4 Surgical Specialties With the Best Lifestyle

Choosing your career takes more than deciding what you want to do with your life while working. You should consider your lifestyle, too. After spending a lot of time and money on schooling, you want the best of both worlds, enjoying life while working a lucrative career.

The percentage of physicians who were somewhat to very happy with their career choice was 84% pre-pandemic, but today, that number decreased to 58%, with 26% very to somewhat unhappy with their careers.

So, how do you choose the surgical specialties with the best lifestyle? Here are 4 great options.

Surgical Specialties Providing the Best Lifestyle

If you’ve been considering becoming a doctor for a while, you’ve likely heard of the ROAD specialties, radiology, ophthalmology, anesthesiology, and dermatology. These are the most coveted physician specialties because most appointments occur within the 9 to 5 timeframe.

While these don’t always fall under surgeon specialties, there is a little overlap. Here are surgical specialties with the best lifestyle.

Surgical Specialties with the Best Lifestyle
Surgical Specialties with the Best Lifestyle

1. Ophthalmology

Ophthalmologist surgeons focus on consulting with patients and, of course, performing surgery. These surgeries are typically done during normal work hours, not early in the AM or late PM. They also often aren’t on an emergency basis, allowing ophthalmologist surgeons to have a good work-life balance.

However, the type of surgeries you specialize in will determine if your career allows a good work-life balance. For example, if you specialize in retinal surgeries, you’ll likely see more emergencies than other ophthalmologists.

2. Plastic Surgeons

Plastic surgeons are another surgical specialty that provides a great lifestyle. Typically, plastic surgery is elective unless it’s reconstructive surgery. Either way, the procedure usually isn’t life-threatening or done on an emergency basis, giving plastic surgeons control over their schedule and maintaining their lifestyle.

3. Thoracic Surgeons

Thoracic surgeons are highly specialized and earn an average of $706,775/year, making the hard work well worth it. However, cardiac surgeons are known for their work-life balance. They often work in larger groups, giving each surgeon ample time off, knowing that they often work stressful surgeries that can last up to 12 hours and be extremely stressful.

The higher-than-average salary also allows thoracic surgeons to focus on early retirement, which increases their ability to have a good lifestyle.

4. General Surgeons

In the Medscape Physician Burnout and Suicide Report, general surgeons were at the bottom of the list of physicians with the highest burnout rate. Thirty-five percent of general surgeons claimed to be burned out, compared to 54% of urologists (the top of the list).

While a general surgeon is typically available 24/7, that doesn’t mean each surgeon works 24 hours. According to Dr. Welsh and the AMA series, ‘Shadowing,’ general surgeons set their own schedules, ensuring they have adequate time off to enjoy their families and other personal things.

What Is the Best Lifestyle for a Physician?

The best lifestyle for a physician is just like that of anyone else. Physicians who can find the highest-paying niche while working the least amount are ideal.

Of course, that’s not always possible, so you should focus on other factors, including the following.

Low Job Demands

No matter how few hours you work, if your job is overly demanding, it can lead to burnout quickly. Gen X is currently the generation with the highest burnout rate, mostly because they are mid-career, and that’s when burnout usually kicks in.

You are through your career’s ‘new and exciting’ stages but still feel light years away from retirement. If your job is overly demanding, you can be too tired to enjoy your free time, no matter how much time you have.

The key is to find a niche that allows you to do what you love while still allowing enough time and energy to enjoy life outside of work.

Little to No On-Call Demands

Physician careers that require you to be on-call 24/7 allow little time for work-life balance. Even when you are ‘off,’ you truly aren’t because you could get a call that makes you stop what you’re doing and head to the hospital.

Looking for surgical positions that don’t require extensive on-call demands can make for a better work-life balance.

Adequate Time for Family and Personal Hobbies

Of course, the most obvious factor in the best lifestyle for a physician is to have enough time for family and personal hobbies. There isn’t a right or wrong amount of free time a person should have.

Decide for yourself how much time you need that would make you feel ‘good.’ Some workaholics feel better when working, while other people need more downtime.

Finding the right balance for you that allows you to feel successful while also being able to decompress and do what you love is the key to a successful career.

According to Doximity, the average salaries for the surgical specialties with the best lifestyle are as follows:

  • Thoracic surgeon: $706,775
  • Plastic surgery: $571,373
  • General surgery: $451,459
  • Ophthalmology: $449,315

How To Find a Surgical Specialty With a Good Work-Life Balance?

The key is to do your research before choosing your specialty in school. Consider the salary, the field’s competitiveness, and the work-life balance the surgical specialty allows.

Talk to people in the field rather than relying only on data you see online. Talk to surgeons who are working in that field, and can give you a real-life glimpse of what they deal with daily.

Also, consider talking to your school counselors about your needs for work-life balance to get pointed in the right direction.


Surgical specialties with the best work-life balance can allow more freedom in life, but they have their tradeoffs, too.

Is Work-Life Balance Achievable in All Surgical Specialties?

Some surgical specialties have terrible work-life balance, especially those that require you to be on-call constantly. Even some surgical specialties with the best lifestyle, like general surgeons, can be one of the worst if you find yourself in a small practice that requires you to be on-call much more than you planned when considering your career.

What Is the Hardest Surgeon To Be?

The hardest surgeon to be is a neurosurgeon because of its complex and critical thinking requirements, high-pressure settings, and seven-year residency. The tradeoff for the complexity of this position is they are among the highest-paid physicians, earning $788,313 per year.

What Is the Happiest Surgical Specialty?

According to a Medscape study, plastic surgeons are currently the happiest outside of work, with 71% of plastic surgeons claiming happiness outside of work, versus the next closest surgeon – general surgeons at 59%.

Do Surgeons Work More Than Non-Surgical Physicians?

Doctors in all niches work an average of 44.4 to 57.7 hours weekly. Still, surgical physicians, such as general surgeons, top the charts with an average of 57.4 hours worked a week, versus an internal medicine doctor who works an average of 51 hours a week.

Which Surgeons Work the Most?

General surgeons work the most. They are the surgeons who are most likely to be on-call 24 hours and needed all hours of the night.

What Surgical Specialties Work the Least Hours?

Ophthalmologist surgeons work the least hours, with average weekly hours totaling 45.3 hours.

Final Thoughts

Choosing your career should factor in your work-life balance and intended lifestyle. The surgical specialties with the best lifestyle are ophthalmologists, plastic surgeons, thoracic surgeons, and general surgeons.

However, you must pick a niche you’re interested in and a practice that will allow you the desired work-life balance.