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A lot of Questions involving Medical Physics and DataScience

  1. Aug 11, 2015 #1
    Hello I've been a lurker on this site for quite a while now and now have a couple of questions I'd like to ask involving data science and medical physics.

    How important is data science or at least programming if one wants to pursue a PhD/DMP in medical physics?I have a online data science certification from Udemy. Will that help my chances with admissions? How about python? What are my chances of getting into a medical physics program (specifically Vanderbilt's DMP) with a 3.1 GPA from a liberal arts school? Will they take into account that I am both poor and a minority? I plan on a taking a bio course my senior year and I'm working in a local hospital's radiation department this winter. Is there anything that I can add to my application that will help me stand out? I know four Physics professors that'll write me good recommendation letters, I can program, I'm a math minor, I have completed 3 undergraduate research projects, and I might get one paper published. What more can I do as a rising Junior this fall that will help? Right now I'm trying to decide between having a career in Medical Physics or Data Science. I want to build a resume were I can choose another choice if the other doesn't work out.

    Now lets say I get accepted into both a graduate Data Science program and a MP program. Which has a better Job outlook and Career outlook. How about career earnings? I know MP is a small market but I live near NYC. I know I could find a job in DS but how about MP. All I really see online is per diem positions. How about the Career outlook? There's different levels in terms of DS but how about MP. Will I be stuck with the same position my whole life? I feel like there's no "moving up" like there is in business and IT.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 11, 2015 #2


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    Hi 13Nike,

    If you haven't seen it already, you might want to start here:
    How to Become a Medical Physicist in 3653 Easy Steps

    "Data science" is one of those broad terms that can mean a lot of different things to different people. As far as coupling a background in it with medical physics, there's a lot you can do, depending on the precise skills that you've picked up. Areas where there will be a lot of cross-over between the fields, at least as far as research goes include: clinical data mining, bioinformatics, signal and image processing, human-computer-medical device interaction, cloud-based computing and networking, database integration, etc. Clinically medical physicists tend to carry a lot of responsibility in the niche between a computer network and everything a machine like a linear accelerator or imager does to a patient.

    And programming skill is certainly an advantage. I spend a great deal of my time coding and figuring out how to get data from one device into another device.

    It might if you're looking at doing a PhD in one of the areas mentioned above and the group is looking for someone with the specific set of skills that you bring to the table. Generally speaking it's hard to say whether something like that would convey any advantage. All other things being equal, as it is evidence of a diverse skill set. That said, it's not like that many people on admissions committees will be specifically looking for it.

    It's more the ability to program that's important than the specific language.

    I can't speak to Vanderbilt's DMP program. Medical physics graduate programs are competitive to get into though. A lot of programs will publish statistics like the median GPA of accepted students. Usually this is in the 3.5 - 3.7 range. That's not to say it won't happen with a 3.1.

    You'll have to look at the policies of the individual schools.

    It sounds like you're doing all you can do. At this point I would focus on getting that GPA up. It will look better if your grades improve in your senior undergrad courses.

    You're right that medical physics is a small field. If you choose it, you might have to abandon the idea of "I live in...." Most medical physicists will go to where the jobs are and that can fluctuate from time to time.

    The major bottleneck in medical physics right now is residencies. Going the DMP route tends to solve that, but (a) you're paying to do work that people normally get for (or you're not getting the experience you should be getting), and (b) it's a fairly new degree and so some people may not know how to take it. It would be a good idea to look up statistics on how graduates of the program do.

    Once you have your board certification you still have to find a permanent job. That can still be competitive, although I see all of our residents getting jobs reasonably quickly. I think what it really come down to is that you have to be willing to move.

    As far as earnings go your best bet is to get a student membership with the AAPM which will give you access to their salary surveys - the best source of data for medical physics earnings. The salary grows considerably over the first ten years or so and then tends to level out. As far as career progression goes, a lot can depend on the specifics of where you work. If you're at a small clinic with one or two physicists then there isn't as much room to grow. In a larger centre, you can become more senior and take on more responsibilities - like being put in charge of dosimetry, or taking the lead on major projects such as the installation of new linear accelerators.

