You will need:

  1. to study a premedical degree (4 years) then
  2. to study another 4 years at medical school followed by
  3. do a 5-year general surgery residency, and after that
  4. do a 2-year cardiothoracic surgery residency

After that you may also want to do further fellowships. It is a competitive residency, so you will have to have to do very well in medical school to be selected.

The cardiothoracic surgeon salary:

A cardiothoracic surgeon’s salary in private practice is up to $500,000 or more per year depending on how much you choose to work, of course. Cardiothoracic surgery is not for the faint-of-heart. Long years of training, long hours of working, studying, and long hours of surgery requiring intense focus both during residency as well as during your years of practicing as a cardiothoracic surgeon. Cardiothoracic surgeon salary = $500,000+ per year.

What is cardiothoracic surgery?

Cardiac surgery involves surgery to the heart and large blood vessels.

Thoracic surgery involves surgery to the lungs and any other structures within the chest cavity.
Cardiac and thoracic surgery are separate surgical specialties in some countries while in other countries, like the USA and the UK, they are usually grouped together.

Watch this video of a cardiothoracic surgeon opening up a patient’s chest cavity:

The heart has intrigued mankind throughout history, ascribing to the heart a number of mystical and spiritual attributes, the heart has always occupied a place as an organ in the human body elevated above all the other organs. To some extent rightly so as the heart (like the brain) is a vital organ. If the heart stops functioning, the person will soon lose consciousness and will die within minutes without medical intervention. In the early days of surgery, it was very difficult to perform surgery on the heart. There was a high mortality (death rate), but two advances in surgery changed that dramatically:

The development of the heart-lung machine – a medical apparatus that can take over the functions of the heart for a number of hours (operated by a perfusionist) giving the heart surgeon hours of time to operate on the heart with very little or no bleeding.
The development of mechanisms to cool down the temperature of the heart during the surgical procedure – giving the cardiac surgeon extra hours to perform quality surgery on a motionless heart, and then warming the heart again and “restarting” the pumping functions of the heart.

The following is a quote from one of the pioneers in the field of cardiothoracic surgery. Nicholas T. Kouchoukos, M.D. “If you are a student or resident with intelligence, drive, and stamina, who loves challenges, hard work and positive outcomes, who is results-oriented, loves working with your hands as well as your brain, and enjoys caring for others and interacting with highly competent physicians and other health care professionals, you should strongly consider becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon…” Click here for full article.

Best wishes for your success!


  1. hannah momodu says

    hi i am hannah and i have a question. as a cardiac surgeon can u also administer drugs or do the work of a cardiologist

    • says

      There is a fair amount over overlap between cardiac surgery and cardiology -thus cardiothoracic surgeons may administer drugs and cardiologist perform minor invasive procedures on a daily basis..

  2. Thabo says

    I am in Zimbabwe and will be going for Advanced Level this year. I really wanna be a cardiothoracic surgeon.

    Would like to know the subjects I need to do: Maths, Biology and Chemistry. Question is: Do I need to do Physics. Also what grades do I need?

    • says

      Yes – you need to understand fluid, volumentrics, hydraulics and a lot of other basic physics principles if you want to be a cadiothoracic surgeon.
      Grades – you compete with the best of the best for a place in med school – so that is the short answer – “excellent grades”.

  3. Natasha says

    For becoming a cardiac surgeon, do I have to learn both physics and chemistry or only one of them?

  4. mariam says

    I study 1st year MBBS in Medical College Kolkata, India.I want to become a cardiothoracic surgeon in US.Could u elaborate the procedures involving various examinations, USMLE n various colleges under this exam?

  5. Aneesa says

    hi its me again
    (you might see my comments quite a lot, sorry) I wanted to know whether you can choose what part of the chest you want to work with, by that I mean if I don’t want to do a heart surgery and I’d rather do surgeries on the lungs, oesophagus etc would they allow that ? and if yes, when studying for it would they still teach you how to do it or would they only teach you the parts you want to actually do a surgery on. Basically is there a choice?
    Many thanks

    • says

      One can choose and “super-specialize” – and one’s colleagues will refer specifically if they need the best person on esophageal surgery for instance. Once you have your basic registration as a cardiothoracic surgeon you may choose a field of special interest.

