How to Become Cardiologist Surgeon: A Comprehensive Guide

Updated on January 9, 2024


A cardiothoracic surgeon is a physician who operates on diseases affecting organs inside the thorax, or chest cavity, including the heart and lungs. Becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon requires many years of training and perseverance. First, you must complete a bachelor’s degree program, typically lasting four years, focusing on pre-med studies like biology and chemistry. Next, acceptance into medical school is essential, which is very competitive – only about 40% of applicants are admitted. During the four years in medical school, students take courses in anatomy, pharmacology, pathology, and clinical rotations. After graduating, newly minted doctors enter at least five years of residency training in general surgery before they can specialize in the intricate cardiothoracic surgery field.

What is a Cardiothoracic Surgeon?

A cardiothoracic surgeon is a medical doctor who specializes in surgical procedures involving the heart, lungs, esophagus, and other organs in the chest. Often abbreviated as “CT surgeons,” they manage complex conditions of the heart and chest requiring advanced surgical techniques.

Specifically, cardiothoracic surgeons treat diseases affecting the heart, lungs, esophagus, chest wall, arteries, veins, mediastinum, and diaphragm through medical and surgical means. Some common conditions they treat include coronary artery disease, heart valve disease, lung cancer, and more. Their work requires cardiology, cardiac surgery, pulmonology, and thoracic surgery expertise.

To become a cardiothoracic surgeon, one must complete four years of medical school followed by five years of residency training in general surgery and cardiothoracic surgery. Subsequently, they may pursue an additional one to two years of specialty training in an area like pediatric cardiac surgery, heart transplantation, or other advanced procedures. Board certification by the American Board of Thoracic Surgery is also required.

What Do Cardiothoracic Surgeons Do?

Cardiothoracic surgeons specialize in surgical procedures involving the heart, lungs, esophagus, and other organs in the chest. Their job requires an extensive amount of training and expertise.

Specifically, cardiothoracic surgeons diagnose and treat diseases affecting the heart and lungs. For the heart, this can involve performing procedures like coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG) surgery to improve blood flow to the heart, heart valve repair and replacement, implantation of pacemakers and defibrillators, heart transplants, and more. For the lungs, they perform lung resection for cancer, repair or remove bulges in blood vessels, and lung transplants.

Additionally, cardiothoracic surgeons have expertise in the esophagus and can perform surgery for conditions like a hiatal hernia or esophageal cancer. They use minimally invasive techniques, including robotics and thoracoscopy, whenever possible.

Cardiothoracic surgeons rely on their advanced medical knowledge and technical skills to operate on delicate organs and improve patients’ health and quality of life. They work closely with other specialists like cardiologists, pulmonologists, and anesthesiologists to determine treatment plans and provide well-rounded care before, during, and after complex surgeries.

Educational Requirements for Becoming a Cardiothoracic Surgeon

Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

The first step toward becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon is earning a bachelor’s degree at an accredited four-year college or university. While any major is acceptable, aspiring heart surgeons typically major in biology, chemistry, physics, pre-medicine, or health sciences as undergraduates. Coursework emphasizes life sciences, mathematics, statistics, and social sciences. Securing strong grades and taking the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) are also essential during the bachelor’s program.

Complete Medical School

After earning an undergraduate degree, the next requirement is four years of medical school leading to a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree. According to the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC), less than half of applicants are accepted to medical school programs each year, making admission highly competitive. Once enrolled, the first two years focus on classroom scientific study, while the last two years emphasize hands-on clinical rotations. Passing the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination is also required before graduating medical school.

Finish a Residency in Cardiothoracic Surgery

After earning a medical degree, aspiring cardiothoracic surgeons must complete an accredited residency program specific to this field, generally lasting 6 years. This advanced training includes at least two years of general surgery residency followed by three or more years focused on cardiothoracic specialization. According to the American Medical Association (AMA), these competitive programs accept roughly 5-10% of applicants yearly. Throughout the residency, surgeons-in-training gain supervised experience in all facets of cardiothoracic care – from diagnosis to surgery to post-operative treatment.

Obtain Medical Licensure

Before practicing independently, cardiothoracic surgeons must obtain medical licensure in their state. This involves passing a licensing exam, undergoing a criminal background check, and meeting all other licensure requirements, which vary by state. Additionally, most heart surgeons choose to become board-certified through the American Board of Thoracic Surgery (ABTS), which involves passing comprehensive written and oral exams after completing residency requirements. Maintaining licensure and board certification requires ongoing continuing education courses and exams every six to ten years.

Postgraduate Training for Cardiothoracic Surgeon

Postgraduate Training

After finishing medical school, cardiothoracic surgeons complete an intensive 5-7 year residency in general surgery or thoracic surgery. This provides hands-on surgical experience and training in techniques.