    To an extent you're also limited to what you want to get out of it. With an academic affiliation you can teach, or apply for major grants. Some people will start spin-off companies. Others will move into consulting work and charge $2000/day to help commission a new machine.
  4. Aug 13, 2015 #3
    Wow thank you for all the help. All of my questions have been answered but I have a few more. How do students manage debt that comes with going to medical school? I have one school's debt statistics and it shows that out of 91 Medical students 46 have debt in excess of $100K. The average student paying close to $200k. Assuming I even get accepted somewhere, how would I go about acquiring this amount of money? The cost of my Physics degree will leave me graduating with $50k in debt. Do undergraduate lenders let medical students defer their payments if they're enrolled full-time in medical school? My credit score is 650. I will most definitely need a cosigner, but both my parents have bad credit and are the only people who can really sign for me.

    I also want to know how hard are the classes. Do they tend to be heavily math based or literature based? Are they harder than senior year physics classes? What math concepts/courses should I know?

    Also how do you think healthcare reform in America will change Medical Physics? It is known that Doctors in countries that have universal healthcare tend to get paid less than their US counterparts. Do you feel like the salary of a mp will fall due to healthcare reform?

    Again thank you for the help and for that link. It was very insightful.
  5. Aug 13, 2015 #4


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    First it's important to realise that medical physics graduate school is not medical school. You don't end up with an MD, and you're not becoming a radiation oncologist. Students accepted into medical school are able to get large loans based on the earning potential that comes with their professional degree. Medical doctors make a lot of money.

    That said, medical physics graduate school tends not to be nearly as expensive as medical school, although cost varies considerably with your program, so shop around. I can largely speak to Canadian medical physics graduate programs with respect to cost, although my understanding is that a lot of the American programs work similarly. Generally, you don't get the same "guarantee" of support that you do with other physics graduate positions because medical physics programs are professional degrees. That said, most will have some kind of assistance, and opportunities to work as a TA, RA, and/or do QA work as a graduate student and this is usually enough to keep yourself from taking on any more debt as you go through school. One of my critiques of the DMP model is the cost to the student. As I mentioned above, in these programs you end up paying to do a residency. Residents don't tend to make a lot of money, but in all other scenarios they are paid - similar or a little more than what a typical post-doc would make.

    On a scale of 1 to 10 they're a fish.

    Seriously though, this depends a lot on the program and the student. The CAMPEP required material is fairly straight forward, but there is a lot of it and it branches out into different areas - including biology, chemistry, anatomy and physiology, image processing, programming, and electronics - all of which your average physics graduate will have varying degrees of familiarity with. Some programs will also require that you take some core graduate physics courses like E&M or quantum, and/or write the physics comprehensive exam.

    On the surface the medical physics material can seem fairly basic at first, but I've seen some very smart people underestimate it and fail out. I would put most programs on par with a senior undergraduate course load.

    As far as the math goes, I think the best prep is an undergraduate "mathematical methods for physicists" course (Boas, Afrken, etc.) and all the prerequisites needed to get there. The biggest mathematical challenges come on the imaging side of things, so you need to be familiar with Fourier transforms and the mathematics of signal processing.

    Maybe @gleem or @EricVT would be in a better position to speak to this.

    In general, as an outside observer from a country that has less privatization (Canada), I see a lot of political fear mongering in the US when it comes to healthcare. I highly doubt medical physicist salaries in the US will fall due to healthcare reforms or for any other reason.
  6. Aug 14, 2015 #5
    Unfortunately not! There are so many competing forces that dictate the direction that medical physics salaries might go that short of a crystal ball I'm not sure how anyone could know for sure. Before I say anything else I will admit that I am relatively ignorant of any driving forces outside of radiation oncology.

