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How to Become a Radiation Physicist: Education and Career Roadmap

Find out how to become a radiation physicist. Research the education and training requirements and learn about the experience you need to advance your career in medical or health physics.

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Do I Want to Be a Radiation Physicist?

Radiation physicists, also known as medical or health physicists, ensure that radiation machines deliver the correct amount of radiation during a patient's treatment. These professionals typically work with radiation oncologists to design a treatment schedule that will be the most effective at killing cancer cells; however, they might also be employed at nuclear power plants, where they are in charge of monitoring radiation levels and developing safety protocols or equipment.

These medical professionals typically work in clean, well-lit hospital or laboratory environments. They are subject to a certain level of risk, dealing with radiation, but safety protocols should mitigate most health hazards. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the median annual salary for physicists working in hospitals or other medical environments was over $152,000 in May 2012.

Job Requirements

Most radiation physicist positions require a master's degree, previous experience and certification. The following table contains the core requirements for radiation physicists:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Master's degree is standard;* some positions require a PhD*
Degree Fields Medical or health physics, physics or a closely related field*
Licensure and Certification Licensure or registration required in some states,** certification required by many employers*
Experience 2-3 years' experience typically required*
Key Skills Ability to work independently and as part of a team, excellent oral and written communication skills, organizational skills,* advanced mathematical skills, critical thinking skills, analytical skills, problem-solving skills***
Technical Skills Ability to use complex radiation therapy equipment*

Sources: *Job postings from employers (January 2013), **American Association of Physicists in Medicine, ***U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Aspiring radiation physicists should complete a bachelor's program focused on the physical and biological sciences, including courses in biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics and computer science. These courses are typically prerequisites for a master's program in health or medical physics.

Success Tip

  • Have a competitive GPA. The admissions process for medical and health physics master's programs is competitive. Students with a high overall GPA likely will be the most competitive candidates.

Step 2: Earn a Master's Degree

Master's programs in medical and health physics are designed to teach students fundamentals of radiation biology, as well as practical applications and theoretical and problem-solving aspects of health and medical physics. Many of these programs offer students the opportunity to choose an area of specialization, such as general medical physics, image science or health physics. Coursework for master's programs in medical or health physics typically includes radiation detection and instrumentation, radiation therapy physics, radiation treatment planning systems, radiobiology and medical imaging. Students also participate in lab work and seminars.

Step 3: Earn State Licensure or Registration

Requirements vary by state, with some states requiring registration, others requiring licensure and others requiring neither. In general, registration or licensure requires at least a master's degree and some clinical experience.

Step 4: Obtain Certification

Both the American Board of Radiology (ABR) and the American Board of Medical Physics (ABMP) offer certification opportunities for medical physicists. Through the ABR, radiation physicists who meet education and experience requirements can become certified in Medical Physics (MP). The exam is separated into three parts: a written portion covering clinical and general information and written and oral portions specific to the candidate's area of specialization, such as therapeutic medical physics, diagnostic medical physics or nuclear medical physics.

One also can become certified in Medical Health Physics (MHP) through ABMP. The certification examination consists of one oral and two written parts. Applicants must meet education requirements and submit documentation of work experience and professional qualifications.

Step 5: Maintain Registration, Licensure and/or Certification

Requirements for maintaining registration or licensure vary by state. One can contact his or her state health board for specific information.

The MP certification must be renewed on a 10-year cycle. To maintain certification, the radiation physicist must continually demonstrate medical knowledge, essential skills and professionalism and engage in continuing education. Alternatively, certification holders might be chosen randomly to have their competency measured. This is known as continuous certification and involves testing and observation for four components, including professional standing, lifelong learning, cognitive expertise and practicing quality improvement.

The MHP certification must be renewed every five years. This process involves paying a recertification fee and meeting requirements for continuing education.

Step 6: Consider a PhD Program

Completing a doctoral program might qualify one for advanced clinical positions, such as lead radiation physicist, or entry-level research positions, including junior faculty member or postdoctoral fellow. PhD candidates in medical or health physics can expect to take courses in advanced medical imaging physics, radiation protection and exposure evaluation, radiation shielding and radiobiology. They also might be required to complete a dissertation and pass one or more exams.

Success Tip

  • Complete a residency program. A residency program in radiation physics or radiation oncology can provide the education and training needed for advanced careers in academic or clinical settings. Residency programs typically take three years to complete and include hands-on training and research opportunities. Residents also receive didactic instruction through lectures, seminars and conferences and take part in clinical rotations.
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Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics