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Surgical Specialties Overview

Most surgeons specialise in one type of surgery, known as a specialty. There are ten main specialties, some of which are divided up into subspecialties.


Read on for an overview of each specialty.  For more information visit our trainee section.

General Surgery

This is a wide-ranging specialty and incorporates many different sub-specialties such as breast surgery, laparoscopic (keyhole), colorectal and upper and lower gastrointestinal surgery (surgery of the abdomen). There is lots of flexibility for where in the country you would work, as general surgeons operate in medical facilities across the country. There is potentially a lot of high-energy emergency work involved with general surgery, which means there can be lots of on-call and out of hours work. There is a lot of variety within general surgery and lots of opportunity to sub-specialise in particular aspects of general surgery.  

Cardiothoracic Surgery

This specialty deals with conditions of the heart and lungs. Cardiothoracic surgery can involve long and complex operations, but can be rewarding as you can quickly see the life-changing impact surgery has on patients’ lives. It can involve a lot of on-call work and lots of work with patients in intensive care, so there are lots of opportunities to work with people from other medical and related specialties.


This focuses on the brain, central nervous system and spinal conditions. It is one of the most intricate surgical specialties, often with high stakes involved in fast-paced decision making. Neurosurgery involves an element of emergency work, so can result in significant on call and out of hours working. There are a number of areas of sub-specialisation open to neurosurgeons, ranging from paediatric neurosurgery to spinal surgery. 

Otorhinolaryngology (ENT)

A varied specialty focusing on conditions of the ear, nose and throat. ENT surgeons spend a lot of time talking to and assessing patients in pre and post-operation appointments. A significant proportion of patients referred to ENT surgeons don’t need operation, so the surgeon has to be able to make the right decisions on whether and when to operate. 

Paediatric Surgery

Paediatric surgery involves working with children and their parents. It offers a great breadth of practice, encompassing all aspects of surgery from premature babies to full-grown teenagers. There is relatively little geographical flexibility, as the specialty tends to focus around large specialist hospitals and centres and fewer options for going into private practice than other specialties.

Plastic Surgery

One of the few specialties with no anatomically defined region; plastic surgeons work closely with other surgical specialties repairing large wounds or reconstructing parts of the body. It is much more than just cosmetic surgery. Plastic surgery can offer less geographical choice within the UK than other surgical specialties, but there are many options for working overseas and there is lots of opportunity to practice privately.

Trauma and Orthopaedic Surgery

This specialty is concerned with bones and joints. There is generally lots of flexibility for where in the country you could work and lots of on-call duties are likely to be required. It is the biggest surgical specialty and demand for trauma and orthopaedic surgeons is unlikely to decrease over the coming years – with an aging population and the obesity crisis, it is likely that there will be growing demand for surgeons in this specialty. 


Urology involves treating conditions in the genitourinary system; including the kidneys, bladder and prostate. Surgeons in this specialty generally have less on-call and emergency work. Urology is a specialty generally considered to be in demand due to the aging population in the UK, and surgeons in this specialty often deal with delicate or taboo topics that require careful handling.

Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery

This specialty focuses on the face and mouth. OMFS surgeons are required to have a degree in both medicine and dentistry. Most oral and maxillofacial surgery is elective, so there is often less on-call work with this specialty.   

Vascular Surgery

Vascular surgeons deal with veins and arteries. This is the newest surgical specialty and involves working across all parts of the body. It requires a fair amount of on-call and emergency work. It can also provide lots of opportunities for academic research, particularly as it is such a new specialty. 

Academic surgery

In addition to these ten specialties you can also choose to follow a career in academic surgery. This involves qualifying and working in a surgical specialty but also undertaking surgical research and teaching at a medical school. All surgeons will undertake some research throughout their careers, though for academic surgeons, this is their focus. 

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