  6. Anne says

    hiya … ok so I really want to become a cardothoracic surgeon but also a paediatrician so I’m not sure which one to choose, I’ve done research for both of them but I can’t decide, and do you have to choose triple sciences for both options,

  7. Patrick says

    Hi! I want to become a Cardiothoracic Surgeon. And I was wondering if you can operate both on children and adults or you have to choose one or the other. Also I was wondering if you could perform thoracic, vascular, and cardio surgery’s just being a Cardiothoracic surgeon and would you have to do a different fellowship for each after the general surgery residency? One last thing would you recommend doing the 6-year program and UNC?

    • says

      Cardiothoracic surgery involves all the structures within the thoracic cavity – in both adults and children – but if you want to focus in on pediatric patients you will have to do a cardiothoracic paeds fellowship/sub-specialty. Cardiothoracic surgery by its nature involves vascular surgery within tthe thorax – but then Vascular Surgery is a sub-specialty of general surgery. At the end of the day one are allowed to perform surgery of any kind within your specialty field – as long as you can prove that your properly trained and has the experience to perform it safely. Hope it helps!

  8. Fathi says

    Hello Dr. Scheepers

    First, I greatly appreciate the information given regarding the Cardiothoracic Surgeon. It was concise and comprehensive. I am a high school senior and perspective freshman next year. It is really my passion to one become cardiothoracic surgeon. In my country, Somalia, there is no female cardiac surgeon and I want to be that female to fill the need. However, I currently arrived United States in 2012. Do you think there will be some obstacles regarding me being a newcomer which I will encounter along the way to become a cardiothoracic surgeon. Please also if you know of any medical programs I can participate I would really appreciate your help.

    Thank you.

    • says

      Hi Fathi
      Thank you for registering for our For Future Doctors Camp in Tampa FL! You have a great vision and there is no reason you cannot succeed.
      Obstacles there will always be – but if you persist you will overcome them all! See you in Tampa in June – will send your letter of acceptance soon.
      Dr Anton

  9. Anisa says

    i’m not sure about being a cardiothoracic surgeon as i want to have a family when i grow up … is this the right choice or not

  10. Mohamed Sayid Ahmed Mukhtar says

    Hello everyone,
    I would like to thank a lot this info. Recently am from Germany. Am student doing my A-level ( Abitur ) I would like to get more information about University. My career is to be heart Surgeon. I hope you’ll reply me back and give me more information. Am already now in medicine way.

  11. Jj says

    I’m 23 yrs old planning on going to college during fall and well my ultimate goal is to become cardiothrotic surgeon. I know if all goes well I’ll be finish with medical school at age 33-34 and residency at age 40. Would you consider that to be too old??? Have you heard or seen of similar situation..
    Thanks for your feedback in advance

  12. Mindie Mabry says

    Hi I am wondering what I can do in high school to prepare for med school and for cardiothoracic surgeries? Is there anything specific?

  13. Trang says

    Hi, I am still in high school but I’m one hundred percent sure that I want a future as a cardiothoracic surgeon. I would like to know what it would take to become one as supposed to grades and such. I really need some guidance on what I’m supposed to do after high school. I’m not sure what college I would like to attend that would be best for cardiothoracic surgeons or what would happen after that. I would also like to know about all the preparations. Thanks

  14. Freshta Rahmani says

    I am a freshmen and I want to become a Cardiothoracic Surgeon but I want to know if there is any possible route that I could take on shortening the amount of years it takes to become this surgeon, but with the same amount of knowledge provided in the 11-15 years? Is there a special medical school that would allow me to do this? I don’t want to spend the next 18 years of my life in school, but I also don’t want to be a danger to any future patients.
    Thank you,

  15. Aneesa says

    hi im aneesa
    i wanted to know whether you have to know the name of all the tools you use when doing a surgery

    • says

      Yes – indeed. Sometimes we give them nicknames. Your assistant often knows by experience what you want and what you will use next – so often you simply hold out your hand and receive the correct instrument…

  16. Seth says

    It has always be my dream of becoming a cardiovascular thoracic surgeon. Currently, I am a MBBS(Bachelor of medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) student of Jinggangshan University-China. Can you tell me the next level of education I have to enter before achieving my dreams? Is there also any road map you could share with me that will be useful and serve as a guide?

  17. wins bob says

    I am currently in med school my first year, and I’m really aspiring to be a successful CT surgeon, but, could you please tell me a good GPA score that can be good enough to apply for my residence ? thanks a lot!

    • says

      This is just my opinion – maybe someone else can comment as well. I don’t think there is a specific GPA -varies somewhat from one medical school to the other – but as a competitive residency it should be in the upper 20% at least.

  18. FBabO says

    My ambition is to be a cardiovascular thoracic surgeon and i want to know what I have to do, the requirements both academic and general and most importantly how I can help people in this field of surgery. Thnxxx..

