Cardiac Surgeon: Career and Salary Facts

Research what it takes to become a cardiac surgeon. Learn about job duties, education, licensure requirements and salary to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Surgical Technology degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is a Cardiac Surgeon?

A cardiac surgeon, more commonly called a cardiothoracic surgeon, is a surgeon who specializes in performing operations to treat heart and lung conditions. For instance, the treatments they provide can include coronary artery bypass grafting, mitral and aortic valve repair and replacement, aortic aneurysm treatment, cardiac support device installation and left ventricle restoration. These surgeons usually work in hospitals and medical centers.

The following chart provides an overview about becoming a cardiac surgeon.

Degree Required Doctor of Medicine (M.D.)
Training Required 5-year surgery residency followed by 2-year cardiothoracic surgery fellowship
Key Responsibilities Examine patients with heart health issues, make diagnosis and determine if they are a candidate for surgery; determine what surgical procedures to employ on patients; perform surgical procedures to correct heart problems caused by illness, disease or injury
Licensure or Certification All states require doctors to be licensed; board certification in surgery and cardiothoracic surgery is available
Job Growth (2014-2024) 14% for all physicians and surgeons*
Median Salary (2017) $437,450**

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), **Salary.com

What Does a Cardiac Surgeon Do?

As a cardiac surgeon, you would be responsible for the diagnosis, treatment and successful recovery of patients. You would spend the majority of your time in the operating room, but it would also be your responsibility to stay abreast of new technological advances as well as contemporary medical practices and surgical techniques.

What Education Do I Need To Become a Cardiac Surgeon?

The first step in becoming a cardiac surgeon is to complete a bachelor's degree program from an accredited college or university. You should expect to devote 3-4 years to the completion of a bachelor's degree. It is highly suggested that you consider a pre-med major, such as biology or chemistry.

After obtaining a bachelor's degree, you must apply to an accredited medical school and take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). Typically, medical school lasts four years. During the first two years, you'll gain valuable laboratory experience and take essential courses, such as anatomy, pharmacology, microbiology, physiology and pathology. The final two years of medical school focus on giving you a chance to work with practicing doctors in real-life situations. You'll have the chance to work with and interact with patients while also gaining experience in different areas of medicine, such as pediatrics, family care, psychiatry and internal medicine.

What Happens After Medical School?

After medical school, your next step will be to enter a residency program in general surgery, which generally lasts five years. During this time, you will do rotations in a variety of areas to give you a well-rounded education and practical experience in simple surgeries, such as appendix removal and hernia repair, as well as more complex procedures involving the stomach and aorta.

After completing your residency in general surgery, you can apply for a fellowship in cardiothoracic surgery, which generally lasts two years. During this time, you'll be scrubbing in on surgeries, assisting in the operating room and managing patients' care, as well as acquiring knowledge and experience in the diagnosis and treatment of patients with various cardiovascular problems.

How Do I Get Licensed and Certified?

In order to be a practicing surgeon, all 50 states require you to complete all educational requirements and pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). Upon completion of eligibility requirements, you can apply to take the examination administered by the American Board of Thoracic Surgery (ABTS), which results in board certification as a cardiothoracic surgeon (www.abts.org).

How Much Can I Expect To Earn?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), surgeons held 41,600 jobs in 2015 (www.bls.gov). In 2017, Salary.com reported that cardiothoracic surgeons earned a median salary of $437,450. Your earning potential depends on your experience and the location in which you plan to work.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

If you want to be a surgeon, you could consider a subspecialization in a different field, such as vascular surgery or colorectal surgery, among others. These focus areas would require you to complete a one- to two-year fellowship after your surgery residency. Alternatively, if you are interested in the diagnosis and treatment of heart conditions, you could pursue a job as a cardiologist. For this job, you would enroll in a three-year internal medicine residency after earning your M.D., and then complete a fellowship in cardiovascular diseases or clinical cardiac electrophysiology.

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