Become a Clinical Oncologist: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a clinical oncologist. Research the education requirements, training, licensure information and experience you will need to start a career in clinical oncology. View article »

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Video Transcript

Should I Be a Clinical Oncologist?

Also known as medical oncologists, clinical oncologists are doctors who specialize in treating cancer patients. Common job duties include interpreting test results and prescribing treatment plans that often include chemotherapy. Some oncologists may also be involved in research in search of a cure for cancer.

They work with other healthcare professionals in private offices or clinics, though some may be employed by hospitals. Oncologists have the potential to make very high salaries, but the career can also be emotionally difficult and stressful. Oncologists that work in clinics or hospitals that treat patients dealing with conditions other than cancer may be exposed to infectious diseases.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Medical Degree (MD)
Degree Field Medicine or osteopathy
Experience Six years of experience in residency and fellowship programs may be required
Licensure and Certification All states require licensure as a physician; voluntary board certifications are also available
Key Skills Communication, problem-solving, and critical-thinking skills; empathy and physical stamina; familiarity with medical software, such as Centricity EMR and Misys Tiger
Salary (2015) The mean salary for all physicians and surgeons was $187,200 in 2015

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Information Network

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Steps to Be a Clinical Oncologist

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

To prepare for admission to medical school, a bachelor's degree is required. Undergraduates can choose to major in any subject, but they must complete sufficient premedical courses, including organic and inorganic chemistry, physics, and biology. Students will also need to study such topics as English and psychology. A degree in one of the sciences may prove the most helpful in preparing for medical school. In addition, students must take and score well on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) which tests for an individual's knowledge of biology, chemistry, physics, math, and writing.

Success Tips:

  • Pursue extracurricular activities. Students might choose to balance their courseload with leadership pursuits and clinical experiences to demonstrate that they have the discipline necessary to succeed in medical school.
  • Take an MCAT preparedness course. Although expensive at times, MCAT courses can beneficial to a student's score as they provide tutors, online workshops, and other educational resources.

Step 2: Graduate from Medical School

Medical school generally takes four years to complete. Students can choose to earn either a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.). During the first two years, students take lecture and laboratory courses in a wide range of topics, including biochemistry, anatomy, physiology, microbiology, pathology, pharmacology, and medical ethics. The final two years are spent completing clinical rotations in different medical specialties, such as family practice, internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, surgery, and psychiatry. While completing clinical rotations, students gain experience diagnosing and treating patients under the supervision of licensed physicians.

Step 3: Pass Licensing Exams

All states require that physicians be licensed before practicing medicine. Graduates with an M.D. must pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), while graduates of an osteopathic program must pass the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX) in order to earn licensure. Both exams consist of three parts to be taken at different stages of a physician's training, testing basic science concepts, medical knowledge, and clinical abilities. Passing scores on parts one and two are generally required for admission to residency programs.

Success Tip:

  • Complete continuing education requirements. Many states require physicians to renew their licenses every two years by completing anywhere from 50-100 credit hours of continuing education. In some cases, this training must be recognized by organizations like the American Medical Association or the American Osteopathic Association.

Step 4: Complete a Residency in Internal Medicine

Physicians who would like to become clinical oncologists must complete at least three years of residency in an internal medicine training program. Residents complete clinical rotations in areas such as general medicine, cardiology, oncology, hematology, neurology, and intensive care. They must also attend lectures and conferences and often participate in research projects.

Step 5: Participate in a Clinical Oncology Fellowship

The final step to becoming a clinical oncologist is to complete a three-year fellowship in oncology, some of which include training in hematology. Fellowships typically combine clinical and research components. Fellows attend lectures, courses, conferences, and seminars to supplement their training.

Step 6: Earn Specialty Certifications

Clinical oncologists can improve their employment prospects by earning board certification after they complete their residency and fellowship programs. Both the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) and the American Osteopathic Board of Internal Medicine (AOBIM) award voluntary certifications in internal medicine to candidates who pass an exam. After earning this credential, they can also pursue specialty certifications in oncology.

Success Tip:

  • Renew your credentials. Both organizations require renewal of specialty certifications by either acquiring continuing education credits or completing board-administered self-assessment modules. Passing scores on a renewal exam are also required.

In short, clinical oncologists diagnose and treat patients with cancer and earn a median annual salary of $187,200, so long as they complete years of school, gain experience, and obtain the appropriate licensure and certification.

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