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Whether you’re a first year graduate student in medical physics, a resident, or working in the field already, you’ve probably been asked the question: “What is a medical physicist?”. In this blog post, we’ll discuss a good elevator pitch for physicists to non-physicists and give you a quick and easy breakdown of the expectations and ideas administrators and colleagues have for medical physicists. In addition, we’ll give you tips on professionalism and how to exert confidence when starting out in your career.
Elevator pitch to a non-physicist
An elevator pitch can be used to explain your career to a non-physicist, make an impression on a potential employer, or start a conversation with potential collaborator. The elevator pitch is designed to deliver a succinct answer to the questions: “Who are you?,” “What contributions do/can you make?,” and “What are your goals?”
The goal of the pitch to a non-physicist will be mainly to explain: “What does a clinical medical physicist do?” The AAPM Virtual Pressroom has a great description of medical physicists, which can be condensed to these major points:
Medical physicists’ responsibilities include:
- radiation safety for patients and staff through scheduled measurements and patient/staff education
- machine standardization and reproducibility through daily, monthly, and annual testing
- improvement of patient outcome through development of new techniques in medical imaging or radiation treatment
Expectations of a clinical physicist
Perhaps the “elephant in the room” is that aspiring physicists don’t always have a clear idea of the expectations of a medical physicist. The potentially murky terms of “quality control” and “quality assurance” (which are clarified here) can make explaining medical physics a non-trivial task. In this section, we’ve outlined some of the expectations of your colleagues and administrators. These expectations can help you to craft your pitch further and adequately answer follow-up questions.
The position of a medical physicist is detailed by the American College of Radiology and the role of a medical physicist in clinical practice has been defined by the AAPM in AAPM Reports No. 38 and No. 42. Medical physicists may obtain membership as “medical staff” or be considered “professional staff.”
When explaining yourself to new non-physicists or interacting with well-known colleagues, it is always important to maintain the appropriate attitude, courtesy, and discretion – these aspects of conduct are termed “professionalism.” Professionalism extends to relationships between colleagues and patients, personal behavior, conflicts of interest, ethics in research, publication and education, and relationships with vendors. Modules on ethics and professionalism are available online through the AAPM and ABR.
- Honor and integrity
- Respect for others (including patient consent and confidentiality)
- Excellence and continued education and commitment to the field
These components of professional conduct support the mission of quality management in clinical physics and present medical physics as a respectable profession.
Hopefully, this post has helped to clarify your intended role as a clinical medical physicist. Keep in mind that we are undergoing (and have undergone) highly specialized coursework and intensive training – we’ve learned a lot, and quickly! Your pitch is your chance to teach your family, friends, and non-physics acquaintances about your intended career and potential contributions.
In our next post, we will highlight crafting an elevator pitch to a potential employer and networking opportunities at the AAPM Annual Meeting!
Scope and Practice of Medical Physics. Policy No. PP17-B http://www.aapm.org/org/policies/details.asp?id=317&type=PP¤t=true
AAPM Code of Ethics. Policy No. PP24-C http://www.aapm.org/org/policies/details.asp?id=329&type=PP
ABR Foundation Ethics and Professionalism Modules http://api.rsna.org/lms/org/ethics/courses/index.cfm?CFID=7433883&CFTOKEN=f6f3e328d59cc96f-AC55A203-09F1-88D2-C13F5F79E29C84F1&jsessionid=2A9974DE1EE98F4F3E719EB3BE248694.cfusion
“Medical Physics Clinical Skills Workbook for Therapy Physics.” Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, College of Health Professions. October 2012. http://www.rosalindfranklin.edu/Portals/3/Documents/Clinical_Skills_Workbook_ONLINE_VERSION__Revised_10-23-12A%5B1%5D.pdf
Quality Management in Medical Physics: General Concepts. Thomadsen, Bruce . 2004. http://www.aapm.org/meetings/amos2/pdf/26%20-4515-3485-838.pdf
Guide to Medical Physics Practice. American College of Radiology, Subcommittee of the Standards & Accreditation Committee of the Commission on Medical Physics. http://www.acr.org/Membership/Legal-Business-Practices/Group-Practice-Resources/Guide-to-Medical-Physics-Practice
AAPM Report No. 38: The role of a physicist in radiation oncology. https://www.aapm.org/pubs/reports/rpt_38.pdf
AAPM Report No. 42: The role of clinical medical physicist in diagnostic radiology. http://www.aapm.org/pubs/reports/RPT_42.pdf
Professionalism in medicine: definitions and considerations for teaching. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1769526/
Prospective students interested in medical physics have a variety of degree paths available, as well as areas of clinical certification, such as nuclear medicine, imaging, and therapy. To help educate and advise students interested in clinical medical physics, we have interviewed four former students and one student very close to graduation, all of whom have secured residency positions in either imaging or therapy. We’ve included a DMP, two MS, and two PhDs and asked them about the benefits of their degree path and how their degree and residency has helped them further their careers. All of the interviewees have graduated from CAMPEP-accredited programs across the country, including schools in Texas, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, and other states.
