How Do I Become a Medical Physicist?

Research what it takes to become a medical physicist. Learn about job duties, education requirements and licensure to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Community Health Education & Advocacy degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Does a Medical Physicist Do?

Medical physicists are specialists in the use of radiation-based imaging and radiation processes to detect and treat injuries and illnesses. They apply their physics expertise to try to improve diagnostic techniques and develop safer, more effective therapies that can be used to combat diseases like cancer. In addition to their research, some medical physicists also practice in the field. They can find work in hospitals, academic medical centers and research institutions.

Look over the chart below for a quick overview of this career field.

Degree Required Master's degree or doctorate
Education Field of Study Physics
Key Responsibilities Conduct research, diagnose and treat patients, provide clinical consultations
Certification/Licensure Required Certification and/or licensure required by some states
Job Growth (2014-2024) 8% (for physicists)*
Mean Salary (2015) $169,120 (for physicists working in general medical and surgical hospitals)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What is a Medical Physicist?

Medical physics is a category of medical science that includes the sub-fields of diagnostic radiological physics, medical health physics, medical nuclear physics and therapeutic radiological physics. Any medical professional practicing independently in one of these sub-fields is referred to as a medical physicist.

As a medical physicist, your responsibilities include diagnosing and treating patients, as well as offering clinical consultations. In addition to your clinical service, you'll typically spend an equal amount of time on your job doing research to develop new ways to use radiation in medicine, as well as educating fellow residents and medical students on topics such as diagnostic radiology and radiation oncology. Some medical physicists may have no clinical duties. These professionals are employed in industrial or research settings.

What Education or Training Might I Need?

If you are interested in becoming a medical physicist, your first step would be to complete an undergraduate degree program in physics, radiation biology or a similar field. According to the American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM), medical physicists must hold a master's or doctoral degree in medical physics, radiation biology, physics or a similar discipline. A medical physicist's education also includes a residency training program or postdoctoral program that includes 1-2 years of hospital experience (www.aapm.org).

Is Certification or Licensure Necessary?

Per the AAPM, in order to be considered a Qualified Medical Physicist in one of the sub-fields of medical physics, a medical physicist must be certified in that sub-field by either the American Board of Medical Physics, American Board of Science in Nuclear Medicine, American Board of Health Physics, American Board of Radiology or Canadian College of Physicists in Medicine. Candidates for certification typically must have a graduate degree in medical physics or a related field, pass a written and oral examination and complete an accredited residency program; the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Physics Educational Programs (CAMPEP) accredits clinical residencies in medical physics.

If you live in Texas, Florida or New York, you are required to gain state licensure before you can work as a medical physicist. Another 28 states require medical physicists to be registered.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

As a physicist, instead of specializing in medical physics, you could choose to do research in another area of the field, such as nuclear physics, condensed matter physics or astrophysics, among other options. For a top academic job, you would need to get a Ph.D., but lower-level laboratory jobs are also available for bachelor's and master's degree-holders. Alternatively, you might want to think about practicing medicine full-time as a physician, which would require you to complete four years of medical school to earn an MD degree and to complete a residency and/or fellowship in a particular area of interest. If you choose to specialize in oncology, you may commonly use radiation therapy to treat cancer patients.

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