How Can I Become a Heart Surgeon?

Research what it takes to become a heart surgeon. Learn about job duties, education, training and licensure requirements 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 Heart Surgeon?

A heart surgeon, also known as a cardiac surgeon, is a surgeon that uses specialized techniques to treat disease and injuries to the heart and other organs in the chest cavity. The surgeons run diagnostic tests and advise patients on postoperative care. They may also work on adjacent organs like the lungs.

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

Degree Required Doctor of Medicine (M.D.)
Training Required 5-year surgical residency followed by 2- to 3-year cardiothoracic surgery residency
Key Responsibilities Examine patients, make diagnoses and determine if patients are good candidates for surgery; perform surgery on the heart and related blood vessels to correct congenital problems, repair damage caused by disease or injury or other health problems to restore normal function; monitor patients during recovery and prescribe medication and therapy
Licensure or Certification All states require doctors to be licensed; board certification in surgery and cardiothoracic surgery is available
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024)* 20% for all surgeons
Median Annual Salary (2016)** $320,000

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), **

What Would I Do as a Heart Surgeon?

As a surgeon in this specialty, you repair and replace heart valves, install stents in veins and arteries, remove tumors, and perform bypass and heart transplant surgeries. You may also consult with patients in a private office setting before surgery and explain the details of their treatment. Visiting patients in the hospital following their surgeries to monitor recovery is also one of your duties.

What Education Do I Need?

Education requirements are extensive to prepare surgeons to perform long, intricate procedures. Your education path includes earning an undergraduate degree and a medical degree and then completing a residency.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), most medical schools prefer applicants who have earned a bachelor's degree, though some programs accept students who have completed three years of an undergraduate program ( Although one field of study is not specified, class work in biology, chemistry, physics and math are highly recommended. Some medical schools require you to complete certain pre-requisite courses and these requirements should be referenced when choosing undergraduate classes.

To be accepted into medical school, you must first take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). The MCAT consists of multiple-choice questions analyzing your capacity to think critically and solve problems. Questions also focus on science topics studied during your undergraduate degree program. Each medical school requires a specific minimum score to be accepted into their program. You must also complete an application, submit letters of recommendation and write an essay.

While attending medical school, you typically take courses in biochemistry, anatomy, pathology and medical ethics. You can earn a Doctor of Medicine degree in four years. During the first two years you study in labs and classrooms, and the last two years often focus on clinical work. While instructed by physicians, you examine and diagnose patients and gain experience treating them in a hospital setting.

What Other Training Do I Need?

After you graduate from medical school, you must complete 7-8 years of residency at a hospital to be qualified to perform heart surgery. You receive on-the-job training in general medicine, as well as in surgery during the first years. During your last 2-3 years in residency, you can specialize in cardiac surgery, assisting other surgeons with heart procedures.

How Do I Get Licensed?

To work as a physician, you first have to obtain a license. Every state requires you to pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination after graduating from an accredited medical school. Specialists must also become board certified in their field of specialty after completion of a residency program.

What Are Some Related Alternatives Careers?

You could also consider becoming an orthopedic surgeon. These surgeons work with the musculoskeletal system, which includes bones, joints and tendons. They operate on trauma, injuries, abnormalities, and diseases in these areas. Like a heart surgeon, a residency must be completed in this specialty. General surgery is another option. Rather than specializing in a specific area, these surgeons perform various medical surgeries. Those in this category usually work in-house at hospitals, doing routine procedures that don't demand specific qualifications.

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