CareerExplorer’s step-by-step guide on how to become a cardiologist.
Is becoming a cardiologist right for me?
The first step to choosing a career is to make sure you are actually willing to commit to pursuing the career. You don’t want to waste your time doing something you don’t want to do. If you’re new here, you should read about:
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Take plenty of challenging science and math classes including advanced placement courses in biology, chemistry, physics, and calculus.
Enhance communication skills through English composition, speech, foreign language, and drama classes.
Enroll in a psychology class to learn about human nature and explore the mind-body connection.
Volunteer at a health clinic, hospital, or eldercare facility.
Explore health career summer study programs.
While there is not a specific degree required for undergraduate study, aspiring cardiologists tend to concentrate their coursework in advanced biological sciences to meet admission requirements for medical school.
Students must graduate from an accredited bachelor's degree program with pre-med prerequisite courses in chemistry, physics, and biology. Also recommended are classes in English, advanced mathematics, and statistics. Most medical schools require a grade point average of at least 3.5 and may choose only those candidates who rank at the top of their graduating class.
Some students planning to pursue a career in cardiology may opt to earn a degree in cardiovascular technology (CVT). CVT bachelor’s programs are often very competitive and applicants must fulfill prerequisites to be considered for acceptance.
During undergraduate study it is also important for students to gain experience that will set them apart from other medical school applicants and prepare them for their chosen career. This experience may include volunteering at a hospital, performing community service, and research work.
Especially valuable are job shadowing programs, which allow students to follow cardiologists and other doctors throughout a workday. All of these activities demonstrate work ethic and dedication to the medical field. Whenever possible, these experiences should be documented on letters of recommendation, which can be submitted with medical school applications.
While earning their bachelor’s, students should begin thinking about whether they want to be a non-invasive cardiologist, a non-interventional cardiologist, an interventional cardiologist, or an electrophysiology cardiologist.
Making this decision while still in undergraduate school can help students choose electives and select the appropriate medical school program.
Medical School Admissions Test
During their junior year of undergraduate study, prospective cardiologists must sit for the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).
Through a set of multiple-choice questions, this standardized exam allows medical schools to evaluate a candidate’s training and skill set. Many schools share their incoming student MCAT score average on their website to inform undergraduates of how well they need to score to compete with other applicants.
To achieve their highest possible MCAT score, students are encouraged to take advantage of assistance available to them. This includes study materials, pre-tests, practice tests, and online and in-person tutoring. These resources are designed to ensure that students attain the best possible score, which will open doors to medical schools.
Medical School & National Licensing
Cardiologists obtain either a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree.
Medical school is a very challenging four years of study that is divided into two parts.
The first part, comprising the first two years of the schooling, is focused on course and lab work that prepares students intellectually for patient interaction. This training is in the biological and natural sciences, physiology, chemistry, medical ethics, and the art and practice of medicine.
To test their grasp of this portion of training, in the second year of medical school students pursuing an MD must take and pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) – Step 1. Those pursuing a DO must take and pass the United States Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA) – Level 1.
A passing score on the USMLE or COMLEX-USA indicates that students are ready to begin supervised patient visits and gain clinical experience.
The second part of medical school, the second two years, is called Rotations. During this time, students have the opportunity to experience a variety of medical specialties and a variety of medical settings under the supervision of experienced physicians.
Rotations further students’ understanding of patient care, situations, scenarios, and the teams that come together to help those that are sick. As they complete rotations, students tend to find out that they gravitate towards certain specialties or environments that fit their particular interests and skill sets.
It is important that this time inform their decision of specialty or subspecialty, so that they find complete satisfaction as a physician.
After part two of medical school, students take the United States Medical Licensing Exam –Step 2 or the United States Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination – Level 2.
The objective of these exams is to test whether or not students have developed the clinical knowledge and skills that they will need to transition into unsupervised medical practice.
Internal Medicine Residency
Because cardiology is a medical specialty, as opposed to a surgical specialty, cardiologists must complete an internal medicine residency. This residency is comprised of several supervised clinical rotations in internal medicine specialties: cardiology, oncology, respiratory medicine, endocrinology, gastroenterology, and others.
During these three years, residents build a portfolio of experience that prepares them for a cardiology fellowship. It is also during this time that they secure letters of recommendation from leaders in the field that will support their fellowship applications.
Participation in research, presenting at conferences, and even publishing articles during residency further strengthens these applications.
All physicians in the U.S. need to be state licensed. Licensing requirements may vary from state to state. Generally, candidates must have earned an undergraduate degree, graduated from medical school, completed a residency, and passed all necessary examinations.
Often, the examination component is satisfied by passing the USMLE or the COMLEX-USA exam. States may further require periodic license renewal and mandate continuing education.
Board Certification in Internal Medicine
After completion of residency, future cardiologists must earn board certification in internal medicine through the American Board of Internal Medicine. This certification is a prerequisite for board certification in cardiology.
General Cardiology Fellowship
Early in their third year of residency, future cardiologists apply for cardiology fellowships. Typically, they are advised of which program has accepted them halfway through year three of residency.
The three-year fellowship consists of further training in the prevention, diagnosis, and management of a wide range of cardiac conditions, including coronary artery disease, valvular heart disease, and heart failure.
Through cardiology rotations, fellows conduct nonclinical and clinical research and learn to perform procedures such as heart catheterization and echocardiography.
Board Certification in Cardiovascular Disease
After completing a fellowship in cardiology, physicians can take the Cardiovascular Disease Certification Examination administered by the American Board of Internal Medicine.
This exam is longer than the internal medicine exam and typically takes fourteen hours to complete. Passing the exam results in board certification in cardiology.
Cardiology Subspecialty Fellowship (optional)
Cardiologists may elect to specialize in one of the field’s subspecialties. Among the most common are:
This subspecialty fellowship focuses on advanced procedures such as valve repairs, atherectomy (plaque removal), balloon angioplasty, and mesh stent replacement to relieve blockages.
Clinical Cardiac Electrophysiology
Electrophysiology cardiologists use echocardiograms to view an image of the heart and identify irregular heart rhythms and other problems that can cause cardiac arrest. They perform procedures to implant pacemakers and defibrillators and prescribe drug therapies and other treatments to reduce incidence of heart failure.
Heart Failure & Transplant
Specialists in this discipline manage complex heart failure and disease. They work very closely with surgeons and deal with very sick patients who may require heart transplants or artificial heart devices.
After completing a subspecialty fellowship, cardiologists can pursue advanced certification through the American Board of Internal Medicine.
To retain their credentials, cardiologists must fulfill maintenance of certification requirements throughout their career. They must retake their certification exams, known as Boards, every ten years to ensure that they remain up-to-date on research and techniques.
Voluntary Certifications & Memberships
Fellow, American College of Cardiology (FACC)
American Heart Association (AHA)
Heart Failure Society of America (HFSA)
American Society of Echocardiography (ASE)
Alliance of Cardiovascular Professionals (ACVP)
American College of Chest Physicians (ACCP)