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How to Become a Heart Surgeon

Learn how to become a heart surgeon. Research the education and career requirements, training and licensure information and experience required for starting a career in heart surgery.

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Do I Want to Be a Heart Surgeon?

Cardiac or heart surgeons specialize in treating diseases and congenital disorders of the heart through surgical intervention. Through their work, cardiac surgeons have the ability to improve, prolong, and save patients' lives.

Heart surgeons, like other surgeons, have the potential to make a lot of money whether they work for a hospital or in a private practice. The hours of the job can be very demanding; surgeons work long hours that often include nights and weekends. Surgeons must stand for long hours at a time and, because they work in medical care settings, may be exposed to infectious diseases, although the risk is very small.

Job Requirements

Cardiac surgeons undergo extensive training, which includes undergraduate studies, medical school, and years of residency in both general surgery and thoracic or cardiothoracic surgery. The following table outlines common requirements to become a heart surgeon:

Common Requirements
Degree Level A medical doctorate degree is required*
Degree Field Undergraduate level: a specific field is not required, but must typically include courses in subjects like biology, mathematics and chemistry; graduate level: medicine*
Licensure and Certification A license is required to practice medicine in all states. Voluntary certifications are available*
Experience Completion of 7-8 years if total residency training is typically required**
Key Skills Strong communication and leadership skills, knowledge of human anatomy and proper medical protocol, empathy and compassion, problem-solving skills and patience*
Additional Requirements Dexterity and physical stamina are needed as heart surgeons work with their hands and often work on their feet for long periods of time*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) **The Society of Thoracic Surgeons

Step 1: Enroll in a Bachelor's Degree Program

Typically, a bachelor's degree is required in order to meet medical school admissions requirements. Students interested in becoming heart surgeons may want to focus on advanced undergraduate biological science courses, such as human anatomy, microbiology and biochemistry. Some schools offer pre-medical undergraduate majors, which can cover all of the necessary prerequisites for medical school admissions, but a specific major is not typically required. Many medical schools typically require that candidates have a college grade point average (GPA) of 3.5 or better.

Success Tips

  • Volunteer and participate in community service projects. Medical school programs tend to be highly competitive, and a high GPA may not be enough to qualify an applicant for admissions. Volunteering at a local hospital or logging community service hours at a homeless shelter may give a student the experience and competitive edge they need to get into medical school.
  • Participate in extracurricular activities. Participating in extracurricular activities can help students showcase their leadership abilities and this experience can give applicants a competitive edge on their medical school application.
  • Take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). Medical school candidates are required to demonstrate a satisfactory score on the MCAT. The MCAT's multiple-choice questions and skills assessment help medical schools to determine a candidate's readiness for training as a physician. Undergraduate college students planning to enter medical school upon graduation generally take this exam before their senior year.

Step 2: Complete a Medical School Program

The medical school curriculum focuses on normal and abnormal anatomy and physiology, covering biochemistry and pathology as well as major organs and systems. Medical school programs introduce students to a wide variety of specialties and areas of medicine, including surgery, obstetrics and gynecology, internal medicine or pediatric care. It usually takes four years to earn a medical degree, which is commonly known as a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.). The first two years are generally spent in a classroom setting while the second two years focus on clinical practice.

Step 3: Undertake Residency Training

Heart surgeons normally complete roughly five years of general surgery residency training, followed by at least two additional years in a thoracic or cardiothoracic residency program. During these residencies, aspiring surgeons work alongside licensed surgeons and participate in operations. Once these two residencies are completed, heart surgeons may opt to complete additional specialized training in pediatric heart surgery, robotics-assisted cardiac procedures or heart transplant surgery.

Step 4: Become Licensed and Board Certified

While licensing requirements may vary, all states require physicians to pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination prior to practicing medicine. In addition to being licensed by the state, physicians may voluntarily obtain certification in thoracic surgery through the American Board of Thoracic Surgery, a specialty board of the American Board of Medical Specialties. Initial requirements include possession of a state medical license, general and thoracic surgery residencies, and satisfactory scores on a board-offered exam. In order to maintain board certification, heart surgeons are required to complete a minimum number of continuing medical education hours, submit letters of reference, as well as case summaries, and pass an exam every ten years.

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