How Do I Become a Cardiothoracic Surgeon?

Research what it takes to become a cardiothoracic surgeon. Learn about 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 Cardiothoracic Surgeon?

A cardiothoracic surgeon is a physician who specializes in surgical procedures involving the heart and lungs. These professionals perform treatments such as coronary artery bypass grafting, mitral and aortic valve repair and replacement, ventricle restoration, lung and esophageal resection, and radiofrequency ablation for atrial fibrillation. They may also install cardiac support devices and provide evaluation and treatment of mediastinal tumors for patients with lung cancer. Before surgery, surgeons consult with patients to discuss the diagnosis and answer questions about the operation. Afterward, they follow up with patients to ensure a smooth recovery.

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

Degree Required Doctor of Medicine (M.D.)
Training Required 5-year surgical residency and 2-year residency in thoracic surgery
Licensure or Certification All states require doctors to be licensed; board certification is available
Key Responsibilities Diagnose and treat patients who have diseases of the heart and lungs; perform surgical procedures on the heart and lungs to restore normal function; prescribe treatment and medication; order diagnostic tests and evaluate results
Job Growth (2014-2024) 14% (for all physicians and surgeons)*
Median Salary (2017) $437,450**

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

What Does A Cardiothoracic Surgeon Do?

As a cardiothoracic surgeon, you'll likely be involved in diagnosing problems of the heart, talking to patients and other doctors about treatment options, performing simple and complex surgeries of the heart, monitoring patient recovery and keeping abreast of current trends and technologies in the medical and cardiothoracic fields. You'll typically spend large amounts of time in the operating room or preparing for your next surgery.

What Kind Of Education Do I Need?

The first step toward becoming a surgeon is to earn a bachelor's degree. Although there is no specific mandated major, it's highly suggested you consider a major in the sciences, such as biology or chemistry.

You must pass the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) to apply to medical school. Once you're enrolled in an accredited program, you'll complete courses such as physiology and microbiology in classrooms and laboratories before going on to earn hands-on, clinical experience.

What Residency Programs Do I Need To Complete?

After medical school, you'll first need to complete a residency in general surgery, which typically lasts around five years. The residency program is an intense, comprehensive blend of clinical experience, conferences, research opportunities and operating room experience. Generally during the first year or two, you'll rotate through a number of critical areas of surgery, such as neurosurgery, plastic surgery, cardiovascular surgery and orthopaedic surgery. The third year concentrates on gaining experience assisting and performing surgeries. The fourth year offers opportunity for rotations in specialty surgery areas, such as surgical oncology, trauma surgery, breast surgery, transplant surgery and cardiothoracic surgery.

Following a residency in general surgery, you'll need to complete a 2-year fellowship in thoracic surgery. This fellowship allows for advanced training, further education and more comprehensive surgical experience in the specialty area of cardiothoracic surgery. You'll strive to meet case requirements as required for board certification by the American Board of Thoracic Surgery (ABTS) and prepare for certification examinations.

How Do I Get Licensed and Certified?

All 50 states require doctors to be licensed by taking the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), which is a comprehensive written examination. After completing educational and professional requirements, you can apply for board certification through the American Board of Thoracic Surgery (ABTS), which requires both a written and oral examination.

How Much Can I Expect To Earn?

According to, the expected median salary for cardiothoracic surgeons in 2017 was $437,450. The top ten percent earned over $649,356, while the bottom ten percent earned under $271,651.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

There are a variety of other specialization options available for trained surgeons. After completing your residency, you could choose a two-year fellowship in vascular surgery or complete a one-year fellowship in hand surgery, pediatric surgery or surgical critical care. Another option is to pick a different residency after medical school, such as internal medicine, psychiatry or family medicine. Alternatively, you could seek a different position on a surgical team, such as a surgical physician assistant. Physician assistants only need to earn a master's degree and a license before they can practice, which may be attractive if you're not committed to the more extensive professional education required of physicians and surgeons.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

  • 1. Degree Options:
The schools in the listing below are not free and may include sponsored content but are popular choices among our users. Tuition and costs will vary across programs and locations. Be sure to always request tuition information before starting a program.

Popular Schools