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Programs Concerns about getting into a good Medical Physics program

  1. Jul 14, 2016 #1
    Hey everyone! I'm currently an undergraduate student double majoring in Mathematics and Biomedical Physics at a CSU. Lately I've been getting a lot of negative prospects on potential graduate school options because of the fact that I apparently am set up for failure for attending a CSU (based on the words of someone leading a mentoring program I'm participating in). I'm conflicted about what schools I should apply to once I'm done with undergrad and if I should even bother getting a PhD because now I feel like I'm not really good competition compared to students that attended UCs or other more prestigious schools. I also am uncomfortable with the notion that my likelihood of admission into any program will depend more on the fact that I am female and an ethnic minority, again according to the aforementioned person :/

    I still have at least two years until I graduate, but I'm more than willing to work my ass off even harder than I already have been to become a competitive applicant when the time comes around. I start my medical physics specific coursework this fall so I'm not sure quite yet what I want to go into, but so far my interest is in research vs. working at a hospital. Here's what I currently stand:
    • 3.897 cumulative GPA because I am dumb and messed up by being lazy and getting B's in vector calc and introductory mechanics
    • Math GPA of 3.809
    • Biomedical Physics GPA of 3.727
    • Top 7.5% of the Junior class as a second year student
    • Starting math-related research this fall
    • Taken programming classes for engineering mapping, C++, and MATLAB
    Thankfully the Biomed Phys program at my school is very small so I can hopefully get at least two letters of rec from the professors. My preference is attending UCLA's program right now since it's close to home for me and I have sick parents that I'd like to be able to see easily in case of an emergency, though I'm open to attending any well-reputed program. I suspect that my ass will be kicked in my upper division physics courses but I aim to keep my cumulative GPA at about a 3.7 by the time I graduate.

    I haven't taken the GRE and I noticed that a lot of programs only require the general test, but should I still try with the Physics subject test? I'm not a good test taker in general so I'm scared shitless for the subject test lol. I'm also worried that the med phys courses will not adequately provide background for me to prepare for the test. I'm down to take the Math subject test just for my own amusement.

    I know I need to eventually start doing research in the field but I tried applying to REUs and didn't get into them, and I don't want to approach one of the professors at my school without relevant background knowledge from some courses. I may also extend graduation by a semester or two (for a total of 5 years) because I want to do well in my classes and I don't want to go insane with the workload. Will this be frowned upon when I apply or will no one really care? I also am wondering if I should bother with a Masters or just go straight into PhD? I don't have the financial resources for both. What GPA would be safest regarding whether or not my application will be discarded? Is there anything I should try to do to improve my CV?

    Any advice or guidance would be immensely appreciated. I'm super frightened (if that wasn't obvious by this massive wall of text). I'm on the dumber side compared to my peers in physics but I'm hardworking and willing to do what I can to become a medical physicist :D
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 14, 2016 #2
    Your GPA is pretty good, and how it is viewed will depend upon the reputation of your specific school and which schools you apply to.

    You should take the Physics and General GREs and disclose your scores to those from whom you want advice and better informed answers to your questions.

    If a school does not require it, there is no need to report your Physics GRE score to them if it would harm your application. But you could surprise yourself and earn a score that would be to your advantage to report.

    In most cases, research with a prof at your school will strengthen your grad school applications, especially if you co-author a paper and/or if the prof is willing to write a good letter of recommendation for you.

    I don't think taking five years to complete a double major will harm your application, especially if it will allow you to graduate with a cumulative GPA closer to 3.9 than 3.7. I don't think a 3.7 in 4 years is anywhere near as impressive as a 3.9 GPA in five. At a lot of schools the core courses are harder on the GPA than the junior and senior courses.

    I too always considered myself on the dumber side. Somewhere along the way I learned that how hard one works can more than compensate for any perceived lack of natural gifting, but only if you decide to go for it and work hard toward the highest goals.
  4. Jul 14, 2016 #3
    Thanks for your response, I appreciate it. I think I will try both the general and physics GREs since, like you said, it's possible that I surprise myself with my score.

    Neither of the medical physics professors at my university appear to be doing much research with undergrads yet, would I need to have actual medical physics research or would the math research be sufficient for my application?
  5. Jul 14, 2016 #4


