Cardiovascular Surgeon: Education Requirements and Career Overview

Sep 27, 2019

Cardiovascular surgery requires significant formal education. Learn about the training, job duties, licensure and certification to see if this is the right career for you.

A cardiovascular surgeon specializes in heart surgery. These professionals need to complete extensive education, including medical school, as well as fellowships and/or residencies.

Essential Information

Cardiovascular surgery requires extensive education and training but the ultimate rewards of this profession include a potentially high salary and job stability, as well as life-saving expertise. Cardiovascular surgeons use surgical procedures to diagnose and treat diseases of the heart and major blood vessels. They must first become medical doctors and then complete a residency in cardiovascular surgery. In total, it can take between 14 and 18 years following high school to become a cardiac surgeon, depending on the route taken.

Required Education Medical school;
General surgery residency and Cardiothoracic/Cardiovascular surgery fellowship; OR
Integrated residency in cardiothoracic surgery
Licensure & Certification State licensure required
Board certification generally required
Projected Job Growth (2018-2028)* 7% for all types of physicians and surgeons
Average Annual Salary (2019)** $511,556 for cardiothoracic surgeons (a type of cardiovascular surgeon)

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **

What is a Cardiovascular Surgeon?

A cardiovascular surgeon, also referred to as a heart surgeon, is a medical doctor specializing in physical intervention on the heart and greater blood vessels. This profession was pioneered in the early part of the 19th century, but really came into its own with the invention of open heart surgery in the 1950's. With ever-increasing new technologies such as robot-assisted surgeries and minimally invasive procedures, this well-respected profession continues to break new ground and increase the human lifespan.

Job Prospects and Salary Expectations

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the average yearly salary for all types of surgeons in May of 2018 was $255,110, which is lower than what such specialized surgeons as cardiac surgeons typically make. According to, the median annual salary for cardiothoracic surgeons as of August 2019 was $511,556.

Surgeons can work out of hospitals or open their own private practices, with self-employed surgeons earning higher median incomes on average. Since the need for surgeons with cardiovascular expertise will continue to grow alongside the growth in the U.S. population, anyone preparing for this career is likely to find employment opportunities in the future. Employment for physicians and surgeons in general is projected to increase 7% from 2018-2028, according to the BLS.

How to Become a Cardiovascular Surgeon

The general requirements on the path to becoming a cardiovascular surgeon are four years of undergraduate school, four years of medical school, and seven to ten years of residency/fellowship training, followed by passage of a licensing exam and board certification.


The first step in becoming a cardiovascular surgeon is completing a bachelor's degree and applying to medical school. People who want to go to medical school can get their bachelor's degrees in any major as long as they complete all the necessary premed coursework. This coursework includes physics, biology, mathematics, English, and inorganic and organic chemistry. Premedical students must take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and submit their scores along with their college transcript and letters of recommendation, as well as participating in an interview with the medical college admissions committee.

While it is technically possible to enter a medical school with a minimum of only three years of college, entrance is so highly competitive that it is inadvisable to apply without completing all four years. The exceptions here are combined seven year medical programs, which admit high school seniors who have already decided to pursue a medical career.


The first two years of medical school are academic, spent in classrooms and laboratories, while the last two years are clinical, spent learning to care for patients under supervision. Each student goes through a rotation of different medical specialties (including surgery) in order to aid his or her decision of which field to pursue.

Medical school graduates can pursue one of several paths in the United States to become a cardiac surgeon. Cardiac surgery training is frequently combined with training in thoracic surgery and/or vascular surgery (cardiothoracic, cardiovascular, cardiovascular thoracic surgery, respectively), each of which have slightly different lengths of training.

In general, a medical school graduate could either complete a general surgery residency (5-7 years) followed by a cardiovascular, cardiothoracic, or cardiovascular thoracic surgery fellowship (2-3 years), or attempt to enter one of the integrated cardiothoracic surgery residency programs, which take 6 years and are even more competitive to get into.

Licensure & Certification

All physicians must be licensed at the state level to practice medicine, and board certification in their specialty or sub-specialty is nearly universally required by employers. Licensing requires completion of an accredited residency program and all three steps of the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) for MD's or the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination of the United States (COMLEX-USA) for DO's. Board certification requires licensing and completion of accredited residency/fellowship training.

Becoming a cardiovascular surgeon requires completion of medical school, followed by residencies in either general surgery and then a more specialized field, or admission into a cardiothoracic surgery residency. Once training is completed, physicians must be licensed at the state level and can pursue board certification. Cardiovascular surgeons can have private practices or work at a hospital.

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