry Master’s in Nursing (MSN)

If you already have a non-nursing degree and would like to pursue a nursing career, the direct-entry MSN program or accelerated MSN nursing program is an option. The curriculum will prepare you to work as an RN with a master’s degree or pursue post-graduate certification to become an advanced practice nurse (APRN). Research the program requirements because some are designed for students with a BSN, and some are structured for those without a nursing background. If you don’t have a nursing or science foundation, you may be required to take some prerequisite courses to prepare.

Master’s in Nursing (MSN)

A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree prepares students for advanced career opportunities such as nurse educators, administrators or health policy experts. The MSN also prepares students to work as advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) in a specialty area such as a nurse practitioner, clinical nurse specialist, certified registered nurse anesthetist or certified nurse-midwife. If you already have a BSN, the MSN program may be completed in two years or less. For those students already working, online MSN programs offer flexibility to complete your degree while taking your schedule into account.

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Should I Become a Medical-Surgical Nurse?

A medical-surgical nurse is one of the primary caregivers in a health care setting, providing bedside care for patients recovering from surgery or helping patients prepare for surgery and operations. According to the Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses, there are more medical-surgical nurses than any other kind of nurse

Salary and Career Outlook

Employment for registered nurses is expected to grow 7% from 2019 to 2029. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for registered nurses was $75,330 in 2020 and ranged from $53,410 to $116,230. The salary will vary depending on the location and type of medical facility where you work. Medical-surgical nurses often work in shifts to provide round-the-clock care in a hospital or nursing care facility. They may receive additional pay for working nights, weekends and holidays. 

Roles and Responsibilities

A medical-surgical nurse is part of a team of nurses and other providers assigned to patients in the hospital or health care facility. They may be recovering from a surgical procedure or are receiving treatment for an illness. Nurses may assess patients’ conditions, communicate with physicians and specialty providers such as respiratory therapists and respond to patients’ needs. Medical-surgical nurses may pass medications, manage IV medications, change dressings and perform other surgical-related tasks.

Skills

Because they deal with many different types of patients, medical-surgical nurses develop an array of clinical skills honed through daily practice. Basic nursing skills include assessing patients’ conditions, administering medicines and treatments and planning for post-discharge care. They may educate patients on how to manage an illness or treatment and provide any necessary at-home tasks. Also, nurses must have exceptional time management and communication skills and an ability to rapidly adapt to new priorities and be ready to provide emotional support to patients and families.

Medical-Surgical Nurse Certifications

Two organizations offer professional nursing certifications in the medical-surgical specialty.

Medical-Surgical Nursing Certification Board (MSNCB)

Certified Medical-Surgical Nurse Certification (CMSRN)

Eligibility requirements: active RN license, two years of practice in a medical-surgical setting and 2,000 hours of clinical experience in the past three years.

Fees: 

  • $255 for Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses members
  • $375 for non-members

Renewal: Certifications must be renewed every five years. Renewal requires 90 contact hours and 1,000 practice hours. Fees for renewal are:

  • $175 for Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses members
  • $275 for non-members

American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)

Medical-Surgical Nursing Certification  (RN-BC)

Eligibility requirements: active RN license, two years of experience as a registered nurse, 2,000 hours of clinical practice in the specialty and 30 hours of continuing education in the past three years.

Fees:

  • $295 for American Nurses Association members
  • $395 for non-members

Renewal: Certifications must be renewed every five years. Fees for renewal are:

  • $250 for American Nurses Association members
  • $350 for non-members

Medical-Surgical Nurse Resources

  • Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses: This professional association for medical-surgical nurses is dedicated to helping nurses throughout their career path. The organization offers professional development, scholarship, certification and advocacy.
  • Medical-Surgical Nursing Certification Board: The MSNCB is a professional organization that administers the Certified Medical-Surgical Nurse credential. It sets requirements and fees and offers resources for preparing for the initial exam and recertification.
  • Nursing Resources: Medical-Surgical Nursing: Developed by LaGuardia Community College, this resource offers links to popular books and websites with information for medical-surgical nurses and other specialty areas.
  • Med-Surg Nursing: The academic journal of the Academy of Medical-Surgical Nursing provides nurses with professional information to provide clinically excellent patient care and to enhance their nursing practice.

Related Nursing Careers

As a registered nurse, you can prepare to work in many nursing careers that fit your personal and career goals.

  • Registered nurse: To become a registered nurse (RN) you must complete an on-campus or online registered nurse (RN) program. A registered nurse is equipped to work in a variety of health care settings.
  • Gastroenterology nurse: To become a gastroenterology nurse, you must complete an RN program and begin caring for patients who undergo endoscopy or colonoscopy. Certification requires working in a gastroenterology setting for two years in a full-time capacity and passing the certified gastroenterology registered nurse exam.
  • Operating room nurse: Nurses work with patients before, during and after surgery. In some cases, they are separate specialties, while nurses may perform some or all of the functions in other situations. Nurses are in the operating room assisting surgeons during the procedure and also care for patients in the post-anesthesia care unit (PACU).
  • Plastic surgery nurse: A plastic surgery nurse cares for patients who have undergone a cosmetic or reconstructive surgical procedure. Duties include patient education, managing surgical room preparation and administering treatments. 

FAQs

Medical-surgical nurses deliver care in various settings, from hospitals and outpatient centers to homes and telemedicine. Here are answers to common questions about this fast-growing nursing discipline.

What is medical-surgical nursing?

Medical-surgical nurses deliver care for adults with various medical issues or who are preparing for or recovering from surgery. 

What does a surgical nurse do?

A surgical nurse cares for patients before, during and after surgery. Some nurses prep the patient, while others are in the operating room assisting the surgeon. After the procedure, post-anesthesia care is critical for the patient’s recovery. 

Where does a surgical nurse work?

A surgical nurse may work in a hospital, outpatient surgery center, plastic surgeon’s office and clinics or physicians’ offices that conduct invasive procedures.

What’s the difference between a surgical nurse vs. surgical tech?

The surgical tech prepares the patient and the operating room for surgery. Surgical nurses may perform many of the same duties. However, surgical techs are not registered nurses, so they do not have the ability to work in departments outside the operating room. Surgical techs are not licensed like RNs are.

Information on this page was updated in June 2021.