Q1. What is your educational background (i.e. DMP, MS, or PhD)?
Master’s degree, therapy focus.
Master’s degree, imaging focus.
PhD, therapy focus.
PhD, imaging focus.
Q2. What inspired you to follow your particular area of study within the field of medical physics?
I began developing a strong predilection for applied branches of math and physics early in my education. When I discovered therapeutic medical physics, it seemed to me to be the perfect extreme of applied science. The field has an amazing capacity for affording human impact, practice of the scientific process, and many, many challenges.
I chose therapeutic medical physics because of the workplace conditions, the gratification/importance, job supply, variety of duties, and compensation (and in that order)
I knew I wanted to do Chemistry or Physics in college. I found out about medical physics at LSU and looked into it. When I realized they got to work with all the imaging modalities, I realized this had the potential to be a great career. I was always fascinated with MRI as a kid after having a few scans at a young age.
A big reason I’ve pursued the therapy side of medical physics has been the clinical involvement. While it might be more reactive compared to the diagnostic side, the treatment process has always fascinated me. I enjoy the clinical responsibilities and the questions that are being asked in an effort to improve the standard of care for cancer patients.”
As a physics undergraduate we had a seminar given by a diagnostic medical physicist on MRI. I also had a classmate that graduated before me who was studying diagnostic medical physics that helped me realize the great opportunities available in that field.
Q3. What is your current or intended career?
Clinical Medical Physicist.
Current: therapy medical physics resident. Future: boarded clinical therapy physicist with perhaps AAPM aspirations.
My current title is Senior Radiological Physicist. My original title was just Radiological Physicist, but I was really a junior physicist. Eventually I became the only diagnostic physicist for our healthcare organization for a little while. We recently hired someone above me again. My intended career is to become board certified in Diagnostic and Nuclear Medicine Physics. I would like to continue to work for a healthcare organization or university as opposed to having a consulting job.
I’ll be finishing up my PhD work in the next couple of months and beginning a residency shortly afterward. Long term, I would like to work at an academic center where I can find a balance of clinical responsibilities, research work, and involvement with educational activities.
Imaging Physics Resident.
Q4. Were you interested in a residency position upon graduation? If so, what was your experience applying to residencies (and starting your residency)?
While I was strongly interested in the additional experience that can be derived from a residency program, I was fortunate enough to be enrolled in a DMP program. This degree program allowed me to gain this experience without having to go through the residency application process.
Yes. Had on-site interviews with many academic centers, however, it was my impression that my MS degree was not competitive enough compared to PhDs. Eventually I was selected with my current residency….things have been excellent so far.
Yes, I was interested in a residency position. I interviewed for two residencies and got an invite to MD Anderson for a third. I got one of the residencies I interviewed for. However, I decided to accept my current position. I knew a residency would have been a better educational experience, but I was counting on having a good mentor at my first job. That was not the case and I have had to teach myself a lot and put in a lot of effort to make sure I am going to be adequately prepared for the boards. It basically boiled down to salary and still being able to achieve my goal of becoming board certified since I have had someone “supervising” me that is ABR certified.