Certification Requirements

Skills Gained

Continuing Education

Licensure and Certification

Cardiothoracic surgeons must:

Many also get certified in cardiac surgery subspecialty by passing exams from the American Board of Cardiovascular Surgery (ABCS).

Overall, extensive licensure and certifications ensure only the most thoroughly trained physicians can practice this complex specialty.

Skills and Qualities of a Successful Cardiothoracic Surgeon

Becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon requires dedication, perseverance, and the development of specialized medical and technical skills. It takes over a decade of education and training to gain the necessary expertise to perform the complex surgeries these specialists conduct. Below are some of the most important skills and personal qualities needed to thrive in this demanding yet rewarding medical field.

Technical Skills

Cardiothoracic surgeons must have an expert level of knowledge when it comes to the anatomical structure and physiological functions of the heart, lungs, esophagus, and other organs in the chest cavity. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), aspiring surgeons must complete college, four years of medical school, a 5-year general surgery residency, and a 2-3 year cardiothoracic surgery fellowship program before they can practice independently. Throughout this extensive training, surgeons develop technical skills like how to suture delicate tissues and use specialized equipment to be able to safely and efficiently perform complex procedures like heart valve replacements, coronary artery bypass, and lung cancer resections.

Decision-Making Ability

When lives are on the line, cardiothoracic surgeons must be able to make quick and accurate decisions under pressure. They must be able to assess a patient’s condition, weigh the risks and benefits of various treatment options, and promptly move forward with the best plan of care. Surgeons also collaborate with other specialists to determine the most appropriate course of treatment for each patient.

Communication Skills

In addition to technical expertise in the operating room, exceptional communication skills are vital. Cardiothoracic surgeons must compassionately communicate complicated diagnoses and help patients understand their treatment options. They work closely with patients’ families and other healthcare providers to ensure continuity of care before and after surgical procedures.


Performing surgery requires intense concentration for many hours at a time. Cardiothoracic surgery procedures often last 6 hours or longer. Standing for prolonged periods while wearing lead aprons and protective equipment is also physically demanding. Surgeons must have the stamina to perform these marathon operations successfully while maintaining precision throughout.

Leadership Qualities

Cardiothoracic surgery teams typically include specialized nurses and surgical technicians. The lead surgeon must be able to effectively direct the team and foster an environment where each member can contribute to the best of their abilities. They set the tone during intense and high-stakes procedures, inspiring confidence in their team and patients.

Lifelong Learning

The field of cardiothoracic surgery is one of continual innovation and new discoveries. The most talented surgeons never become complacent in their knowledge or technical skills. They are committed to lifelong learning through continuing education, conference attendance, academic publications, and membership in professional medical societies like the American College of Cardiology and the Society of Thoracic Surgeons.

Becoming an accomplished cardiothoracic surgeon is no small feat, but the career rewards are immense for those willing to undertake over a decade of specialized training. The opportunity to save and dramatically improve patients’ lives makes the intensive education and commitment worthwhile. With a combination of cutting-edge technical skills, compassion, sharp decision-making ability even under pressure, leadership, stamina, and an enthusiasm for lifelong discovery, cardiothoracic surgeons are equipped to thrive in this challenging yet meaningful specialty.

Cardiothoracic Surgeon Salary

Becoming a Cardiothoracic Surgeon: Salary and Experience

Cardiothoracic surgeons earn a median pay of $448,793 per year in the United States, according to 2021 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This makes it one of the most lucrative specialties in medicine. However, the road to becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon is long and challenging. Here is an overview of salary based on experience

Years of Experience Average Salary Range
0-5 years $348,000 – $525,000
6-10 years $500,000 – $800,000
10-20 years $750,000 – $1,000,000+

Career Opportunities and Advancement

Cardiothoracic surgeons have a wide range of career opportunities open to them. Cardiothoracic surgeons can work in several settings after completing medical school and 6-8 years of specialized surgical training.

Academic Medical Centers

Many cardiothoracic surgeons begin their careers at academic medical centers and teaching hospitals affiliated with medical schools. In these settings, cardiothoracic surgeons perform complex surgeries, conduct research, train medical students and residents, and advance the field of cardiothoracic surgery. Senior surgeons often hold leadership roles directing cardiothoracic surgery programs or departments. Academic careers offer opportunities for career advancement into administrative roles as division chiefs, department chairs, or deans.

Private Practice

Cardiothoracic surgeons may also choose to enter private practice, often as part of a physician-owned specialty group focused on cardiac or thoracic surgery. Private practice allows surgeons more control over their work schedule and compensation. Experienced cardiothoracic surgeons in private practice may be invited to join the medical staff of multiple regional hospitals, gaining referrals for complex cases. They may also expand their practices by taking on physician associates or partnering with other surgeons.

