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Career in Medical Physics

  1. Sep 14, 2013 #1
    I've always loved Physics.

    Now that I'm in University, considering Medical Physics as a future career is something I am seriously thinking about.

    I just had a few questions and was hoping the community could help me out.

    1. Is a good, working knowledge of computer science required in this field, or is it just an advantage? How big of an advantage would you say it really is? How advanced should a person's knowledge of computer science be?

    2. There are several different modules offered at my school that have a Medical Physics focus. The requirements in terms of courses also vary. Would NOT taking Linear Algebra put me at any real disadvantage in the future? Are there any other recommended courses for someone entering the field?

    3. What are the job prospects for medical physicists both in Canada and the USA? What exact qualifications or licenses, besides a Masters and/or a PhD, are required in either countries? I've just been asking around, and seem to get mixed answers.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 14, 2013 #2


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    Medical physicists are often responsible for or play a major role in network administration - at least insofar as it relates to the networks the machines that they use are on. It's imperative that a medical physicist understand the basics of computer networks and data storage, but not to the level of needing a major or even a minor in it.

    An example of a clinical problem in this respect might be that when the treatment software on a linear accelerator connects to your data server you find that the plans are taking too long to download and because you're connecting through an external network you have to work with external IT staff, speaking their language, to solve the problem. Another example might be figuring out how to extract specific information from a DICOM file.

    Programming skill is probably not imperative for clinical work, but highly advantageous. Medical physicists are problem solvers in the clinic and are often called on to figure out solutions for situations that are not commonly encountered and for which there is no in-the-box solution. Sometimes you need to write your own software to solve these problems.

    Images stored in electronic format are matrixes and linear algebra is all about how to perform basic operations on matrixes. As medical physicist, even if you specialize in radiation oncology physics, you'll need to understand the basics of image processing and for that linear algebra is an essential course.

    Based on my experience, and knowing what attributes make someone competitive in the current job marker, here's what I would recommend (though I'm NOT saying they are critical to have) for an undergraduate student interested in medical physics:

    - a core honours physics sequence including E&M up to the level of Griffiths, if not beyond, a senior lab course, senior introductory courses to nuclear physics and medical physics (if available), computational physics, electronics

    - a mathematics sequence that includes linear algebra, vector calculus, differential equations, and mathematical methods for physicists (something at the level of Arken or Boas), a statistics course wouldn't hurt either

    - electives in biology, chemistry, anatomy and physiology

    Stuff that you miss or don't have the opportunity for can be picked up in graduate school, but really that's where you want to shine, not spend your nights playing catch-up if you can help it. Also, don't make the mistake of thinking that medical physics has a "lighter" intellectual workload than other fields of physics and therefore you won't need a rigorous background.

    You're likely getting mixed answers because there's a difference between the minimum requirements and what's competitive.

    Job prospects - right now the field is competitive and will continue to be that way for the foreseeable future. By that I mean that earning an MSc from an accredited program does not guarantee you a job in the field. Most (in fact I'm fairly certain all) PhD graduates from the programs that I've been affiliated with have found work in the field.

    Accreditation - in some states you require a license to be a medical physicist. In the rest, and in Canada, medical physicists can obtain certification, which although may not legally be required to work as a medical physicist, it's extremely tough to find such employment without it. The certification bodies are the American Board of Radiology and the Canadian College of Physicists in Medicine. For this certification, you need to have completed a two year residency - after your graduate degree. There are new rules that have recently come into effect that essentially require candidates to come through an accredited residency, and of course, there are less of those than there are graduates from accredited programs, which leads to a lot of stress and competition.

    For a student looking at medical physics right now, I would recommend aiming for a PhD in medical physics from an accredited program, going through an accredited residency, and getting certification through the ABR or CCPM (they are generally accepted as equivalent, but not always).

    This is where to go to find all the information on who is accredited:

    Hope that helps!
  4. Sep 15, 2013 #3
    Exactly what I was looking for. Thanks!
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