Becoming a Medical Physicist: Job Description & Salary Info

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Get the truth about a medical physicist's salary, education and licensure requirements and career prospects. Read the job description and see the pros and cons of becoming a medical physicist.
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Pros and Cons of Becoming a Medical Physicist

Medical physicists combine their knowledge of biology with their expertise in physics, specifically radiation technology, to enhance medical treatment. Check out these pros and cons to see if becoming a medical physicist is the right career choice for you:

Pros of a Medical Physicist Career
Above average salary (Most earn about $66,000-$188,000)**
Three specialties available (therapeutic, diagnostic and nuclear)*
Career includes a variety of clinical, research and educational duties*
Can work in large hospitals or in smaller practices*

Cons of a Medical Physicist Career
Minimum required education is a master's degree*
1-2 year residency may be required after graduate program*
Certification and licensing requirements*
Potential stress and exposure risk when determining proper radiation levels*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **PayScale.com.

Essential Career Information

Job Description

Medical physicists typically specialize in one of three areas: diagnostic, nuclear or therapeutic medical physics. Diagnostic medical physicists are concerned with radiation techniques that create images from which doctors form treatment plans. X-rays and MRIs are useful tools but any application of radiation to the body comes with a certain risk, and medical physicists work to control that risk and maintain the technology that gathers the diagnostic images. Nuclear medical physicists work with a team to determine the effective dosage and application of radioactive materials in the body for imaging and treatment purposes.

Therapeutic medical physicists, the most common specialty group, work within the field of radiation oncology, or the treatment of cancer with highly focused radiation. Therapeutic medical physicists work with dosimetrists and other members of the oncology team to verify radiation dosages, oversee the procedure and maintain the equipment. Like the other types of medical physicists, those working on the oncology team take precautions to avoid radiation contamination to medical staff and to ensure that the patient receives the proper dosage in the exact location necessary.

Skills

As a medical physicist, you could work in a large hospital where your duties could be specific to one type of medical physics, or, if you work in a smaller private practice, you could be responsible for multiple types of radiation-related tasks. Medical physicists often work as part of a team, so you need to have good communication and cooperation skills. You should also have a compassionate manner, because you may work with cancer patients who are facing difficult diagnoses.

Salary Information and Career Prospects

In January 2016, PayScale.com reported that medical physicists in the 10th-90th percentile earned about $66,000-$191,000, including bonuses and profit sharing. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported an employment increase of 8% for all physicists in the decade from 2014-2024, which is about as fast as average (www.bls.gov). Many jobs in the healthcare sector are projected to have increased employment due to an aging population that requires more medical procedures.

Education and Licensure Requirements

Because you need to have at least a master's degree to work as a medical physicist, you'll need to attend a bachelor's degree program first. Though most medical physicists major in physics for their undergraduate degree, you could choose to study engineering or another natural science. Your work will require knowledge of biology, physiology, chemistry and physics, so you should choose a major that covers those subjects in its curriculum.

After earning your bachelor's, you can apply to a master's or doctoral program in medical physics, though master's program in general physics can help you gain entrance to the field as well. The Commission on Accreditation of Medical Physics Educational Programs (CAMPEP) accredits these programs as well as the residency programs that you can complete after earning your graduate degree. Master's programs generally take two years to complete while Ph.D. programs take 4-6 years. Both types of programs combine classroom learning with practical clinical experience, and the Ph.D. requires extensive research that culminates in a thesis detailing your original work. It is at the graduate level that you can choose which type of medical physics you'd like to focus on.

Residency

After completing your graduate program, you can attend a residency program. Over a two-year period, you work in a hospital, gaining real-world experience in the field of medical physics. Residencies are typically paid positions. This experience is required for licensure in some states and some national certifications.

Licensure and Certification

While only some states require medical physicists to be licensed, many employers require medical physicists to be certified. Licensing requirements vary, so be sure to check with your state for specific rules and regulations. The American Board of Medical Physics, the American Board of Radiology and the American Board of Science in Nuclear Medicine all offer certifications for medical physicists. While requirements differ slightly, you must have completed a master's or doctorate degree and at least two years of clinical experience in order to be eligible to take the certification exams.

What Employers Are Looking for

Employers generally want a medical physicist with a graduate degree and some years of experience. Some mention certification and detail the type of work you'd be doing, according to the healthcare facility. Read these summaries of job postings open in May 2012 to get an idea of what employers are looking for:

  • A home healthcare agency in New Jersey was looking to hire a medical physicist to work in the oncology department. The candidate should have a master's degree and appropriate training, but certification is not required.
  • A hospital in Missouri was searching for a clinical medical physicist with a master's degree, certification and two years of experience or completion of a residency.
  • A medical center in Connecticut wanted to hire a medical physicist to join the radiation oncology team. The candidate must have a master's or Ph.D., two years of experience and a national certification.

How to Stand Out in the Field

To get a leg up in the field of medical physics, be sure to start taking science and math classes in high school. If your high school offers advanced placement (AP) classes, you may be able to test out of some college classes and move on to higher level classes faster. And while you're in college, participating in an internship at a physics lab or hospital could provide you with some beginning experience.

Alternative Careers

If you want to work with radiation treatments for cancer patients but aren't sure about all the years of schooling involved in medical physics, consider becoming a radiation therapist. Radiation therapists work with oncology teams to provide radiation therapy with machines called linear accelerators. You could begin working as a radiation therapist after completing a 1-year certificate, 2-year associate's or 4-year bachelor's program in radiation therapy. The BLS reported in May 2011 that radiation therapists made a median annual salary of about $77,000, and that employment for radiation therapists is projected to increase by 20% in the decade from 2010-2020, which is faster than average.

If you want to work in healthcare but want more of a comprehensive and varied role, you could become a nurse. After completing a diploma, associate's or bachelor's program in nursing, you need to pass a national licensing exam before beginning work as a registered nurse. If you want to work with cancer patients, you could concentrate on oncology nursing, or you could choose from a number of healthcare areas for your specialization. The BLS reported in May 2011 that registered nurses, a group with a 26% projected employment increase through 2020, made a median annual salary of about $66,000.

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