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Engineering Engineering, Physics and Medicine

  1. Nov 11, 2012 #1
    Hello Physics Forums, like many in this sub forum I am an incoming undergrad and have no idea what to major in. Throughout high school I was able to determine a love of all the sciences, but math and physics in particular and that whatever my career I wanted to make a difference in the world.

    Because of this love of math and physics I looked toward Engineering, the natural path as many told me, somewhere I could indulge in complex problems and in solving them derive a solution to real world problems. For a while I thought my choice had been made and then one day I suddenly realized I had no idea what engineers do and likely lacked one of the fundamental characteristics to engineering, a curiosity in how things are made (please explain engineering further to me if you can, I am always looking for new options).

    So I searched the career compendium sites for a new pursuit and happened upon medical physics. This seemed like the perfect option, a career where I could study physics and math and then end up in a medicine setting where I could help people with my knowledge. This seemed like a great choice until I started doing research on it too. Through lurking on this forum and others I read a plethora of information, I read that the career outlook isn't nearly so bright as universities would advertise, that in a hospital setting the profession is often not even recognized by MD's and higher up staff, discouraged from this route I continued looking for more options.

    The thing that most bothered me about Medical Physics was that these employees were not recognized as valuable by the so-called "real" runners of a hospital, the MDs, I don't want people to think of me as a lowly technician. So I looked to a career perhaps further embedded in Medicine that was similar to Medical Physics and happened upon Radiology. I have no problem with dedicating 10+ years to my schooling (as Medical Physics would require anyway!), so this profession wherein an MD is needed seems ideal. You get to work with the imaging technology present in Medical Physics as a highly respected individual and saving lives is a day-to-day occurrence. My only problem with it is thinking how far I have fallen from my passions. There is little to no math or physics at this point and the profession is largely associated with biology, probably my least favourite of the sciences.

    Now I look to you PF, if you have read my entire story here [kudos!], do you have any guidance for me? If someone can clarify aspects of any of the mentioned careers or wants to add something go right ahead, I'm all ears.


    In summation:
    -Passion for math and physics
    -Would love a career in medicine

    **Since it may help, I am a Canadian student and would definitely like to stay here, preferably in the prairie provinces.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 11, 2012 #2


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    Hi there, and welcome to PhysicsForums! You had stated that you have a passion for math and physics and a desire for a career in medicine, but was uncertain whether you had the characteristics necessary to go into engineering (i.e. how stuff are made). I personally think you shouldn't dismiss engineering right away, since most engineers don't necessarily "make stuff" per se. Engineering involves the application of science to solve real-world problems, e.g. for electrical engineers it could involve problems involving circuits, for mechanical engineers it could any sort of machine. Given the complexity of the various technological problems out there, an engineering degree would open up a very wide variety of career fields, including those of an interdisciplinary nature.

    Why not consider a degree like biomedical engineering? Or since you're Canadian, why not apply to a school like the University of Waterloo with an interdisciplinary engineering program like Systems Design Engineering:


    Depending on which school you are going, there may be other interdisciplinary engineering programs available to you, so I would check those out as well.

    Now if you decide that an engineering degree isn't for you, then perhaps a physics undergraduate degree may be good for you to start off with. While a physics degree doesn't in itself prepare you for a specific career, an undergraduate degree is often good preparation for graduate programs in a variety of different programs (e.g. physics itself, engineering, medicine, computer science, math, operations research, etc.)
  4. Nov 12, 2012 #3

    There are several medical physicists who post on this forum and you can find several threads discussing the field by using the search function.

    Concern over career outlook is a recurring theme in the discussion of medical physics, but I would argue that it is not as bleak as you might believe. You are at least 4 years away from enrolling in a medical physics graduate program, and at least 8 years away from searching for a job (minimum 2 years of graduate school + 2 years of residency training, assuming you want to be a clinical physicist). The current bottleneck appears to be in the transition from graduate school into a clinical residency, but with new residencies opening every year this should become less of an issue. Residency graduates enter the job search with 2-years of clinical experience and eligibility for board certification, and someone with those credentials is a lot more hireable than someone straight out of graduate school looking for a full-time position with little to no clinical experience.

