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Physics Medical Physics advice (job outlook, working abroad, etc)

  1. Jan 24, 2015 #1
    I'd like to start by thanking everyone on this forum. I came here back in 2010 looking for advice on whether or not I should pursue a degree in physics as a mature student. I'm now 27 and only a few months away from graduating and can honestly say it was the best decision of my life. The encouragement and academic guidance I've received from this community over the years has been invaluable, so thank you.

    Medical physics is a field I've asked about before. I've since then taken a class on the subject so I feel even more confident that it's something I'd like to do. I have a few questions for anyone who works in this field or knows a bit about it.

    1) I live in the UK. As far as I can tell, the only training programme for becoming a medical physicist in the UK is the NHS Scientist Training Programme, but they only accept a handful of students each year. Is that really the only entry route? If I only posses an undergraduate physics degree, is there no other way for me to become a medical physicist?

    2) Is it possible for me enter a training programme in another country with only a physics degree? If so, can you please give me some examples of where to look?

    3) I'm considering an IPEM (The Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine) accredited masters degree in medical physics. Would that significantly increase my chances of employment? What about a PhD?

    4) If I live in the UK and become a medical physicist registered with IPEM, how likely would it be that I'd be able to find employment abroad? How would my IPEM accreditation compare with the official accreditation from governing bodies in other countries like USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia? Are they roughly viewed as equal?

    5) To those in the field - would you still recommend this career? Or is it next to impossible to find employment?

    I appreciate any help or advice. Medical physics seems an interesting and rewarding career, but ideally I don't want to be 'stuck' in the UK.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 24, 2015 #2


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    Hi Artofmotion,

    I'm a Canadian medical physicist, so unfortunately I can't offer too much by way of UK-specific information. In answer to your second question, I can tell you that you can get into North American graduate programs with an undergraduate degree in physics. They are competitive to get into as well, but that might expand your options.

    To the extent that the IPEM functions in an equivalent certification role to the CCPM and ABR, yes, certification will likely make a big difference in employment prospects. On this side of the pond, nearly all positions are expecting board certification these days. The few that don't are saturated with applicants who don't have it. It's difficult to say whether the PhD will make a big difference for you. In North America, the situation is complicated. Here the bottleneck is a residency that takes place after graduate school and anecdotally PhDs tend to be preferred for residency positions. Afterwards though, the PhD may or may not help in gaining full time, permanent employment, because the smaller centres often don't want to pay someone for the higher credential and "lose" clinical work time to research. One thing I suggest you do is get in touch with a medical physicist in your area - perhaps see if you could do a job shadow (although sometimes that can be complicated in a hospital setting for reasons of patient confidentiality).

    My understanding is that the IPEM certification is generally accepted on par with the certification from other boards. There are some cases where it's not - some US states have very specific licensure requirements. But generally speaking, most places will accepted it as equivalent to ABR or CCPM certification.

    In response to your last - I would recommend a career in medical physics if you're the right type of person for it. You have to be able to handle some stress. It's competitive to get in and you have a lot of responsibility riding on your shoulders. When a physician screws up, it affects one patient. When a medical physicist screws up, it's a major incident affecting potentially large cohorts of patients. You also have to be a bit of a workaholic. I never leave the office at quitting time. It also helps to be good at communicating. I don't mean just having decent speaking and writing skills. As a medical physicist you're often a link between physicians, technicians, radiation therapists, administrators, managers, IT, nurses, etc.

    That said I think the growth in the field is expected to about 4% per year and fairly steady. This is because people are living longer and the longer you live, the greater your risk for developing cancer. Barring any miracle cure for cancer, the growth is about as predicable as any industry is going to get. In North America the existing graduate programs are training approximately the number of new medical physicists that are needed per year, but the main issue is the residency bottleneck which a lot of current students are facing. I expect that will largely be resolved over the next five to ten years though.
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