It’s been very interesting to see the development of residency programs, and more specifically their integration with the career paths of recent graduates, over the course of my PhD work. When I first entered graduate school, I was aware of residency programs, but had no intentions of doing one. Five years ago it was far more common for new graduates interested in clinical work to take Junior Physicist or Assistant Professor positions right out of graduate school. Now, it is far different as all but a couple of this year’s graduates from our program, myself included, have taken residency positions. With most of us having already passed Part 1 to the ABR’s initial certification exam, this was more a result of the recognized benefit to getting a formal and more structured clinical training experience as well as market factors influenced by the increasing number of residency graduates. With the ABR’s 2014 initiative now taking effect, soon all graduates interested in clinical work will need to do residencies to obtain board certification.
The residency application process can be a lot of things, among them are stressful, fun, expensive, and fascinating. With so many more graduates applying for residency positions (graduates still outnumber residency positions), spots have become very competitive. There are a number of growing pains to be dealt with in the application process, and I expect that in the next couple years as the volume of applicants remains high, a lot of those will be handled. Residencies are still relatively new to our field, and even though we’ve tried to base them somewhat off of the physician model, there are differences in our professions that will necessitate adaptations.
Yes. I only applied to one and was in the process of applying to another when I was accepted. It was not too difficult. The hardest part was ensuring that I had all of the necessary information and paperwork (i.e. transcripts, reference letters, intent letter) sent in on time.
Q5. Did your program have any unique characteristics that you feel gave you a competitive advantage? How have those characteristics helped you in your career?
My program emphasized clinical experience and complete immersion within a working clinic with highly diverse applications, in addition to a strong academic program, that allowed me, among other things, to start developing clinical intuition, confidence, and insight that would have taken years to develop without this opportunity. This was a unique opportunity that is often under-afforded to students and one that I consider invaluable to my education.
My residency has as preference for clinically oriented MS physicists and takes into account an individual’s “soft skills”. In that regard, I believe my own set of interpersonal skills helped tremendously in being selected…and in acquiring a post-residency position.
If we are talking about Duke University’s Medical Physics program, then yes I believe so. I believe the fact we had a lot of different opportunities in different areas (research to clinical in all areas of medical physics and some of the fields that cross paths like biomedical engineering has helped me in becoming a well-rounded physicist.I also believe the fact we were forced to learn how to code has made a big difference. Learning to write code, scripts, etc is an invaluable tool in the work place. A lot of the people I have worked with don’t have the experience or knowledge from their graduate degrees in that area.
There are a lot of things that my program did well in preparing me to apply to residencies. The clinical rotations gave us great exposure to the clinic. Having a basic understanding of how the clinic operates and how its problems are handled compared to the research world is very valuable. Even if a program doesn’t have formalized clinical rotations, I highly recommend that students familiarize themselves with the roles and responsibilities of all those involved in the clinic. The experience helped me to be more conversational during interviews and gave me an added sense of confidence in handling the interview questions.
Graduating from a CAMPEP accredited institution. That ensured that I had taken all of the required courses. I had a clinical rotation with a local consulting company during the summer of my last year. I really feel that this was a big help for me.
Q6. Which degree path would you recommend to prospective students interested in the field of medical physics?
I believe that depends a great deal on how you see yourself wanting to spend your days following your education. Different paths available to us in this career carry with them the opportunities to explore different niches within the profession that exist among the commonalities. My advice for prospective students, though, in response to this question would be to seek out professionals with a variety of backgrounds as you explore your interest in this field. Shadow them, if you can, observe their interactions with those around them, note their focuses, and ask them how their educational decisions facilitated them attaining their positions. If different aspects of the profession pique your interest above others, then this realization will go a long way to answering this question for yourself.
In light of current trends, I would probably recommend in the following order: DMP, PhD, and MS (and for only a few select MS programs with a history successful job placement).
