Study Nuclear Medicine: Bachelor's, Master's & Certification Info

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What will you learn in a nuclear medicine program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of a bachelor's and master's degree and potential careers.
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Nuclear Medicine Bachelor's and Master's Degrees: At a Glance

Nuclear medicine is a field that utilizes radiation to image organs, analyze specimens and treat diseases, such as cancer. Degree programs tend to include internships and other hands-on experiences, often completed at medical centers and hospitals. Often, an associate's degree is all that is necessary to enter into this field, though bachelor's degrees are also common. Master's degrees are rarely available in this field, though closely related degrees, such as medical physics, do exist.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment for nuclear medicine technologists is expected to increase by 19% between 2010 and 2020. Positions are expected to be more in demand as the population ages.

Bachelor's Master's
Who is this degree for? Students who want to help treat medical conditions People interested in furthering physics-based medical technology
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) - Nuclear medicine technologist ($70,000)* - Medical physicist ($112,000)**
Time to Completion 3-4 years 2 years after bachelor's degree
Common Graduation Requirements - Coursework
- Clinicals or internships
- Coursework
- Clinicals/practicum
- Project or thesis
Prerequisites - High school diploma or GED
- Prerequisite courses
-ACT or SAT scores
- GRE scores
- Bachelor's degree
- Prerequisite courses
Online Availability Degree completion only Some

Source: *BLS (May 2011 figures), **BLS (includes all physicists excepting biophysicists).

Bachelor's Degrees in Nuclear Medicine

Bachelor's degrees in nuclear medicine are usually offered at universities. Often, at least a year of the program is dedicated to off-campus, hands-on internships or clinicals. Nuclear medicine degree programs are usually offered under the title of nuclear medicine technology. Bachelor's programs typically prepare students for certification, and they may be useful for moving onto an advanced degree program as well. Some bachelor's degree programs are only open to those who have already earned a related certification.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Able to work at a variety of health care centers
  • Nuclear medicine technologists earn a mean annual salary that is greater than the national average*
  • A bachelor's degree program could prepare you for study at the graduate level

Cons

  • Possible exposure to radiation
  • May be exposed to infectious diseases in the line of work
  • May need to work evenings or weekends

Source: *BLS.

Common Course Requirements

Bachelor's degree programs generally take three or four years to complete, which may depend on whether or not they are designed for someone who already has experience in nuclear medicine. Courses tend to focus on science, especially physics and biology, and health care topics. Most programs include several clinicals or internships. Programs also include several general education topics. Courses you may take include:

  • Radiation science
  • Conceptual physics
  • Clinical pathophysiology
  • Radiopharmaceuticals
  • Nuclear cardiology

Clinicals are typically completed at local health care facilities. Also, licensure is required, though requirements vary by state. Courses and clinical requirements completed through a nuclear medicine bachelor's degree program will typically prepare you for this licensure.

Online Degree Options

While some bachelor's degree programs are offered online, these tend to be degree completion programs. This type of program is for students who have already earned a certification in nuclear medicine, such as those offered by the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) or the Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board (NMTCB), or who have an associate's degree in the field. These programs may also be offered under medical imaging sciences or radiation sciences.

Standing Out With This Degree

While licensure is required for nuclear medicine technologists, certification is voluntary. Earning a certification can cover the necessary requirements for licensure and prove your knowledge in the field. Both the ARRT and NMTCB offer certifications. For the ARRT certification, you need to have completed an accredited education program, meet the registry's ethics standards and take an exam. You will also need to complete a number of continuing education requirements every two years. The NMTCB certification also requires an exam, and it also offers certifications for nuclear cardiology and positron emission tomography.

Degree Alternatives

Since nuclear medicine technologists mainly focus on imaging organs and other body structures, if you'd like to be more hands-on with actual disease treatment, you might consider becoming a radiation therapist. Radiation therapists have a degree in radiation therapy and tend to work in hospitals or cancer treatment facilities. According to the BLS, as of May 2011 they earned an average of $79,000 yearly, and positions are expected to increase by 20% between 2010 and 2020. They must also be licensed, and the ARRT offers certification in radiation therapy.

Master's Degrees in Nuclear Medicine

Master's degree programs are typically not offered specifically in nuclear medicine. There is a Nuclear Medicine Advanced Associate (NMAA) program offered jointly by four schools: University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS), Georgia Health Sciences University, University of Missouri at Columbia and Saint Louis University. The program awards a Master of Imaging Science degree. Aside from this program, master's degree programs are generally offered in the related field of medical physics. Medical physicists use radiation for various medical therapies, develop new techniques and work with oncologists on individual patient treatments. Some medical physics programs include nuclear medicine as a concentration within the degree or will include nuclear medicine as part of the curriculum.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Able to work in a variety of medical fields using radiation therapy
  • Both nuclear medicine technologists and physicists earn more than the mean annual salary for all occupations*
  • Master's degree holders can be prepared to continue on to the doctoral level

Cons

  • More specialized work requires additional training and education
  • Physicists who work in research typically need a doctorate
  • To work as a nuclear medicine technologist, a master's degree is not required and would not necessarily give you an advantage over an associate's or bachelor's degree holder

Source: *BLS.

Common Course Requirements

Master's degrees in medical physics typically take about two years to complete after earning your bachelor's degree. The NMAA program takes five semesters. Credit hours are usually divided between coursework, clinical rotations and a research project or thesis. Courses you may take include:

  • Radiological physics
  • Anatomy and oncology
  • Radiation biophysics
  • Electromagnetism
  • Statistics

Employers of medical physics professionals require certification, which is offered through the American Board of Radiology (ABR). The ABR has a medical physics certification that requires the completion of a 3-part exam. Successful completion of all parts of the exam earns you a certificate in one of three concentrations: therapeutic medical physics, diagnostic medical physics or nuclear medical physics. Licensure may also be required, though requirements vary by state.

Online Degree Options

The NMAA program is offered as a distance-learning program, though students are required to go to the UAMS campus twice, once for a clinical skills assessment and again for the presentation of their research projects. Aside from that, some medical physics programs may be offered online as well. Even so, these programs expect that lab or clinical courses will be completed in person, usually at the campus in question.

Standing Out With This Degree

Medical physicists need a strong background in physics, the human body and how radiation affects parts of the body. Additionally, you may find it beneficial to join a professional society. Professional societies offer their members benefits that can help with employment opportunities. For example, the American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM) offers its members access to several publications, reduced registration rates for meetings, liability insurance and career services. They have a variety of levels of membership available, including full, junior, student, associate and honorary, as well as others.

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