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Cardiothoracic Surgery

"As the name implies, cardiothoracic surgery is on the heart and in the chest cavity. It also includes operations on the lungs, esophagus, and major blood vessels in the chest. Heart surgery includes coronary artery bypass grafting, valve replacements, heart transplants, thoracic aneurism repairs, septal defect repairs, and trauma to the heart. Thoracic surgery includes lung resections, esophageal resections/reconstructions, video-assisted thoracic surgeries (VATS), pleurodesis, and similar procedures. If you enjoy cardiac and pulmonary physiology, love meticulous procedures, and become excited with the idea of operating within the chest, CT surgery may be your calling."

— Freeman, B. (2013). The Ultimate Guide to Choosing a Medical Specialty. 3rd Ed. Lange Medical Books/McGraw-Hill: New York. p. 233.

M1 and M2 Students

 What advice would you offer first- and second-year students who are interested in pursuing your specialty?

Get involved early. Demonstrating that you have investigated the field and really understand what you are signing up for is important. This may be in the form of research, clinical rotations, elective or just observing in your spare time. It is important to develop a relationship with someone in the field early. Since most integrated programs are only one or two people per year, our worst nightmare is that someone will quit because they didn’t really understand what they were getting into. Therefore, we are looking for evidence of sustained interest and effort. You need to convince the program that you are meant to be a cardiothoracic surgeon.

Pay attention to grades and USMLE scores. Thoracic surgery integrated programs are very competitive. Fewer than one in five applicants obtains a position most years. Those with poor USMLE scores or less than high pass in the M3 surgery rotation will not be considered by many programs. Most programs also look at other M3 grades, and honors in surgery with pass in all other rotations will not help your application.

 How important is a research experience in your specialty? If important, does it need to be in the specialty itself?

Research experience is very helpful, and many programs will favor those with cardiac or thoracic research.

M3 and M4 Students

 What M4 electives would you recommend to a student who is interested in pursuing your specialty?

Radiology, infectious disease, cardiology, pulmonary.

 Does your specialty recommend doing away rotations?

In general, away rotations are not that helpful, but there are a few programs that tend to take students who have rotated with them. In most programs, it won’t really help you and has the potential to hurt your application if you have an off day or two.

 If your specialty recommends doing away rotations, how many "aways" do you recommend?

I don’t think more than one is helpful and generally recommend doing one only if there is a specific program or geographical location you really want to be in.

 If away rotations are necessary, when should they be completed?

If you are going to do an away try, for as early as possible so that a letter from that rotation will make it into your application.

 Which month do you recommend taking off to interview?

Most interviews will be in December or January with a few at the end of November.

 Does your specialty recommend that all letters of recommendation be written by members of your specialty?

We expect at least one or two from within the specialty but also value the opinions of general surgeons. A letter from a medicine attending suggests to the reviewer that you may not be fully committed to surgery.

 If letters can come from other disciplines, do you have a recommendation as to which disciplines are more highly valued?

See above.

 Does the academic rank of the letter writer matter?

At least one letter should come from someone in the field that letter readers are likely to know, such as a division chief or someone with a national reputation. Your adviser can help you find this person.

 Does your specialty require a letter from the chairman?

A letter from the chairman is always advisable.

 A letter from the chairman is always advisable.

Start early so that faculty know who you are. Always make yourself available so that if a research question comes up you can jump in and offer to help with it. Find out when division conferences and educational sessions occur and come sit in. Let us know you are interested and want to learn about the field.

For More Information

Department of Surgery Administration
Northwestern University
Feinberg School of Medicine
251 E. Huron St., Suite 3-150
Chicago, IL 60611