There isn’t much of a choice anymore if you are looking to become board certified. You need to complete a CAMPEP Master’s and residency program (or DMP, if those programs take off). If your goal is strictly research, PhD is probably the best path.
This is a tricky question as I would argue it depends most on the goals of the individual. While PhD graduates have been more competitive at placing in residencies (whether it is right, wrong, or how to address it is a whole separate discussion), the research training is largely unnecessary for those that want only clinical responsibilities. An MS or DMP might be a more efficient means for those students. I think it is important for prospective students to evaluate their goals and familiarize themselves with the options in order to make the most informed decision possible.
If you want to do research or any type of academic work, I would recommend going for a PhD. If not, a MS or DMP may suffice. The advice given to me when I was finishing my undergrad was the following: ‘If you are even thinking about getting a PhD, go straight for it, don’t bother doing a Master’s and then a PhD.’ I am glad that I took that path.
Q7. If you could go back and do it all again, would you still choose the same degree path?
Yes. Definitely, but I love my MS program.
Yes, the only thing I may have changed is having a dual major as an undergraduate: Physics and Computer Science or Computer Engineering. I cannot stress the importance of knowing how to code and understanding how computers work. These are tools that if you aren’t going to work in the area of medical physics could prove very useful as skills for other well-paying jobs out there.
Without a doubt!
Yes. I have no regrets in going for a PhD. I am also grateful to have chosen to be in a residency program. A residency was not required for me, but I am grateful for the extra training that has been given to me to further prepare me to be able to independently practice as an imaging physicist.
The DMP is a much-discussed topic in medical physics, offering a clinically-focused degree with guaranteed residency.
However, not all programs offer the DMP and students may have a tough time determining which degree is best for their intended careers. Here, we’ve broken down the path for each of the degrees offered in medical physics and which individuals might be interested in each degree.
MS: The Master’s
The MS offers the shortest time-to-degree, but securing a clinical position will still require a residency afterwards. The MS is still a competitive degree, however, residency positions have been harder to come by due to competition from PhD graduates. Due to this competition, there are concerns that schools will transition to offering the DMP in place of the MS.
For: Individuals who want to pursue clinical, regulatory, or consulting careers with little or no interest in research.
Time to Completion: 1.5 years (no thesis) – 2.5 years (with thesis)
- Meet all CAMPEP pre-requisites (physics minor)
- Complete all core CAMPEP-required coursework (23+ hours)
- Complete Clinical Rotations
- Complete Special Project or Research Thesis (includes publication)
- Complete ABR Part I Certification (optional)
Estimated Cost: $15,000 – $40,000+ annually (includes basic living expenses)
Certain MS programs offer a partial stipend, while others require tuition and living expenses to be covered by the student. Fellowships may also be available for a research-based MS through the external sources, such as the NSF.
DMP: The Professional Doctorate
The DMP has been likened to other professional degrees, where the title ‘Doctor’ is awarded without an MD or PhD. Some medical physicists feel that this title will grant them more respect in their clinical roles. The DMP offers training that is commensurate with the MS+2-year residency and, in the final year of the DMP, students will have the opportunity to work in a physics practice. To date, Vanderbilt University offers the only CAMPEP-accredited DMP program, however, the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio has proposed adding the DMP to their current educational program.
For: Individuals who want to pursue clinically-focused careers. Includes 24-month residency experience.
Time to Completion: 4 years
- Meet all CAMPEP pre-requisites (physics minor)
- Complete all core Medical Physics coursework (23+ hours)
- Complete Research Project (includes publication/presentation at AAPM)
- Complete ABR Part I Certification
- Complete 24-month clinical training (takes place of residency)
- Serve in community physics practice (year 4)
Estimated Cost: $15,000 – $60,000+ annually (includes basic living expenses) for years 1-3. Year 4 may be covered by the physics practice that hires you.
The DMP will require tuition and living expenses to be covered by the student for years 1-3 and possible year 4 of the program. Teaching and lab assistantships may become available, offering a partial stipend through the institution.