    • says

      I hope it is your ‘vision’ rather than your ‘ambition’ – just to be technical for a moment. Vision looks outwardly while ambition is more driven by personal gratification.
      I will send you an email with a nice resource so you can prepare your career as a medical doctor – surgeon – and eventually as a cardio-thoracic surgeon.

  19. Hailey says

    I want to be a cardiothoracic surgeon, but will it be more difficult as a woman? What should I do in high school and for volunteer work to begin to prepare myself? Is a highly mathematically oriented mind pretty much mandatory? And will strengths in communication and empathy work for me or against me? I really believe that I can do it, as I do not want a family. How can I make sure that I will be prepared and very sure of my specialty. I am still in high school, but I have always known I wanted to be a doctor and to help people. I feel that cardiothoracic surgery is a highly rewarding and incredible career. Where else could one fix broken hearts?

    • says

      Will it be more difficult as a woman?
      No – but for those who want a fulfilling family life – lets just say it is enormously challenging!
      What should I do in high school and for volunteer work to begin to prepare myself?
      I have a med school preparation logbook I am working on – send me your email address and I will send you the guide book that I am working on.
      Is a highly mathematically oriented mind pretty much mandatory? Short answer – “Yes”!
      And will strengths in communication and empathy work for me or against me? Will work very much for you.
      I really believe that I can do it, as I do not want a family. Go for it!
      How can I make sure that I will be prepared and very sure of my specialty. It will become clear during your 4 years in med school – shadowing a cadiothoracic surgeon will be of great value!
      I am still in high school, but I have always known I wanted to be a doctor and to help people. Great.
      I feel that cardiothoracic surgery is a highly rewarding and incredible career. Where else could one fix broken hearts? Good point!
      Join us at the Tampa Camp:
      Best wishes for your future!

  20. Adriana says

    What would be the best universities one can attend to become a cardiothoracic surgeon, and which one did you attend?

  21. Sohair says

    At what point during this long journey does one get paid? Also is it REALLY possible for a woman to balance her life and family along with becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon? What’s the next best thing after cardiothoracic surgery that may not take as long but is similar and just as meaningful, and pays well?

    • says

      The year after qualifying as a doctor is usually referred to as your intern year – and one gets paid form your intern year onwards…
      If you want to have a reasonable family life – the probably cardiothoracic surgery is not the career to follow.
      Have you thought about anesthetics?

  22. Adebukola says

    Hi…i am rounding up my medical programme and i have been considering this aspect of surgery..but is it advisable for a woman who wants to keep a family?

  23. rishav basyal says

    I appreciate those cardiothoracic surgeon for their paticience n hard work. And my dream is also to become a cardiologist so that i can help those poor people from death. I am also a medical student so near future i have todo so. But the thing is if anyone sponser for me by porviding scholarship i will obviously fulfill my dream job a cardiothoracic surgeon.

  24. Onthatile Cynthia Matshoge says

    I really love your article and i’m interested in the career.See i’m a 15 year old girl in grade 9,who would love to become a cardiac surgeon one day,but dont know were to start,which medical school to attend and which scholarship to apply for,my question is were can i apply for my further education.

  25. Eddie Rego says

    How many hours would you expect to work per week? Could you potentially take lower pay for lower hours? Lastly, is the stereotype true that cardiothoracic surgeons are always on call (aka, waking up in the middle of the night to perform surgery)? No need to fluff the answers, I am determined to go enter this field, nonetheless!

    • says

      Employed: The days of unlimited hours are very much over as it is all the more regulated – and one would be able to work civil hours – like 40-48 a week – (at least in theory – but in reality 50+) and one will be on an after-hours call roster every 2-4 weeks – possibly on a first and second call arrangement.
      Self employed: Your weekly hours will be more your decision but probably in the region of 60 hours – and one wound team up with other Cardiothoracic surgeons in the area for an after-hours call roster to help referred/emergency patients. Unfortunately one is 24/7 on call for your own patients – you won’t expect another surgeon to get up in the middle of the nigh to stop a bleed on a patient on whom you operated during the day for instance. As a cardiothoracic surgeon you will probably get much more night sleep hours as compared to an Obstetrician.
      Of course you can work less hours – but somehow one gets in a mode of working hard – as this is the way it goes during your long residency years…
      (My comments are based on observation over years rather than personal experience (I am a MFOS Surgeon) – any cardiothoracic surgeons want to comment?)

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