Cardiac Surgeons: Career Information for Becoming a Cardiac Surgeon

Discover what it takes to become a cardiac surgeon. Find out the education, training and licensure requirements, as well as some related career options.

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Career Definition of a Cardiac Surgeon

Cardiac surgery is a specialization in the surgical field that is dedicated to treating heart conditions. Cardiac surgeons perform coronary artery bypass surgery, heart transplants, valve replacements and repairs of congenital heart conditions, according to the American College of Cardiology ( Some surgeons are employed by hospitals or medical centers, but many own or co-own their own practices and perform routine office check-ups and follow-ups as well as surgeries.

Education Medical degree, 5-year surgery residency and 2-3 year fellowship
Licensure State license required after completing residency and passing exams
Essential Knowledge Cardiac and lung anatomy, medical ethics, pharmacology
Average Salary (2017)* $251,890 (for general surgeons)
Job Growth (2016-2026)* 14% (for general surgeons)

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Education Requirements

The educational process to become a cardiac surgeon is one of the longest in the medical field. Cardiac surgeons must complete four years of college, four years of medical school, a 5-year general surgery residency and a 2-3 year specialized cardio or cardiothoracic fellowship. Surgeons who wish to specialize further in pediatric cardiology or heart transplant surgeries may require additional training. All cardiac surgeons must be certified in surgery by the American Board of Medical Specialists before seeking further certification for cardiothoracic surgery. Accomplished cardiac surgeons may be elected to the American College of Cardiology and earn the Fellow of the American College of Cardiology (FACC) designation.

Licensure Requirements

All physicians and surgeons must obtain a state license. Licensure requirements include attending an accredited medical school, completing a residency and passing the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination or the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination.

Knowledge and Skill Requirements

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), cardiac surgeons must be well-versed in the subjects of anatomy, pharmacology, biochemistry, pathology and medical ethics. Cardiac surgeons need to have extensive knowledge of the anatomy of the heart and surrounding blood vessels. Cardiothoracic surgeons must be experts in lung anatomy as well.

Career Salary and Outlook

According to the BLS, cardiac surgeons' specialized expertise will be in continued demand, and jobs for surgeons are projected to increase by 14% from 2016 to 2026. Earning potential in the cardiac surgery field is very high. The BLS reported an average annual salary for general surgeons as $251,890 in 2017.

Alternative Career Options

Similar career options in this field include:


Those interested in a career in surgery who prefer not to work on vital organs might explore the field of podiatry. Podiatrists diagnose, treat and perform surgeries to correct ailments of the feet and ankles. To become a podiatrist, one must complete a Doctor of Podiatric Medicine at a school of podiatry and then complete a residency. Like medical doctors, podiatrists must be licensed, which requires completing an accredited program and residency and passing the American Podiatric Medical Licensing Exam. According to the BLS in 2017, podiatrists had a median annual salary of $127,740. The BLS projects jobs for podiatrists will increase by 10% from 2016 to 2026, which is faster than the average of all jobs.

Cardiovascular Nurse

Like cardiac surgeons, cardiovascular nurses care for patients with cardiovascular disease. These nurses educate patients in heart disease prevention, monitor patients before and after cardiac surgery and assist patients with cardiac rehabilitation. To work as a cardiovascular nurse, one must first become a registered nurse (RN), which commonly requires a minimum of an associate's degree and passing the NCLEX-RN exam. After gaining some experience working in a cardiac care unit, cardiovascular nurses may obtain professional certification from organizations such as the American Nurses Credentialing Center. The BLS reported in May 2017 that the median annual salary for all RNs was $70,000. Job growth for RNs in general is expected to be much faster-than-average, at 15%, from 2016-2026, according to the BLS.

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