Note: The DMP guarantees a residency-type position. After graduation, you will be prepared for a junior clinical physicist position and well on your way to ABR part II certification.
PhD: The Research Degree
The Ph.D. in medical physics still stands as the research-focused degree, but offers diverse career paths. Certification is not necessarily required for a medical physics Ph.D. to have a successful career, unlike for the DMP.
For: Individuals who want to pursue academic research and teaching, industry research, or are interested in a joint appointment that includes clinical, research, and possibly teaching duties.
Time to Completion: 5+ years
- Meet all CAMPEP pre-requisites (physics minor)
- Complete all core Medical Physics coursework (23+ hours)
- Complete Clinical Rotations
- Complete ABR Part I Certification (optional)
- Pass Qualifying Exams and/or Present Research Proposal
- Complete Dissertation (includes publication)
Estimated Cost: $0 annually
Ph.D. students are typically awarded stipends or fellowships that cover tuition, fees, and basic living expenses. These stipends may range from $13,000 – $29,000 depending on the program and perceived cost of living. Students may be expected to find funding on their own, through fellowships from the AAPM, NSF, or NIH.
Note: For clinical positions, residency will still be required after Ph.D. to become ABR Part II certified. Hybrid resident/post-doc positions may become available for graduates who are interested in the joint role as clinical physicist and researcher.
In the field of medical physics, it might seem that a clinical position is the only option. However, medical physicists play significant roles outside of the hospital. Along with an excellent understanding of radiation physics, medical physics training provides one with the ability to analyze systems and provide effective troubleshooting, which is why a medical physicist can be successful in many fields.
On that note, we’ve briefly interviewed three medical physicists who have achieved success and satisfaction in entrepreneurship, in a state regulatory body, and in academia.
Question: Who is your current employer and what is your position?
Mobius Medical Systems, LP, Founder.
Agreement State Radioactive Materials Program Manager
I am a faculty member at an academic medical center. My primary responsibilities are research and teaching; I have a little bit of clinical responsibilities. I supervise graduate students and postdocs.
Question: What attracted you to your current position? What advantages have kept you in that role?
The ability to design products used at thousands of clinics, rather than a handful of clinics. I couldn’t get out now if I tried =).
At first, it was a matter of job availability. When I finished my masters in medical physics I was faced with a limited choice of accredited residencies.
Another thing that attracted me was the challenges involved. As an inspector you need to work with a wide variety of individuals ranging from construction personnel, to engineers, to doctors, and conventionally careered medical physicists. Working alongside this dynamic group to promote radiation safety and compliance is never the same and is always gratifying.
Regulators need to stay on top of the latest technologies to know what is being licensed and how it should be utilized. No two days have been the same for me since I started nearly a year ago now and I’ve learned a great deal beyond my medical physics and nuclear engineering backgrounds.
A major tradeoff though is that a clinical medical physicist will make more money; however, the lifestyle of being a state or federal employee will likely keep me in my role for some time to come.
There are many attractions – I get to work with incredibly bright and incredibly talented colleagues, postdocs and graduate students. We have a tremendous amount of autonomy in terms of the research that we perform and the specific topics that we investigate. The background that a medical physicist can provide in these research questions can be critical to successful research; the blend of basic understanding of the physical phenomena and the ability to interface with MDs is vital.
Question: Which other disciplines did you compete with for this position? What about your medical physics training gave you an advantage?
I only had to compete with my wife letting me start a business.
Most of the people that apply for state level radiation regulatory positions have a bachelor’s degree in a science or engineering field. Rarely these individuals have a background specific to radiation. During my last hiring I interviewed for three positions and had about forty applicants. Of those, only two had some radiation training. Having a medical physics degree will put you at the top of the list under categories such as education and experience.
Though my program licenses all uses of radioactive material (industrial, academic, medical, etc), the vast majority of our licensees are medicals. A background in medical physics prepares you for understanding of the theory for most procedures in the field as well as the biological and safety effects that they may induce. This gives a vast advantage over someone else who has no prior knowledge of radiation use and effects. On average it takes about two years for an inspector to become trained and qualified, but I would suspect most people with a medical physics background would have dramatically reduced qualification times.
