Careers in Oncology Research: Job Options and Requirements

Oct 04, 2019

Oncology research requires significant formal education. Learn about the degree requirements, job duties and licensure to see if this is the right career for you.

Radiation therapists, oncology nurses and medical scientist can all work in the field of cancer treatment and research. Oncology researchers look at genetics, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and other areas of treatment. Radiation therapists need a certificate or degree in radiation therapy, while oncology nurses need a master's degree specializing in oncology nursing and medical scientists are required to have either an M.D. or Ph.D.

Essential Information

Oncology is the study of cancer and tumors. Oncology research is directed towards all aspects of the disease, including diagnosis, cause, prevention, treatment and cure. Oncology research is driven at the top by medical and research doctors, however positions are available at multiple levels such as oncology nurses and radiation therapists.

Medical scientist Oncology nurse Radiation therapist
Required Education M.D., Ph.D. in relevant area of biology Master's degree in oncology nursing Certification, associate's or bachelor's degree in radiation therapy
Other Requirements Completion of residency program and certification as an oncologist Certification as oncology nurse certification by American Registry of Radiologic Technologists certification in 33 states
Projected Job Growth (2018-2028)* 8% 12% (for all registered nurses) 9%
Median Salary $84,810 (2018)* $69,767 (2019)** $82,330 (2018)*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; PayScale.com**

Career Options in Oncology Research

Oncology research occurs in a variety of disciplines, including radiation therapy, genetics, immunology, pharmacology and chemotherapy. Research in many of these areas has implications in both better treatment and diagnosis.

Oncology research is driven at the top by medical and research doctors who manage labs, apply for funding and develop and implement ideas for specific research projects. Since oncology research involves clinical and laboratory work, a researcher may have an M.D./Ph.D. degree combination.

Entry- and mid-level positions are available as well. Radiation therapists and oncology nurses help conduct clinical research by administering treatments and collecting data. They can also clean and maintain lab equipment, as well as perform routine tests and procedures.

Job Requirements

Developing and directing research projects in oncology requires a doctoral degree. Doing clinical work, such as diagnosis or prescribing medication, requires a medical degree and physician's license. Students interested in medical research often enter a joint M.D./Ph.D. program for optimal qualification. To be an oncology nurse, students must earn a master's degree in oncology nursing. Work as a radiation therapist typically requires the completion of an undergraduate program in radiation therapy.

Doctoral Requirements

M.D. programs involve four years of medical school. Specializing in oncology requires completing a 3-4 year residency program in oncology after completing medical school and passing a certification test to be recognized as an oncologist.

Obtaining a Ph.D. in a relevant area of biology typically requires around six years of specialized classes and research beyond the bachelor's degree level. To graduate, a doctoral student must usually defend a dissertation based on original research to a panel of qualified faculty.

Joint M.D./Ph.D. programs at medical schools take 7-8 years of graduate study to complete, and involve a combination of research and clinical training and experience. Having several years' experience in a postdoctoral position after obtaining a degree is a common requirement of full-time research positions.

Nursing Requirements

Obtaining a specialty as a nurse requires completing a master's degree program at an accredited nursing school. These 2-year programs involve coursework and clinical experiences. Certification as an oncology nurse can be obtained once the program is completed.

Radiation Therapist Requirements

An aspiring radiation therapist may complete a certificate, associate's degree, or bachelor's degree in radiation therapy. As of 2011, 33 states required radiation therapists to obtain licensure, which could mean earning American Registry of Radiologic Technologists certification. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), radiation therapists with bachelor's degrees are expected to have the best job prospects in this field (www.bls.gov).

Salary and Employment Outlook

The BLS reported outlook and salary statistics for medical scientists, nurses and radiation therapists. Medical scientists were expected to see employment grow from 2018 until 2028 by a faster than average rate of 8%. Their median salary was $84,810 as of May 2018.

Oncology nurses earned a median salary of $69,767 as of September 2019, according to PayScale.com. The BLS doesn't have salary data or outlook specifically for oncology nurses; however, it showed that registered nurses could see employment increase by 12% from 2018 to 2028.

The median salary as of May 2018 for radiation therapists was $82,330. The BLS reported that the projected job growth in this field is 9% between 2018 to 2028, which is faster than average.

The main objective of oncology research is to determine the effectiveness of treatments and to improve the process of diagnosing and treating patients with cancer. Radiation technicians, oncology nurses and medical scientists may all work in oncology research, and are required to have relevant postsecondary training and be licensed or certified in their field.

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