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Medical Physicist Job Description and Education Requirements

Learn about the education and preparation needed to become a medical physicist. Get a quick summary of the requirements as well as details about degree programs, training, key skills and job duties to find out if this could be the career for you.

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Medical physicists are specialized category of physicists who work in radiotherapy, nuclear technology or medical imaging. A minimum of a master's degree will be necessary; however, a Ph.D. is required for many areas of concentration. They must gain clinical experience through a residency and pass examinations to become board certified.

Essential Information

Medical physicists apply their knowledge of physics to specialized equipment that helps examine, diagnose and treat patients. They may work in the fields of radiotherapy, nuclear technology or medical imaging; ensuring optimal equipment performance that helps protect against radiation hazards in hospitals, healthcare facilities, clinics and private practices. Some may also be involved in the research and development of new technology, instrumentation or imaging techniques. Generally, a master's or doctoral degree is the baseline educational requirement for physicists in most fields of concentration.

Required Education Master's degree in physics for certain research & development positions; doctoral degree for most other concentrations
Other Requirements Clinical training; security clearance for certain government-related positions; state licensure in some cases
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024) 8% * (for all physicists)
Average Median Salary (May 2015) $118,500* (for all physicists)

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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Education Requirements

To work as a medical physicist, candidates need at least a master's degree but more often earn a doctoral degree in medical physics, radiation biology or a closely related discipline from an accredited school. Candidates are also required to complete clinical training through a residency or postdoctoral program, which usually lasts 1-2 years in a hospital or clinic. The Commission on Accreditation of Medical Physics Educational Programs, Inc. (CAMPEP) accredits medical physics graduate and training programs. According to the CAMPEP, as of February 2015 there were 47 accredited graduate programs in the United States and Canada. The CAMPEP also indicates that as of April 2015, there were 90 accredited residency programs in the United States and Canada. Applicants need a solid foundation in general physics with a bachelor's degree in a related discipline to qualify.

Certification

Medical physicists are eligible for certification while enrolled in a residency program or after they begin their practice. Once certified, they are considered qualified medical physicists. Certification is offered in four areas of medical physics, including therapeutic radiological physics, diagnostic radiological physics, medical nuclear physics and medical health physics. There are several certifying boards, such as the American Board of Radiology, American Board of Medical Physics and American Board of Science in Nuclear Medicine.

The certification process varies by certifying board, but typically involves passing physics and clinical examinations prior to a final certifying examination. To register for exams, candidates need a bachelor's and master's degree, or a doctoral degree in medical physics or a closely related field from an accredited program. They must also be currently employed under the direction of a certified medical physicist.

The American Board of Radiology (ABR) offers certification in three areas. The certifying exams are divided into three parts. Part one consists of a written general and clinical exam covering topics in anatomy, physics, pathophysiology and radiology. Part two involves taking a test in up to three of the specialty areas. Part three is the final oral examination administered during or after residency training. The oral exam is based on an individual's training, experience and areas of practice. According to the ABR, the written examinations consist of a computer-based core exam to be taken 36 months after starting residency training; and a qualifying exam to be taken after graduating from residency.

Licensure and Registration

According to the American Association of Physicists in Medicine, some states require medical physicists to be licensed or registered due to strict regulations regarding radioactive material and radiation from machines. Licensure or registration requirements vary by state and may include having a master's or doctoral degree in medical physics, accruing a minimum amount of work experience, obtaining board certification and paying a fee.

Job Outlook and Salary

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), physicists across all areas of concentration earned an average annual income of $118,500 as of May 2015. During the 2014-2024 decade, the BLS estimated that physicists would experience 8% employment growth, roughly as fast as average across all occupations.

In addition to earning a master's degree or Ph.D., medical physicists may have to take certifying exams in specific areas of study. Some states require licensing or registration. The projected job growth for physicists between 2014 and 2024 is average, and the mean income topped $100,000 in 2015.

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