Careers in Nuclear Science: Options and Requirements
Nuclear science is found in a variety of career fields, such as healthcare, research, energy and nuclear power. An education in nuclear science typically begins at the graduate level in a variety of concentrations and involves a great deal of training in research and laboratory practices. The most prominent careers in this field include nuclear engineer, nuclear physicist and nuclear medicine physician.
Nuclear engineers work in laboratories, plants, universities and government agencies. Often working in teams with other scientists, engineers may focus on a variety of nuclear-related projects, such as energy and power source development, environmental policy design or investigations into new ways of using radiological elements in industry and healthcare. Engineers in this field can often be found working in nuclear power plants, the aerospace industry, manufacturing or in the military.
Nuclear engineering positions typically have a variety of requirements, including a degree in nuclear engineering and an engineer's license. Additional requirements typically vary according to profession, but specialization training, certification or industry-specific licensing may be included.
An education in nuclear engineering typically begins with a bachelor's degree in an engineering concentration, such as physics, and ends with a graduate degree or graduate certificate in nuclear engineering. Graduate programs in this field typically require undergraduate coursework in advanced physics, mathematics and chemistry.
Master's degree programs often allow students to concentrate in areas such as fission reactors, radiation protection, radiation waste management, medical physics and applied radiation physics. Doctorate programs are usually designed for students interested in entering nuclear engineering research or academia.
Like other engineering professions, nuclear engineers may need to be licensed by the state in which they work. Most states follow the engineering licensing guidelines set forth by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES). Licensing requirements vary by the type of license being sought, but almost all licensing agencies require graduation from a degree program accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).
Additional licensing may also be required depending on the profession. For example, nuclear engineers who work in the design, operation and maintenance of nuclear reactors generally need to be licensed by the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
Career Outlook and Salary Information
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that nuclear engineers will experience 10% growth in jobs through the 2010-2020 decade. In May 2012, nuclear engineers earned a median salary of $104,270, with about 33% of them employed in the electric power industry. Other top employers were the federal government (about 13%) and the scientific research and development industry (about 11%).
Basically, nuclear physicists use physical laws and theorems to study how the particles in an atom's nucleus move and operate spatially. They typically work in research and can be found in fields such as electronics, energy, aerospace, communications or healthcare equipment. They spend most of their time in laboratories designing practical applications using nuclear physics.
Nuclear physicists typically work in the private sector, government agencies, national research laboratories or universities, which can lead to a wide range of job requirements. Unlike nuclear engineers, physicists often rely on government, public or private grants to fund their research. Understanding funding procedures and experience working with funding sources may be a requirement for employment.
Most nuclear physicists earn an advanced degree in nuclear science, nuclear chemistry, particle physics, nuclear structure or mathematics. Most careers in this field require a Ph.D. in a nuclear physics specialization, such as atomic, molecular or superconductivity, and may also require additional post-graduate study. Doctorate programs typically focus on the research methodology and theorems used in nuclear physics.
Career Outlook and Salary Information
Nuclear physicists are included in the BLS occupation category of physicists and astronomers. Employment for this group of professionals is expected to grow by 14% from 2010-2020. With increased funding expected by the federal government, job opportunities could be most promising at national laboratories and academic research institutions. Physicists in general made annual median wages of $106,840 as of May 2012.
Nuclear Medicine Physician
Nuclear physicians treat a variety of illnesses, such as cancer and thyroid disease, using radiographic imagery and medicine that often contains radionuclides, as well as radiation treatment. They often work as consultants for other physicians, interpreting imagery and patient data to aid in the diagnosis and treatment of various diseases. In order to specialize in nuclear medicine, physicians need to obtain an additional five to seven years in training.
Requirements to work as a nuclear medicine physician typically include a medical degree and advanced training in radiology. Working in nuclear medicine research usually requires a Ph.D. in an area such as physics or mathematics and may also require a medical degree.
Generally a physician begins training in nuclear medicine after finishing medical school in a residency training program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME). Following one year of general residency, the resident begins two years of specialty training in areas such as tomography, nuclear research, radio-immunoassay practices, radiopharmaceutical chemistry and single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT).
Licensing & Certification
In addition to a general medical license, nuclear medicine physicians also need to obtain certification from the American Board of Nuclear Medicine (ABNM) and the American Board of Radiology (ABR). Certification typically requires completion of an ACGME-accredited residency program and passage of a skills assessment exam. The examination given by the ABNM is a written test on the practices and applications of radioactive materials in medicine. The ABR's oral exam focuses on the diagnostic uses, applications and procedures of nuclear radiology.
Career Outlook and Salary Information
Physicians in general can expect a 24% increase in jobs through the 2010-2020 decade. They earned an average salary of $184,820 in May 2012, according to the BLS. Salary.com also provides salary information for physicians; a November 2013 report states that the median salary for nuclear medicine physicians specifically was $294,278.
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