    And of course trying to extrapolate the current hiring climate to almost a decade in the future is questionable.

    I would like to make some comments about your second point regarding professional status but before I do, would you consider yourself to be more interested in the physics of medical imaging or the physics of radiotherapy? If the latter, I can discuss my view of our professional status within the field of radiation oncology. If you are more interested in medical imaging then I will refrain because I know less about that specialty.
  5. Nov 12, 2012 #4
    Thanks for the replies so far guys, they have given me a lot to think about.
    I am more and more considering a physics undergrad degree just for the options I have in terms of med and grad school.

    Eric, both interest me maybe medical imaging a little more so, but I would love to hear your thoughts regardless.
  6. Nov 12, 2012 #5
    Well, here are some of my thoughts from the perspective of a radiation oncology medical physicist, then.

    You won't have the status of a physician, but few occupations do (physicians are consistently ranked as the most trusted and respected profession in America).

    Radiation oncologists tend to be very appreciative of all of their support staff. They recognize that a patient can't get treated without a simulation therapist to collect needed patient anatomical information, a medical dosimetrist to plan the patient treatment, a radiation therapist to deliver the treatment, and a medical physicist to ensure the accuracy of the system as a whole.

    A physician who does not recognize the contributions of their medical physicist colleagues probably do not appreciate their other support staff, either. It would be an issue with the physician and not the field of medical physics. I would not allow the self-centered attitude of a small subset of physicians to dictate your career choice.

    However, you also have to understand that respect and recognition are things to be earned and not to be given freely because of the degree you hold. There are certainly some medical physicists who choose to spend their time locked away in their office during the day and performing all of their work behind the scenes. The impression that others might have of such a physicist is not necessarily a glowingly positive one, simply because the responsibilities of the medical physicist are not all highly visible to other staff. Onlookers might wonder why this person is getting paid so much to sit in their office and presumably surf the web all day.

    An alternative approach is to be as directly involved in all aspects of clinical radiation oncology as possible. You earn the respect of your medical dosimetry colleagues by being available to assist them in generating treatment plans when the workload gets high or when special cases come through. You earn the respect of the therapists by being available to discuss patient setup and answer questions, or even to help directly with patient positioning. You earn the respect of your radiation oncologists when you are able to present them with needed technical guidance and advice for treating patients, or when you respectfully question their decisions and respectfully offer alternative suggestions. If your input is clinically sound and helps them more effectively treat their patients, you will earn their respect and they will seek your input on a regular basis.

    In all cases, you have to be able to effectively communicate with everyone. Treat everyone like the professionals that they are, consider their questions and suggestions carefully and provide thoughtful feedback to them. Don't be dismissive of other's ideas or suggestions and never give the impression that you are talking down to them in any way. I think this is a way that some physicists can lose the respect of their colleagues. Medical physics is a somewhat opaque field even to our closest colleagues, so when they are curious about what we do (and they often are) it benefits you to take seriously the opportunity to help them learn and provide thoughtful instruction instead of dismissing their questions or providing obviously superficial explanations.

    Finally, you have to appreciate the opportunities that medical physicists have for "professional status" within the field of science and medicine. Academic medical physicists can become professors and teach graduate level courses and produce meaningful research in peer-reviewed scientific and medical journals while directly helping patients through their clinical work in radiotherapy. It can be a very rewarding combination to the right type of person. Hardly anyone would hear those qualifications and think of you as a "lowly technician".

    If you have familiarized yourself with what medical physicists do and think it sounds like a good fit for you, then I would suggest that you not be discouraged by the present state of job availability or by someone's opinion of the status associated with the profession. You have quite a lot of time before you have to make any decisions about post-undergraduate direction. Take the opportunity to job shadow some medical physicists or visit CAMPEP-accredited medical physics graduate programs (if convenient).

    And you can always ask any specific questions you have here on the forums and someone will address them.
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