Sometimes we compete with biomedical engineers for these positions, but the advantage that medical physicists often have is their fundamental understanding of the underlying physics of the problem at hand – such as the physics of image formation processes (x-ray interactions with tissue, MR signal formation, etc.). Engineers sometimes have to treat the imaging device as a black box and just accept what comes out of it; while physicists can often times open the black box and try to manipulate or control what comes out of it.
Question: How can current medical physics students prepare for a position like yours?
I don’t recommend founding a new company, but in general those interested in product design should become familiar with programming (whether or not they will be a programmer) and really pay attention to how users interact with products (what confuses them, what they inherently understand, what their needs are, etc.).
My weakest knowledge area when starting with the state was the regulations, plain and simple. I was given a brief overview of some regulatory references during my education, but not near enough. I’m still learning some of the finer details to this day. I would recommend someone become very familiar with title 10 of the Code of Federal Regulations (10 CFR) which maintains all of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s rules.The rest of your training will set you up more than well enough for success.
Getting a PhD in medical physics is essentially required if you want to do research, but the biggest requirement is to keep asking questions. Be persistent (and sometimes stubborn) and don’t always accept the standard answers. It is ok to ask why we do things a certain way – and why not another way.
Next Post: DMP? Master’s? Ph.D? Which path should I take?
Although each path is dependent on one’s individual goals, many students worry about which degree will provide them with a competitive advantage. In our next post, we will present information and discuss the pros and cons of the Professional Doctorate in Medical Physics, Masters and Ph.D degrees.
In the recent AAPM newsletter, Dr. George Starkschall responded to two major issues that he has encountered while serving as the Chair of the Education Council. In this post, we will summarize the issues and major points made by Dr. Starkschall. These issues are specific to medical physics students who are working towards full certification by the American Board of Radiology (ABR) and want a clinical position.
Issue 1: Short-term supply of residents“Are there going to be a sufficient number of residents to meet workforce needs after the 2014 deadline that requires candidates who wish to take the ABR exam to complete a CAMPEP-accredited residency?”
Dr. Starkschall feels that the current number of CAMPEP-approved (and pending approval) residency programs will provide enough residents to meet the minimum expected demand in both imaging and radiation therapy. In order to support more residency programs, the AAPM and RSNA have collaborated to establish residency program funding for three new programs: the University of Alabama-Birmingham, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and University of Wisconsin.
Furthermore, some residency programs are incorporating private physics practices into a “hub-and-spoke” model. The residency program serves as the hub for multiple residents, providing infrastructure, any necessary classes, and possibly resident stipends. Each private practice offers one position for training and supervision of the resident in a clinical setting.
Issue 2: Surplus of medical physics graduates“What is the AAPM doing about the mismatch between numbers of students graduating from accredited graduate programs and the number of residency positions available for these graduates?”
Dr. Starkschall explains that this issue is a nuanced one. Overall, there are simply less residency positions than there are students graduating from CAMPEP-accredited medical physics programs. Annually, more Master’s degrees are awarded than Ph.D.’s. However, residency programs are more likely to accept Ph.D. graduates than Master’s.
The AAPM and medical physics graduate programs are making a great effort to increase the number of residency positions, with an emphasis on placing Master’s students in these positions. An alternative degree path, the professional doctorate program (DMP), offers a guaranteed residency position. Several graduate schools are hoping to establish DMP programs, following in the footsteps of Vanderbilt University. These initiatives will certainly mitigate the graduate/residency mismatch in the future.
Non-clinical careers exist
In the near future, it is very unlikely that every medical physics graduate will find a clinical residency position. But, the truth is: not everyone needs a clinical residency position. Medical physicists have successful careers outside the clinical setting: in entrepreneurship, in state and national regulatory bodies, in industry, and in academia.
In our next post, we will feature short interviews from non-clinical medical physicists.