How do I Become a Cardiothoracic Surgeon?

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  • Written By: Stuart Z.
  • Edited By: Lucy Oppenheimer
  • Last Modified Date: 29 November 2019
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Cardiothoracic surgeons specialize in surgical techniques used to treat disorders afflicting the heart, lungs, esophagus, and blood vessels in the upper torso. The process to become a cardiothoracic surgeon is usually very long, typically requiring at least 15 years of higher education. Most cardiothoracic surgeons attend college and medical school, then complete residency training programs in general surgery and specialized training in cardiothoracic surgery.

As undergraduates, prospective cardiothoracic surgeons typically can major in any subject they choose as long as prerequisite courses in biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, and calculus are completed. Not only are these courses required for admission to US medical schools, they are also topics included in the medical college admissions test (MCAT). As the name implies, the MCAT is required for admission to most US medical schools. Most students take this test in their junior year of undergraduate school, and only after months of preparation.


In a four year medical school, students can expect to spend the first two years studying the basic sciences crucial to understanding medicine, such as anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, immunology, pathology, and pharmacology. Students will probably take additional, non-scientific courses essential to being a doctor, covering topics like medical ethics and health care systems. The final two years of medical school are spent in clinical rotations where students interact with patients and health care workers under the supervision of a physician faculty member. It is during this time that students are exposed to clinical disciplines, such as cardiothoracic surgery, that may become their specialties.

During the senior year of medical school, students can begin applying for a residency program which will provide students with specialized training in one clinical discipline. Students interested in becoming cardiothoracic surgeons should first apply for general surgery residency programs. General surgery residencies typically last five years and include exposure to many different types of surgery. Residents can expect to receive some training in cardiothoracic surgery about midway through their surgical residency.

After spending four years in a general surgery residency, a student can apply for an additional residency specializing specifically in cardiothoracic surgery. This additional clinical training requires two to four years of study, depending on the requirements of the residency program. Following the successful completion of this second residency program, students are eligible to sit for the American Board of Thoracic Surgery. Passing this board exam is considered the final hurdle to become a cardiothoracic surgeon, but most doctors will continue to obtain additional, specialized experience through various fellowships.

A huge amount of hard work, dedication, and ambition is necessary to become a cardiothoracic surgeon. Luckily, most cardiothoracic surgeons report a high level of job satisfaction and a high demand for the medical services they can provide.


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