How to Become a Heart Surgeon

by Adrienne Mueller, PhD
March 17, 2022

It's not an easy road to become a heart surgeon. After four or more years of medical school, you need to complete a specialized cardiothoracic residency program that can last another six to eight years. These residency programs are highly competitive: the number of cardiothoracic residency programs is limited, and the pool of applicants is large. Unfortunately, the qualities you need demonstrate to be offered a cardiothoracic residency placement are often hard to discern; information on selection criteria is often lacking on program websites and in published reports. To address this gap of knowledge, a group of Stanford cardiothoracic physicians and scientists surveyed US cardiothoracic surgery residency program directors about the characteristics of successful candidates. Their study, by first author Oluwatomisin Obafemi, MD, and senior author Anson Lee, MD, was recently published in Annals of Thoracic Surgery.

Three of the top qualities cardiothoracic residency program directors consider when evaluating candidates.

Obafemi et al reached out to cardiothoracic residency program directors of 33 programs, of which 58% completed the survey. Almost unanimously, the programs considered ‘interview performance’ very important. ‘Evidence of professionalism’ and ‘letters of recommendation’ were also extremely important qualities in program directors’ consideration of candidates. The directors placed relatively little value on the MSPE/Dean’s letter, Alpha Omega Alpha (Medical Honor Society) status, class ranking, pre-clerkship grades, and completion of away rotation at their institution.

As residency programs select applicants in the future, they will need to strive to increase the diversity of those they admit to their programs. In 2021, only 30.6% of active residents identified as female, only 2.5% identified as Black or African American, and only 5.5% as Hispanic. More studies and discussions around the evaluation criteria for residency programs will streamline the application process, provide candidates with more transparency, and help reduce bias.

Additional Stanford Cardiovascular Institute-affiliated authors who participated in this study include Danielle Mullis and Abu Rogers.

Oluwatomisin Obafemi, MD

Anson Lee, MD