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    1. With respect to the physics GRE, it's probably a good idea to take it if you're planning to go to school in the US. It's much better to have it if needed than to find out that the program you really want to get into at the time of your application is the only one that requires it. One flag I see however is that if you're worried about your program not adequately preparing you to take the GRE, that may not be your biggest problem. Some medical physics programs still require students to pass comprehensive examinations. On top of that you're aiming to do research in physics, so you'll need a solid foundation to build on. One good way to assess things like this is to get in touch with graduates of your program who've gone on into medical physics programs and see if they have any recommendations for you as to supplemental courses etc.
    2. With respect to research, don't worry about having an "appropriate" background before approaching professors. That's the kind of trap that could find you waiting forever. When an undergrad approaches a professor, the professor will often expect a second year undergrad to be capable of doing what a second year undergrad can do. And often the work involves turning the crank - at least until you learn a little more.
    3. With regard to taking an extra year - no. No one will care. The only slight caveat to that is that you'll likely be expected to carry a full workload as a graduate student, and if you struggle with a full workload as an undergrad, it's not going to be any easier in graduate school.
    4. MSc. vs PhD. This is a personal choice. The PhD is the route to take if you want to get an academic position, or want to get intensely involved in research. In some cases MSc grads are seen as more desirable for smaller clinical centres because it's assumed they don't cost as much and won't shrug off clinical duties for research projects. There is some feeling that PhDs are more competitive for residencies, too, but I think that's more that they're more competitive for the "prestigious" residencies. By the numbers I think MSc candidates are almost as successful.
      When it comes to finances, when selecting graduate programs look into possibilities of work doing QA. This is fairly common for medical physics graduate students (although not all programs have it). They can't officially offer it because the employment isn't directly through the university like it would be for a teaching assistanceship, and often there is no guarantee that a hospital will need anyone. But they are reasonably common and the pay isn't bad for the amount of work involved.
    5. GPA: 3.5 or higher is competitive for most programs. Obviously you should aim to make this as high as you can though. Aiming for "just over the bar" can backfire.
    6. Does the research have to be medical physics-specific? No, not at all. It can help if it is, but mostly that's because that work will help you decide if that's the kind of work you want to do for a career. Admissions committees are usually looking for evidence that you're going to be successful as a graduate student. They want to know that if you're applying for medical physics you're not going to get As in the courses and then drive the gantry through the brand new carbon-fibre couch, or sweep a QA measurement under the rug when it's out of tolerance. They want evidence that you can commit to working on a project long term, and that you'll keep at it even on days when nothing works, and that you can solve practical problems as well as those in a textbook.
  6. Jul 18, 2016 #5
    Does it really matter whether the school you go to is "good" as long as it is CAMPEP accredited? I read somewhere that there are more clinical positions opening up than there are residency graduates to fill them. If that's true, I imagine they'd take anyone with an accredited degree.
  7. Jul 18, 2016 #6


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    Oh sure - stir the pot why don't you...

    Here are the recent numbers that I've seen.
    The number being batted around the AAPM right now is that medical physics manpower needs are ~125 new qualified medical physicists per year, although I believe this is a minimum. Accredited programs are currently producing about 250 graduates (MSc + PhD + DPM) per year and there are ~ 125 accredited residencies. To me this says that the number of qualified medical physicists being produced right now (i.e. completing residencies and passing board exams) is roughly meeting the demand. But these numbers are both hard to track in any great detail, are subject geographic fluctuations, are at the mercy of small numbers, and of course fluctuate with the economy - particularly in the US. In my experience, the larger, more academic centres get all sorts of applications. The smaller clinical ones, particularly those not in a big city, have to fight for experienced, qualified applicants.

    In my experience it's usually not graduate school name that stratifies the applicants. By the time a person is applying for a permanent job, because of the residency, he or she will typically have at least two years (often more) of clinical experience. So the committee will look in detail at what the candidate has done over that more time: how much experience do they have directly relevant to the position, have they commissioned any equipment that the centre might be expecting, what kind of projects have they been involved with or led, how do they interact with other people, etc. et The academic positions will look at your publication history, the research projects you've led, whether your interests fit with their existing program and where they want to take it, teaching experience, etc.

    Where the school comes in, for the most part is in the extent to which the program influences these factors. It's a higher-order effect, so to speak. If your program doesn't prepare you well for your board exams... I'd say that's a major influence. If your program doesn't give you the same clinical opportunities that other programs do (do students perform QA, do you just read about MR imaging, or do you get to hop on a unit to take MR images), and you're not as competitive for a residency, or have to spend a lot of residency time learning basics while others use that time to initiate a research project... another major influence. A school can also carry networking opportunities, particularly in the more well-established programs. So, I suppose yes, the program matters.
  8. Jul 18, 2016 #7

    Fervent Freyja

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    Is it the truth though? I also loathe the notion, but facing that will give you a more accurate perspective of what peers and colleagues will have about you from the get-go. I have often come across the application stating "females especially welcome" in programs. Knowing if there are any quotas for gender in place will certainly help you prepare to deal with the jerks, with an attitude such as the person you mentioned, as such postings can indicate there is a negative atmosphere already in place towards females.

    Any person that insinuates that you didn't earn your way into a program the same way as the others is usually very insecure and at the very bottom anyway- go along with it and rub it in their face. Tell them that your GPA is near perfect only because the Professors enjoyed how your shade of lipstick complimented their skin tone- watch it burn them up inside and how you just really don't care what they think. You know what you paid for it, that is all that will really ever count in the end.

    Don't call yourself dumb again. You know that isn't true. That is also an insult to the millions of children who will never have the opportunity to even reach your middle school level of education or even graduate high school. Are they less than you, if you think yourself dumb? Don't measure yourself so harshly. You are enough as you stand.

    And really, don't you know, the "aforementioned person" desperately wants to hear you say that about yourself?
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