Nuclear medicine is a medical specialty where small amounts of radioactive material are used to diagnose and treat diseases. Programs in nuclear medicine, radiologic sciences, and imaging sciences are available within the field at the master's and Ph.D. levels, as are nuclear medicine residencies. Although graduating with a 2-year master's degree in nuclear medicine will enable students to work as nuclear medicine technologists, the minimum requirement for this profession is only an associate's or bachelor's degree. Residency programs typically don't have courses. Instead, programs focus on hands-on training through lab-based research and clinical rotations.
A bachelor's degree related to medical imaging is usually necessary for admission to master's programs. Doctoral candidates with undergraduate degrees must complete nuclear medicine prerequisites before beginning Ph.D. coursework. Those with master's degrees usually don't have to complete this coursework unless they hold graduate degrees in fields other than medical imaging. Admission into a medical residency program requires completion of a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree. Entrance to these programs is highly competitive, as most programs only admit 2-5 new residents per year.
Master's Degree in Nuclear Medicine
Most master's programs that provide instruction in nuclear medicine are in radiologic sciences or imaging sciences. These programs introduce students to advanced applications in the field, medical problems associated with medical imaging, and related emerging technologies. Students explore these issues within the context of oncology, biological reactions to nuclear applications, and medical diagnostics. This knowledge is applied in radiation labs that cover instrumentation and safety procedures. Depending on the program's emphasis, students might also learn about the design of medical imaging equipment. They also study the anatomical response to radiation therapy. Students can expect to complete coursework in:
- Nuclear medicine
- Medical imaging
- Radiological science
Doctor of Philosophy in Nuclear Medicine
Ph.D. programs in nuclear medicine prepare students for scientific research careers in the field. Though medical school training isn't required for Ph.D. study, students may pursue such programs to supplement medical training. After prerequisites are met, students can enroll in a track focused on nuclear medicine therapy or diagnostic imaging. Doctoral candidates study radiation biology, medical diagnostics, ultrasound technology, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and radiation safety. They also complete courses that develop teaching and research skills, which are usually applied to teaching assistantships or seminar presentations. Other coursework explores:
- Biological and chemical reactions to radiation
- Diagnostic and therapeutic research
- Detection of nuclear radiation
- Safety in nuclear medicine
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Nuclear Medicine Residency
Residency training builds upon diagnostic, mathematical and scientific skills acquired during medical school. Programs also expand on the professional and ethical standards in the field. Nuclear medicine residencies typically take 2-3 years to complete, but shorter programs may be available to those who've already completed residency training in a related area. Residents complete clinical rotations to learn about radiation therapy and how it can be used to treat cancer, hyperthyroidism, and other conditions. The use of radiopharmaceutical drugs used for imaging is also emphasized.
Popular Career Options
Nuclear medicine graduates can pursue careers in the field of diagnostic imaging or radiologic science. Those who've completed medical school and a nuclear medicine residency can work as physicians who specialize in medical imaging. Doctor of Philosophy graduates can find work as researchers. Possible positions include:
- Nuclear medicine physicists
- Postsecondary teachers
- Medical scientists
Employment Outlook and Salary Information
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), median earnings for nuclear medicine technologists were $73,360, as of May 2015. Employment opportunities in this field were expected to rise by 2% between 2014 and 2024, which is slower than the average for all occupations (www.bls.gov).
Those who complete a nuclear medicine residency usually go on to work as physicians in the field. According to the BLS, the projected job growth for all physicians and surgeons is 14% between 2014 and 2024, much faster than the average for all occupations. The BLS reported that the median annual salary of all physicians and surgeons was equal to or greater than $187,200 as of May 2015.
Licensure and Continuing Education Information
Licensure for nuclear medicine professionals is required in some states. Technologists can be certified by the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists and the Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board. Many employers look for such certification to ensure competency and professionalism.
After completing a residency and receiving certification from the American Board of Nuclear Medicine, a nuclear medicine physician can pursue a fellowship program. A fellowship program breaks down specialized training into even smaller subgroups. Possible areas for fellowship training include digital imaging and neuroradiology.
There are several options for students interested in pursuing graduate degrees in the nuclear medicine field. Whether a student is more interested in conducting research or working with patients as a physician will help them to determine what program and specific career to pursue.