Medical physics primarily involves treatment services that use radiation and imaging technologies. Explore educational and licensure requirements, job duties, degree programs, employment outlook and salaries for this field.
Is Medical Physics for Me?
Medical physics combines human biology with physics, which is the study of how energy and matter interact. This can involve research, education, and consulting about patient diagnosis and treatment. In particular, medical physics is concerned with technologies and treatments that utilize radiation, like x-rays and the radiation therapy used in cancer treatment. As a medical physicist, it'll be your job to make sure that medical procedures are safe and effective by controlling radiation dosage and application for individual patients.
As a medical physicist, you could work in private practice, within a hospital or in some other medical setting. You're likely to work in one of three areas: diagnostic radiology, nuclear medicine and therapeutic radiology. Diagnostic radiology is concerned with technologies aiding in patient diagnosis, like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), whereas nuclear medicine focuses on radiation's effects on the human body. Therapeutic radiology, also called radiotherapy or radiation oncology, focuses on radiation as a cancer treatment. Other jobs in medical physics can be found in research, consulting and teaching. For example, you might teach medical physics to graduate students or resident physicians.
Salaries and Employment Outlook
According to PayScale.com, most medical physicists earned between $68,123 and $184,941, as of April 2014. With experience and education, you could advance your career to become a chief medical physicist. The majority of professionals in this position earned $116,542-$228,190. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 10% increase in job opportunities for physicists in general between 2012 and 2022.
How Can I Work in Medical Physics?
The BLS stated that you typically need at least a master's degree in physics or medical physics to work as a medical physicist. A doctorate is required for some positions, including many jobs in academia, government and research, and some clinical physicists might also need to have a Ph.D. degree. You'll generally need more education and training as your work becomes more specialized.
Topics of Study
Several schools offer an undergraduate major in physics, though other relevant programs that can prepare you for graduate study include natural sciences or engineering. At the graduate level, you'll study medical imaging, radiation therapy and mathematics as they relate to physics. Other courses in a graduate program could include anatomy, statistics, medical ethics and electromagnetism. Courses in radiation biology, radiation instrumentation, radiation oncology and radiation protection are common as well. Some master's programs allow you to specialize in a particular area, such as diagnostic radiology or therapeutic radiology. After earning your graduate degree, you'll need to complete a 2-year residency or postdoctoral program.
The BLS states that all medical physicist jobs require board certification, such as those offered by the American Board of Radiology or the American Board of Medical Physics, Inc. Qualification standards for certification exams generally require graduate-level training and sufficient experience in medical physics. Some states require licensing as well, which could also involve obtaining board certification.
Working in medical physics requires a broad, interdisciplinary education. In addition to a solid understanding of physics, you need knowledge of chemistry, biology, physiology, electronics and the effects of radiation on the human body. Good interpersonal skills and an understanding of medical terminology are also important, since you'll often need to communicate with and relate to both medical professionals and patients.