By Stacey Ritzen, WCI Contributor

We get it. There’s no shame in wanting the best possible lifestyle for yourself, and as you decide what surgical specialty to practice, quality of life can be a huge deciding factor. But, of course, there are pluses and minuses to everything in life, and that holds true when it comes to medical fields for physicians.

In most cases, the best-paying physician jobs are also the most stressful and demanding, but it's possible to still find a happy medium that allows you to live the good life without paying too much for it with your time and mental health.


What Is a Good Lifestyle for a Physician?

In a nutshell, a good lifestyle for a physician boils down to two components: a high salary with the fewest hours spent working. There are also other factors at play, such as how demanding the job is and whether it involves working an irregular schedule or being on call. Physicians who find that delicate balance of a well-paying salary without having to work long or stressful hours may have the highest job satisfaction and, in turn, a happy life.


What Are the Surgical Specialties?

The American College of Surgeons recognizes 14 total surgical specialties. These include cardiothoracic surgery, colon and rectal surgery, general surgery, gynecology and obstetrics, gynecologic oncology, neurological surgery, ophthalmic surgery, oral and maxillofacial surgery, orthopedic surgery, otorhinolaryngology, pediatric surgery, plastic and maxillofacial surgery, urology, and vascular surgery.


Do Surgeons Work More Than Non-Surgical Physicians?

While surgeons are often compensated better than non-surgical physicians, the drawback is that, yes, they also do tend to work longer hours. In the United States, the average physician works about 60 hours per week after completing medical school and residency.

But that 60-hour workweek is also what separates surgical physicians from non-surgical physicians. A good rule of thumb is that non-surgical physicians commonly work fewer than 60 hours per week, while surgical physicians skew above 60 hours per week.


Which Surgeons Work the Most?

The 60-hour mark aside, there are undoubtedly surgical specialties that put in more hours or have more stressful or taxing jobs.

Trauma surgeons, for example, must perform a variety of general surgical, thoracic, orthopedic, and vascular procedures and, as such, they typically deal with a broad spectrum of urgent cases requiring immediate attention. These urgent cases can range from vehicular accidents and gunshot wounds to falls or crushes, explosions, stabbings, and so on.

These types of surgeons often experience busy, stressful, and unpredictable hours. Additionally, those surgical physicians who work in trauma but specialize in one area, such as orthopedic surgeons, will likely work harder and more grueling hours than, say, an orthopedic surgeon who focuses on sports medicine—which is a more predictable field with regular hours.

Neurosurgery is also considered one of the most challenging surgical specialties as those physicians must have expert knowledge of the brain, spine, spinal cord, and nervous system and must perform extremely delicate procedures involving brain illnesses or injuries.

It stands to reason that surgical specialties that are more likely to deal with emergencies are generally considered the most difficult and demanding surgical fields.

As the chart below shows, those kinds of surgeons are some of the most well-compensated.


Which Surgical Specialties Pay the Best?

It should come as little surprise that the surgical fields that work the hardest are also the most financially rewarding. A 2021 physician compensation report conducted by Doximity, an online networking service for medical professionals, found that neurosurgery, thoracic surgery, and orthopedic surgery topped the list, while colon and rectal surgery trailed near the bottom—pun fully intended. You can see the complete top-20 list with average compensation below.

highest average doctor salaries


Which Surgical Specialties Have the Overall Best Lifestyle?

In the medical field, you often hear about so-called ROAD specialty practices—the acronym for the areas of radiology, ophthalmology, anesthesiology, and dermatology which offer the best physician lifestyles with the highest paying and least stressful jobs. However, surgical specialties are slightly different as radiology, anesthesiology, and dermatology do not fit under this umbrella.

While skewing lower on the salary scale, ophthalmology deals with the diagnosis and treatment of eye disorders and typically allows surgical physicians to maintain a more regular schedule while still enjoying the benefits of a well-paying salary. For this reason, plastic surgeons are also high on the list of surgical specialties that provide a fantastic lifestyle—and the salary reflects that.

Though they tend to be more stressful medical fields—neurosurgery, thoracic surgery, and orthopedic surgery are also generally regarded as providing some of the best lifestyles for physicians. And while these surgeons may have to work a little harder, the $600,000+ median salaries certainly make the hard work worth it, especially if it can be leveraged into early retirement. After all, isn’t early retirement in itself a lifestyle that just about everybody can get on board with?

A word of warning, however, to anyone about to enter one of these coveted surgical fields: the highest-paying jobs with the best lifestyles also tend to be the most competitive, so your hard work doesn’t end after finishing medical school. But with a lot of perseverance and a little luck, you too can be living the high life with those in the surgical field who have got it all figured out.

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