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Physics Can I handle medical physics?

  1. Sep 30, 2016 #1
    Hello everybody,

    I'm slowly coming towards the end of my physics bachelors degree and it's getting time for me to decide what I want to do next. I've decided to go into further study and I'm seriously considering medical physics. However, there are some aspects of this field that I would like to know more about.

    First of all, over the past years I have been feeling more and more out of place. I believe that I am a reasonably smart person, but not at the level of other physics students. I have struggled a lot during the more advanced classes involving high-level mathematics (Mathematical Methods, Quantum, statistics ...) and I still have some theoretical physics courses (eg general relativity) to go. In the future I would like to do something with less advanced mathematics.

    So here come my first two questions: 1) how mathematically (or conceptually) advanced is a good medical physics masters programme? 2) And how much of the maths is used in the day-to-day work?

    In day-to-day work I am particularly interested in radiotherapy medical physics and also nuclear medicine medical physics. I suppose medical imaging involves a lot of fourier and laplace transformations and is mathematically the heaviest?

    I feel that I probably could force myself through some advanced mathematics for just a couple of years of coursework, but I just can't work with these for the rest of my life. Not only do I dislike it, I am also not competent enough to deal with these correctly. I can practise these things a lot on the build up to my exams, but after a month or so I just can't do it anymore, eg I can't calculate a surface integral or work with laplace transformations...

    What I am wondering about and fear is that because you have to have studied physics first before becoming a medical physicist, the job is intellectually at the level of a physicist. Is that correct? Or would people that studied eg. chemistry (who just saw basic calculus) also be able to do the job of a radiotherapy physicist (after having training)?

    Secondly, I would like to know more about the duties of a radiotherapy medical physicist. Are there a lot of tasks that such a person does, additional to the main job (dose calculation, treatment planning, QA ...). By additional tasks I mean for example being responsible for other electronic equipment of the hospital, solving other technical errors... I believe that if I've trained for long enough I might be able to make treatment plans for example correctly, but I would not be able to quickly figure out why some machine stopped working, for example. I am also not very interested in electronics.

    I became interested in medical physics because I am really interested in how radiation kills cancer cells and because it seems to have good job prospects. I would also be able to make a big contribution to society with my physics degree. But if it turns out that it is not really for me, I might have to look into something else.

    Thanks in advance for the answers!
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 30, 2016 #2
    Well if you are interested in clinical medical physics vis-a vis research then you do not really need advanced math i.e., you may need advanced calculus and partial differential equations mainly to understand the concepts not as a day to day necessity. The duties of a clinical medical physicist actually hover around management of the technical aspects the medical physics service which in a small facility will include you providing the services as dose calculation, performing measurements, monitoring performance of equipment and personnel, overseeing the safety of the use of radiation, lots of paperwork, some actual manual skill but that depends on you and the availability of other to take up the slack. You do not need to be a computer wizard, or electronics expert but some knowledge is valuable.
    You need to know how to manage your time and meet deadlines. You basically need to provide answers, or help with solutions to problems (not necessarily physics) that come up. You need to be to work closely with physicians and other medical , technical and administrative.personnel. You need to understand how everything works and to find solutions to problems when they don't but you do not necessarily have to fix anything yourself and sometime you should not even try.as long as you can assure that it will be competently fixed. It is a wonderful career but demanding on time and sometimes ingenuity.and can be quite stressful.

    For a good article on medical physics see https://www.physicsforums.com/insights/become-medical-physicist-3653-easy-steps/

    Good luck in you endeavor.
  4. Sep 30, 2016 #3


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    Gleem answered while I was writing...

    Medical physics programs will vary considerably in the level of mathematics that they cover. In some programs you may be independently writing code that can take raw data from a CT scanner and run it though a filtered back-projected algorithm and ultimately construct an image out of it or fumble through an MRI pulse sequence. These kinds of things are going to require that you're fairly comfortable with working in Fourier space and being comfortable with transforms. If you're comfortable with Boas' mathematical methods book or the equivalent, you should be just fine. Other programs are less rigorous.

    In day-to-day radiation oncology physics, the math is not quite to that level. Probably about 95% of what you do is high-school level. In my experience the most challenging stuff comes in research projects and you have a fair amount of choice in the direction you take there.

    I'm not really sure how to respond to this one. I don't know what the "intellectual level" of a physicist is. From my point of view (I'm a medical physicist in radiation oncology), medical physics is really a lot more like what most people would think of as engineering than as physics. Although, to be fair, I think that there's a big difference between what working as a physicist actually is and what it seems like it should be regardless of the field. There's a lot more time spent trying to figure out where the bug is in 10000 lines of code or calibrating a calorimeter than there is deriving the mass of the Higgs boson.

    There certainly are examples of people who come from other fields who are successful in medical physics. They tend more often to come from engineering or other physical sciences though.

    One thing that's a little different with medical physics is that you have to be able to speak a lot of different technical languages: physics, IT, medicine, biology, electronics, computer code, admin policies and procedures, law, salesman, etc. So what you may not see in depth in any one of those subjects is made up for in the cumulative breadth of all of them.

    Yeah - there's a lot of clinical problem solving. We spend a lot of time measuring things and then figuring out why those measurements aren't coming out the way they are supposed to, how to fix the problem, and what, if any, impact all that will that have on clinical operations. Generally we work with electronics technicians who do the heavy electronics stuff - replacing circuit boards, adjusting potentiometers, etc. But you have to have a reasonable idea of what those guys are doing because often you're the one they come to when they have problems (and vice versa).

    Another big part of the job is setting up new equipment and establishing new procedures. Sometimes this is fun. Sometimes it's a lot of trouble shooting. If you like being the first person to work through a new piece of technology, that's a good thing. If you prefer to have step-by-step instructions for anything technical, that might be a flag.
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