Oncologist Education Requirements and Program Overviews

Learn about fellowships in oncology, residencies in radiation oncology and fellowships in surgical oncology. Read on to find out about these programs for physicians, including required courses, clinical and research options and career opportunities.

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Essential Information

Oncology is a field of study that pertains to the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer. After earning a bachelor's degree, aspiring oncologists must complete medical school, followed by a residency. Fellowships are optional research-focused programs that can follow a residency. Training options for physicians include fellowships in oncology, residencies in radiation oncology and fellowships in surgical oncology.

Oncology fellowship programs usually combine the study of hematology and oncology. Students participate in conferences and seminars, and they also see patients in clinical settings. Some programs focus on research, while others are geared towards clinical work.

A residency program in radiation oncology trains physicians in using radiation to treat cancer. Programs may focus on either clinical treatment or research. In either case, there is a strong emphasis on staying abreast of new treatments.

Fellowships in surgical oncology center on the removal of tumors. However, this requires knowledge of many facets of cancer treatment, so physicians also gain experience in radiation oncology and medical oncology. They learn to perform many types of cancer surgeries in all parts of the body.


Fellowship in Oncology

Most fellowship programs in oncology are joint programs in hematology and oncology in which candidates may choose to certify in hematology, oncology or both. The oncology portion of a program is divided into clinical sub-disciplines such as surgical oncology, chemotherapy, radiation oncology and palliative care. Sections on stem cell transplantation and molecular oncology may also be present. Some programs provide in-depth focus in cancer research or clinical care. Oncology fellowships typically last 2-3 years; however, this may be extended by one year for those that certify in both specialties.

Education Prerequisites

Fellowship program candidates need to have completed medical school and secured a medical license. Because programs admit half a dozen new fellows each year at most, only candidates who finish at the top of their medical school class receive consideration.

Program Coursework

Rather than classes, formal instruction in fellowship programs is based on seminars or conferences. Students gain hands-on experience through supervised clinical rotations. Potential conference topics include:

  • Prostate cancer
  • Bladder cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)
  • Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML)
  • Multiple myeloma
  • High and low grade lymphoma

Employment Outlook and Salary Info

Completing an oncology fellowship qualifies physicians to specialize in cancer treatment or cancer research. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), around 45,210 physicians in May 2012 were general internists, including those specializing in oncology. The BLS projected that from 2010-2020, employment of all physicians would increase 24%. Prospects for specialists who treat diseases such as cancer that afflict the aging should be especially favorable. PayScale.com reported that most oncologists with 1-4 years of experience earned salaries of $96,095-$349,250 as of November 2013.

Continuing Education Information

To gain certification, physicians who complete a fellowship must pass an exam from the American Board of Internal Medicine. Certified oncologists may further specialize in radiation oncology or surgical oncology.


Residency in Radiation Oncology

A residency program in radiation oncology prepares physicians to treat cancer patients with a range of radiotherapy techniques. Though residencies cover both cancer research and clinical practice, some programs provide more emphasis in one or the other. In addition to radiology, the instillation of sound medical judgment and a broad base of knowledge about cancer treatment methods and outcomes are supplementary goals of the program. Residents are expected to demonstrate an ongoing commitment to staying abreast of new developments in the field.

Education Prerequisites

Acceptance into a radiation oncology residency requires a medical degree and a year of general medical training. Programs are likely to consider only applicants who finish in the top third of their class or higher. Some only accept candidates who score at least 225 on the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE).

Program Coursework

Monthly conferences provide the academic component of oncology residency programs. Conferences address cancer types and related topics such as:

  • Lung cancer
  • Sarcoma
  • Head and neck cancer
  • Gynecologic cancer
  • Radiobiology

Popular Career Options

Although it's a sub-specialty, there is wide demand across the U.S. health care system for the skills of radiology oncologists. A career track could lead to employment as the following.

  • Clinical radiology oncologist
  • Federal health researcher
  • Professor of oncology

Continuing Education Information

Radiation oncologists may obtain certification by passing the certification exam offered through the American Board of Radiology (ABR). ABR certification must be renewed every 10 years.


Fellowship in Surgical Oncology

The broad objective of a fellowship program in surgical oncology is to prepare physicians to treat cancer through the surgical removal of tumors. However, because of the multidisciplinary nature of cancer treatment many surgical cancer programs include clinical rotations acquainting candidates with medical oncology and radiation oncology. Surgical rotations explore thoracic and cranial surgery, abdominal surgery and reconstructive surgery. Fellows also participate in basic lab research and clinical research. Surgical oncology fellowship programs last 2-3 years.

Education Prerequisites

Prospective fellows must complete a Doctor of Medicine program and a surgical residency prior to admission to a surgical oncology program. Schools only consider physicians who achieved top marks in medical school and were top performers during their residency.

Program Coursework

The curriculum includes rotations in pathology, medical oncology and radiation oncology. As in other oncology residency and fellowship programs, conferences are the primary academic forum. Topics covered include:

  • Biostatistics
  • Liver cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Gastro-intestinal cancer
  • Endocrine cancer

Popular Career Options

Surgeons who complete a surgical oncology fellowship can choose to specialize in single areas of the body. The following are possible surgical specialties.

  • Breast surgeon
  • Urologist
  • Endocrine surgeon

Continuing Education Information

No single entity provides board certification for surgical oncologists. Surgeons trained in tumor removal, tumor staging and biopsy are tested and certified by the American Board of Surgery.

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