Doctors enjoy some of the highest salaries in any profession, but that income doesn't happen overnight. It takes a substantial investment of time and money to become a physician, and medical students can graduate with hundreds of thousands of dollars in school-related debts. That makes the choice of specialty an important decision, with fields such as plastic surgery offering much higher beginning salaries than other branches of medicine.
All doctors start their careers with similar educations. They begin with a four-year undergraduate degree, followed by four more years in an osteopathic or medical college. At graduation, aspiring plastic surgeons must spend six years in a surgical residency. This can take the form of a three-year residency in general surgery followed by a separate three years in plastic surgery, or a program that combines the two ina single residency. Residents are paid for their time, rather than paying tuition. In March 2013, most plastic surgery residencies listed on FREIDA, the American Medical Association's database of residencies and fellowships, showed salaries between $50,000 and $60,000 per year.
Beginning to Practice
The medical recruiting firm Profiles specializes in matching newly trained doctors with suitable employers. In its 2011/2012 survey of new doctors, the firm reported a median salary of $273,000 per year for plastic surgeons. This is lower than the figure for orthopedic surgeons or neurosurgeons, but higher than those for most other specialties. Profiles also offers a second set of figures for doctors who have been in practice for six years. These are averages, rather than medians, and show the mean salary of plastic surgeons as $382,000 per year.
Several other sources track physician salaries, and provide further insight into plastic surgery's earning potential. For example, the American Medical Group Association's 2012 salary survey places the median salary for plastic surgeons at $409,772 per year. The rival Medical Group Management Association, in a 2011 survey, reported an average salary of $433,510 for plastic and reconstructive surgeons. A 2011 special issue of "Modern Healthcare" magazine reviewed multiple physician salary surveys, returning a range of responses for plastic surgeons. The lowest reported average in that overview was $360,000 per year, and the highest was $450,000 per year.
A plastic surgeon's earning potential, beginning in the first year, is shaped to a large extent by the workplace. Salaries and benefits vary widely among employers, and some geographic areas pay a premium either because their cost of living is high or because it's difficult to attract surgeons to the area. Personal decisions about clientele and specialization can also affect the picture. For example, plastic surgeon performing reconstructive surgery and skin grafts in a hospital might not earn as much as a colleague specializing in cosmetic procedures for well-heeled private patients. However, some surgeons might find greater satisfaction in the lower-paid position.
- Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis: Plastic Surgery
- American Medical Association: FREIDA Online -- Program Search
- Profiles.com: 2011/2012 Physician Salary Survey
- Cejka Search: Physician Salaries Reported By the American Medical Group Association (AMGA)
- Becker's Hospital Review: 16 Statistics on Surgeon Compensation by Specialty
- Modern Healthcare: Par For Doc Pay? 2011 Special Issue
- China Photos/Getty Images News/Getty Images