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The Characteristics of a Neurosurgeon

by Elizabeth Layne, studioD

The field of neurosurgery dates back only to the early 1900s, making it a young medical specialty. Not for nothing has the phrase, "it doesn't take a brain surgeon," since become part of the popular lexicon. Neurosurgeons are involved in the prevention, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation of maladies of the nervous system in patients of all ages, primarily through surgical means. Being a neurosurgeon requires several top-drawer characteristics, keen intellect among them.

Intellectual Capacity

The nervous system includes such delicate structures as the brain, spine, nerves and pituitary gland. These structures control senses, movement and life itself. Neurosurgeons treat conditions such as strokes, traumatic head injuries, degenerative spine diseases and birth defects. Nervous-system surgeries are delicate procedures that can pose considerable risks to patients, and the surgeries are also sometimes several hours long and technically difficult. Neurosurgeons require physical stamina and a commitment to precise details. Neurosurgeons typically rank at the top of their medical school class and have the intellectual capacity and curiosity to understand the complexity of the nervous system. They also must learn and incorporate the rapid technological advancements occurring in this still-young field into their work.

People Skills

Neurosurgeons must make good clinical decisions under oftentimes stressful situations. They are called in for emergencies at all times of day and night, and require the character to take responsibility for their decisions, whether patient outcomes are good or bad. They also need good communication skills to describe complex procedures and conditions to patients and family members. Neurosurgeons must have empathy, but be steely enough not to allow emotion cloud their judgment. They must have the ability to both work in and lead teams, and know their limitations and when to acquire assistance.


Most neurosurgeons practice general neurosurgery, but more and more have chosen to sub-specialize because of numerous advancements in the field. These sub-specialties include neuro-oncology, which focuses on certain cancers; spinal surgery; epilepsy surgery; and pediatric neurosurgery.

Education and Certification

After obtaining a bachelor's degree, the future neurosurgeon next completes medical school. The newly minted physician then completes a one-year internship in general surgery, followed by a hospital residency in neurosurgery that can last from five to seven years. During residency, the prospective neurosurgeon learns required skills by working alongside an experienced surgeon. The new neurosurgeon may spend another one or more years of training to learn a sub-specialty. Neurosurgeons typically become certified, which is a sign that the surgeon has the skills and knowledge to provide top-quality treatment. The American Board of Neurological Surgery provides the certification. Like other doctors and surgeons, neurosurgeons are licensed in the state where they work.


Neurosurgeons are very well-compensated for the time and effort spent preparing for the profession. According to Becker's Hospital Review, neurosurgeons earned median annual salaries of approximately $600,000 in 2011, with top neurosurgeons earning more than $1 million a year. The review attributes this salary to a low supply of neurosurgeons, their high on-call times and the complexity of their cases.

About the Author

Located in the mid-Atlantic United States, Elizabeth Layne has covered nonprofits and philanthropy since 1997, and has written articles on an array of topics for small businesses and career-seekers. An award-winning writer, her work has appeared in "The Chronicle of Philanthropy" newspaper and "Worth" magazine. Layne holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from The George Washington University.

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