How to Become a Cardiothoracic Surgeon in 8 Steps

How to Become a Cardiothoracic Surgeon

Cardiothoracic surgeons are doctors who provide surgical treatment for chest problems.

These surgeons are trained to treat ailments affecting the lungs, heart, esophagus and other organs in the chest.

Cardiothoracic surgeons primarily treat conditions related to the organs in the chest. They also treat diseases affecting chest organs, such as coronary artery disease.

What Does a Cardiothoracic Surgeon Do

A cardiothoracic surgeon uses surgical methods to treat problems occurring around the heart. These surgeons perform complex surgeries on the heart, lungs, esophagus, and other organs in the thoracic cavity.

As with other medical fields, there are multiple sub-specialties within cardiothoracic surgery too. These include:

  • Adult cardiac surgery
  • Pediatric cardiac surgery
  • This is a subset of pediatric cardiac surgery focused on congenital heart defects
  • General thoracic surgery (treat problems affecting the esophagus and lungs)
  • Heart and lung transplant surgery

Cardiothoracic surgeons also handle multiple responsibilities, such as:

  • Offering evaluation and diagnoses
  • Developing patient treatment plans
  • Suggesting non-surgical treatment alternatives
  • Consulting with patients to alleviate worries before surgical treatment
  • Affixing cardiac implants (pacemakers)
  • Performing minimally invasive catheter-based surgical operations
  • Performing robotic cardiac surgery
  • Monitoring patients in intensive care
  • Updating patients about the progress of recovery post-surgery

How to Become a Cardiothoracic Surgeon in the USA

Cardiothoracic surgeons need to work extra-long hours. People who are adept at science and math and have a passion for serving patients can choose to become cardiothoracic surgeons.

However, cardiothoracic surgeons’ education, training, and certification process is one of the longest in the field compared to other medical specialties.

On average, becoming a certified cardiothoracic surgeon takes up to 16 years of education and training.

Here are the 8 steps to becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon:

1 – Earn an undergraduate degree

First, you must earn an undergraduate degree, preferably with a pre-med course. This comes in handy when you seek admission into accredited medical schools.

It would be best if you chose to pursue an undergraduate degree in science.

Your course should include topics such as chemistry, math, and biology. You must score a GPA of 3.5 or more to gain entry into a reputed medical school.

You will also need to prepare for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) during this time. The MCAT score also matters to admission into a leading medical school in the US.

2 – Volunteer in patient care

You should also try volunteering at clinics and hospitals. This will give you first-hand experience and help you decide if being a cardiothoracic surgeon is the best career option for you.

To find volunteering opportunities, you can contact your local hospitals and enquire about any available volunteer position.

3 – Take MCAT Exam

Taking the MCAT is a prerequisite for applying to medical school.

This is essential for admission into an accredited medical school in the United States.

For the MCAT, you will need to focus on four topics:

  • Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
  • Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
  • Psychological, Social and Biological Foundations of Behavior
  • Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills

4 – Pass medical school

You must enroll in and pass medical school with a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree. It will take 4 years to complete medical school.

The first two years are focused on lectures and labs in classroom settings. You may also choose an elective in surgery during these two years.

The last two years of medical school involve clinical practice. So, find out rotations for cardiothoracic and other surgeries for relevant experience.

5 – Earn a license to practice medicine

Once you pass medical school with excellent grades, you must apply for a medical practitioner’s license.

Check the eligibility criteria and application process for medical licenses, as these vary from state to state.

You must appear for the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE).

6 – Complete residency in general surgery

Once you have successfully cracked the USMLE, you should choose a general surgery residency.

This usually combines research opportunities, clinical experience, operating room experience and attending medical conferences.

General surgery residency lasts for 5 years, focusing on a broad range of surgical disciplines, not specifically on cardiovascular surgery.

The next 3 years or so would include assisting and performing surgeries. This is also a great time to pursue rotations in specialized surgery.

Enquire at your medical school for relevant general surgery residency opportunities.

7 – Finish cardiothoracic surgery fellowship

A fellowship for cardiothoracic surgery is a great opportunity for advanced training and education. This is achieved in a hospital setting.

During the fellowship, you will gain specialized experience with cardiothoracic surgery. This way, you can fulfill the requirements imposed by the American Board of Thoracic Surgery (ABTS) which is necessary for board certification.

A cardiothoracic surgery fellowship typically lasts 2 years after a general surgery residency. Alternatively, some may pursue a 6-year integrated cardiothoracic surgery residency program after medical school.

8 – Get board certification

Board certification through ABTS is incredibly helpful in getting a better-paying surgeon’s job. You must complete your residency and fellowship training before applying for board certification in cardiothoracic surgery.

Then, you will need to complete general and cardiothoracic surgery residencies. This is necessary to score satisfactorily on the board examination.

Apart from this, you may also need to complete additional medical education hours. You may also need to present letters of reference case summaries and pass the certification exam every 10 years.


Cardiothoracic surgeons are among the most critical aspects of a comprehensive healthcare setting. They work directly in patient care.

Cardiothoracic surgeons’ annual salary is on the higher average than that of other types of surgeons and physicians.

If you are passionate about alleviating pain through surgical treatments, you should consider becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon.

See Also

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What is NRMP

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Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education

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