Executive Leadership

Some cardiothoracic surgeons advance into executive leadership roles in healthcare organizations. They may oversee quality, safety, and the surgery departments as Chief Medical Officers or take on CEO roles managing hospital or health system strategy and operations. These advanced leadership roles require both strong clinical expertise and business management skills. Pursuing an MBA or other business education in addition to medical training can help open up these career paths.

Cardiothoracic surgeons have diverse career advancement opportunities in academia, private practice, and hospital executive leadership roles. With hard work and skill, cardiothoracic surgery offers rewarding lifelong careers at the forefront of lifesaving medical care.


In conclusion, becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon requires many years of education and training, but it’s a rewarding career helping patients with heart and lung conditions. The first step is completing a bachelor’s degree, preferably with coursework in biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics to prepare for medical school. Then, complete 4 years of medical school and pass the necessary exams to become licensed. The next 5-7 years will be spent in a general surgery residency, followed by 2-3 more years specializing in cardiothoracic surgery.

Throughout this long journey, persistence and dedication are necessary. There will be long work hours and high stress. However, cardiothoracic surgeons find the work extremely fulfilling, being able to provide life-saving treatments. They operate on delicate heart and lung tissue and must have extremely steady hands and concentration.

If you have an interest in anatomy and physiology, working with cutting-edge medical technology, and helping critically ill patients, becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon could be very rewarding for you. The rigorous preparation is well worth it to save and drastically improve patients’ lives on a daily basis by treating and preventing complex heart and lung diseases.

Additional Resources

Title URL Context
American Board of Thoracic Surgery (ABTS) Provides certification process overview, eligibility requirements, application process, board certification exams, and educational resources.
Thoracic Surgery Directors Association (TSDA) Offers mentoring opportunities, residency program information, and a national conference for medical students interested in cardiothoracic surgery.
The Annals of Thoracic Surgery The official journal of the Society of Thoracic Surgeons, publishing peer-reviewed scientific research related to cardiothoracic surgery.
American Association for Thoracic Surgery (AATS) Hosts annual conferences, publishes clinical practice guidelines, and provides membership benefits for cardiothoracic surgery professionals.
Society of Thoracic Surgeons (STS) Organizes annual conferences, issues clinical practice guidelines, and offers membership benefits for professionals in the field.
Externship Opportunities at Medical Centers Allows medical students to shadow expert surgeons in top-ranked cardiothoracic surgery residency programs.
Perseverance and Dedication Emphasizes the importance of persistence and dedication for achieving board certification as a cardiothoracic surgeon.


How much education is required to become a cardiothoracic surgeon?
Becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon requires an extensive amount of education and training. Typically, you will need to complete a 4-year bachelor’s degree, 4 years of medical school to earn your MD, a 5-7 year general surgery residency, and then a 2-3 year cardiothoracic surgery fellowship. So in total, it takes approximately 15 years of education after high school before you can work as a fully credentialed cardiothoracic surgeon.

What undergraduate major is best for those wanting to pursue this career path?
While any major is acceptable for medical school admission, good options for those wanting to become a cardiothoracic surgeon include biology, chemistry, biochemistry, or another science-related major. These majors provide a strong scientific foundation for the medical training required.

How competitive is getting into medical school and securing a cardiothoracic residency spot?
Unfortunately, getting into medical school and matching into a cardiothoracic surgery residency is highly competitive. For [medical school](, the average GPA for accepted students is around 3.7 and MCAT scores are usually in the 90th percentile or higher. Residency spots are limited as well, so only the top general surgery residents tend to secure the specialty training. Having strong grades, test scores, research experience, and letters of recommendation will help improve your chances.

What is the job outlook and salary expectations for a cardiothoracic surgeon?
The job outlook for cardiothoracic surgeons is excellent right now. According to the [Bureau of Labor Statistics](, employment of all physicians and surgeons is projected to grow 7% from 2020 to 2030, faster than the average across all occupations. The median pay for a cardiothoracic surgeon was >$400,000 per year in 2020. So those that take the time to complete the extensive training can expect to be well-compensated.

What are some of the job duties and responsibilities of a cardiothoracic surgeon?
The main job responsibilities of a cardiothoracic surgeon are performing complex surgeries on the heart, lungs, esophagus, lymph nodes, and other chest and chest-related structures. This includes doing open-heart surgeries like bypass grafting or valve repair and replacement, lung resection for cancer, and surgery for conditions like aortic dissections. They diagnose disease through exams and imaging tests, provide patients with treatment recommendations, and manage pre and post-operative care.