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Types of Oncology Specialties: Education and Career Information

A career in oncology requires a doctorate degree and several years of on-the-job training. Learn about educational and internship options, job duties and other requirements to see if this is the right career for you.

Doctors who are interested in becoming oncologists and working with patients with cancer must graduate from medical school and complete a residency. They may then opt to pursue a fellowship in a specialty area of oncology. Board certification in oncology is also an option once they've completed their residency.

Essential Information

Oncologists, a type of specialty doctor, diagnose and treat patients with cancer. A variety of oncology specialties exist, such as head and neck oncology, surgical oncology, radiation oncology and medical oncology.

Required Education Doctoral degree
Other Requirements Residency and board certification
Projected Growth (2014-2024)* 14% (for all surgeons and physicians)
Median Salary (2016)** $246,525

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Payscale.com

Education for Oncology Specialties

As with all medical doctors, oncologists must complete four years of medical school and pass the United States Medical Licensing Exam to become licensed. Doctors can choose to complete an internship rotation before beginning a residency in their chosen oncology specialty. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov) noted that residencies, in which doctors get paid for on-the-job training, could be 2-6 years in length. Once they finish their residency, oncologists may apply to fellowships that offer advanced paid training in their specialty. Fellowships in oncology may be completed in 2-4 years.

Upon completion of a residency, doctors may become board certified in their specialty. The American Board of Medical Specialists (ABMS) is comprised of 24 member boards that certify doctors in various specialties and subspecialties, including ones in oncology. Oncologists must prove they've completed the relevant training and pass a written, and sometimes also an oral, examination before being awarded certification by the respective member board.

Career Information

Oncologists can specialize in a number of areas. Read on to learn about some of the specialization options and specifics about the responsibilities and other requirements associated with them.

Medical Oncology

As oncology generalists, medical oncologists get trained to diagnose and treat various kinds of cancerous tumors. Because medical oncology is a subspecialty of internal medicine, the American Board of Internal Medicine is the member board of the ABMS that offers certification for medical oncologists. Doctors must have been previously certified in internal medicine to qualify for the subspecialty of medical oncology.

Radiation Oncology

Radiation oncologists specialize in treating cancer patients and certain patients suffering from non-cancerous conditions with radiation therapy. Both residencies and fellowships in radiation oncology are available. The American Board of Radiology administers board certification in radiation oncology.

Surgical Oncology

Surgical oncologists remove cancerous tumors and growths. They complete their residencies in general surgery, where they can take rotations in surgical oncology, and become board certified in general surgery by the American Board of Surgery. Doctors may also participate in fellowships in surgical oncology, conducting clinical cancer research and attending didactic programs, like lectures and conferences.

Head and Neck Oncology

Head and neck oncologists deal with head and neck cancers, like cancers of the larynx, pharynx, thyroid and salivary glands. The American Board of Otolaryngology certifies doctors in general otolaryngology, or the medical specialty that deals with ear, nose and throat disorders. Doctors can complete residencies in otolaryngology with specializations in head and neck surgery before taking part in head and neck oncology fellowships.

Salary and Job Outlook

Earnings for oncologists can vary depending on their specialty. In October 2016, Payscale.com reported a median salary of $246,525 for all oncologists. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that jobs for all physicians and surgeons will increase by 14% over the 2014 to 2024 decade.

Oncologists can opt to specialize in radiation oncology, head and neck oncology, surgical oncology or medical oncology. While surgeons remove tumors, radiation oncologists treat patients with radiation therapy. Other areas of specialization, such as head and neck oncology, refer to the location of the cancer in the patient's body instead of the method of treatment.


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