    On one hand we have added the residency barrier for entry into the field (for those wanting to have clinical positions requiring certification at least) and over time this will need to become balanced with the job market which will control the supply of medical physicists. The job duties of the medical physicist are also growing increasingly complex as newer technologies develop (proton therapy, MRI-guided therapy, intra-operative therapy, etc.) and this requires more specialized knowledge and training. We are also seeing approaches to safety engineering within radiation oncology move in a direction that is shaped by medical physicists in a way that can position us at the forefront of the design of departmental workflows and processes even more than we have been historically. I think these are all good things for our paychecks.

    On the other hand we are also seeing slightly more "medical physics assistants" that are taking over (with supervision) some of the responsibilities that have traditionally been directly performed by medical physicists. This is still a fledgling field and it is a minority of departments that employ medical physics assistants, but we have to be mindful not to delegate away too many of our responsibilities or our value within our departments may become diminished. On a similar note we are seeing more and more automated "QA for Dummies" sort of approaches from vendors; on one hand this helps streamline our work and makes it easier to be consistent but on the other hand it diminishes the apparent need for someone with expert knowledge to perform and interpret these tests. What this would do ideally is free up more of the physicist's time for important tasks such as research, process improvement, or departmental development, but it could also be an excuse to eventually reduce the number of medical physics positions and delegate more of this streamlined QA work to people who are cheaper to employ...which would not be a good thing for physics salaries in the long term.

    We are also seeing decreased reimbursements everywhere in healthcare and hospitals are continuously making a big push toward doing more with less. Medical physics salaries have in large part been left alone during these cuts but we remain some of the highest paid non-physicians in any hospital that employs us and we could become targets in the future. At some future point we could also see paradigm-shifting advances in cancer treatment within other fields such as molecular targeted therapy or genetic/immunotherapy approaches. If the role of radiation in cancer treatment is reduced so is the need for medical physicists (if we don't take steps to expand our roles), which is obviously not a good thing for our salaries.

    In general I don't worry about what the future holds. I am happy with the work I am doing and if the status quo continues for another lifetime then I am happy to continue being a part of this field. If the world around me changes in such a way that I have to find another way to earn a living then that is what I will do. It is certainly not a consideration unique to medical physics.
    Last edited: Aug 14, 2015
  7. Aug 14, 2015 #6
    I would say probably An I agree with @EricVT. As long as the market has demand for MP ( in the near term next 10 yrs? this seems the case) salary levels should more than keep pace with inflation. Just like any other occupations scarcity drives the market. As long a radiation oncology programs are expanding (in size or technology) new positions will be created. But RO has always be a step child in cancer management. Referring physicians do not fully understand radiation therapy and tend to want to do things medically or surgically. I've seen it several times e.g. look what it took to get radiation therapy as an accept treatment for breast cancer even when well established studies showed that there was no difference in outcome between surgery and RT, or how fast they abandoned RT for prostate cancer in favor of the Walsh nerve sparing surgery (fortunately for RT only Walsh was really good at this)

    Hospital are competitive but they watch their cash flow carefully. They tend not to be try to pay the market salary and only do when they have to go to the market to find the person they (or the radiation oncologist) wants. However if the market approaches saturation then I'd expect salary stagnation and perhaps a slow decline as MP's compete for jobs. Currently an experienced MP salary is among the highest in a hospital as EricVT stated.

    I'v been retire for about seven years but how much trouble I have had trying to hire an experience physicist and usually having to hire a new grad because they where cheaper. I can imagine that with physics assistants now becoming more common I would have had to find extra justifications for even a new grad.

    And as for commercial product being created to make life easier for the MP. Even when I was practicing they were saying " even the dosimetrist can do this test".

    I entered MP at the dawn of the " do more with less era". I did. You do what you must. However there is a cure for this problem, relocate .... if there is another place to go. (Go to the top of this post.)
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