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Medical Physics: Career advice for new M.Sc. student

  1. Nov 4, 2013 #1

    I've recently started my M.Sc. in medical physics at a CAMPEP-accredited Canadian institution. I am surprised to learn so quickly how difficult the career path is in medical physics. While so far I love the field, after hearing how thin the job market is ( in Canada anyway) I'm a little concerned about bringing home the bacon in the future.

    From those in the field, I would be grateful for advice on career options for someone who would prefer not to pursue a PhD. Ideally, I would like to get into a residency program without the PhD, which I hear really isn't necessary. However, I've heard how competitive this is. I could sum up my concerns in 3 questions:

    1) Are there any jobs I can get with only an M.Sc. degree? (No residency)
    2) Could anyone provide advice for someone who will attempt to get into a residency program with only a Master's degree? Does the graduate GPA matter? Is external funding attainable for a residency so a prospective department won't have to pay me (I'm Canadian)?
    3) Is it easier to enter a residency program or find employment abroad (USA, Europe, elsewhere)?

    Any input would be really appreciated.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 4, 2013 #2


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    The majority of students in medical physics these days do tend to stick around for a PhD, but I strongly suspect that many of them are complacent to do that because there aren't as many options for MSc graduates. I can certainly understand that a PhD is not everyone's cup of tea.

    Yes, but they aren't that numerous. Generally speaking, if your goal is to work as a medical physicist in Canada, you need membership with the CCPM (or to have passed your Peer Review if you happen to be in Ontario), and for that you need a residency and for that, it's looking more and more like you need a PhD. I suspect you already know that though.

    For options that don't involve a residency, see post #5 in this thread:

    In general, I don't think the outlook is all that bleak, but you do have to be flexible.

    I think one big thing is that you have to be willing to travel. People seem to like the big cities, but there are sometimes opportunities in smaller centres where MSc grads are considered. GPA matters, but not as much as references. No one is going to hire a 4.0 over a 3.8 if the 4.0 is a troglodyte.

    This external funding thing is often one of the reasons why PhDs are preferred candidates. Residencies are often set up as a kind of mutual benefit scenario where the resident is trained clinically in exchange for driving a research project forward. So potentially yes, there is external funding to apply for, but (a) you more or less have to have a PhD to do it, and (b) no one is going to set up a residency for you if one doesn't already exist.

    For a long time the mantra in Canadian schools was that if you couldn't find work in Canada you could always go to the US, but unfortunately the economic situation in the US has put the brakes on that for a few years now. Some people have go to Australia or New Zealand for residency or junior physics positions, but it seems like they're building up their academic programs down under as well.
  4. Nov 5, 2013 #3
    Choppy, thanks so much for your lengthy reply. It definitely really helps.

    Now, say I pull off the miracle and get into a residency with only a masters degree - is it smooth sailing from there? As in, will it be relatively easy to be hired somewhere upon completing the residency?
  5. Nov 5, 2013 #4


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    Well, you have to get through the residency and pass your certification exams, which are not trivial. Assuming you get your certification though, everyone I know who has done that with an MSc has been able to find work as a medical physicist. Admittedly we're talking a sample size of ~ 3-4 over the last few years. And they may not have gotten their first choice of work location, but it did work out well for all of them.

    Once you have your certification though, MSc medical physicists can, in some ways, be very attractive candidates for positions for several reasons.

    For one, you tend to be seen as more of a "clinical workhorse" (in a good way). What I mean by that is that the clinical workload in a typical cancer centre for a medical physicist is unending. The story of that Greek tragedy about the guy who had to keep rolling a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down, repeated for eternity, comes to mind... with the consequence that if you don't get that boulder up the hill, you're jeopardizing the safety of patients. PhDs can be "distracted" from this clinical workload by research projects. MScs can be too, of course, but with a PhD it's generally assumed that you have more interest in research or academics and, while important, that takes away from the share of the clinical workload that you shoulder. For this reason, smaller centers without large research aspirations (particularly in the US) tend to prefer MSc physicists.

    Building on that, the MSc candidate may be perceived as more willing to take on larger clinical projects (you know, since they have all that spare time on their hands from not doing research). So you may end up as the guy who takes on the commissioning of new accelerators, or become the primary administrator on all the medical device software, or be more willing to take on the role of radiation safety officer, etc.

    On top of that, there's pay. MSc holders are perceived as willing to work for less. It's not a lot less of course, but in some places that can be factor in terms of hiring.

    I guess, to summarize - once you're a qualified medical physicist, you're a qualified medical physicist, whether you have a PhD or and MSc (or a DMP). There will be some places that will be more interested in you and some that are less interested regardless of your qualifications.
  6. Feb 22, 2014 #5
    You got it correct. There are not many jobs in canada in medical physics. Choppy and even university websites overstate the need on medical physicists in canada. It is actually a difficult picture as you mentioned.

    Another discussion between me and choppy is here. Data talks, not statements.
  7. Mar 6, 2014 #6
    Thanks again Choppy for taking the time to give a thorough answer. I have a few more questions for you (or anyone else who has answers).

    The further into my degree I'm getting, the more I'm considering putting the PhD on hold. Not because I haven't been enjoying research (I have), but having student loans looming over me right now is an uncomfortable feeling and another 4-5 years going for a PhD would be a little too worrisome. If I could work somewhere (and by somewhere I mean literally anywhere in the world) within the field for a couple years to tackle those student loans, I would be much more interested in going for the PhD later on.

    We've discussed the possibility that M.Sc's can get into residencies, but I've heard that right now in certain provinces it's possible to find work without a residency - is this true? Because I've also heard that in other provinces (Ontario) a PhD is required to be a medical physicist! If you can work in certain provinces/states/countries w/o a residency and only a masters, do you know which ones? I'd work in Antarctica if they were hiring and I couldn't get into a residency.

    Secondly, it's come to my attention that I have no idea what to expect as a starting salary (with a masters or masters + residency). It's not the most important thing to me, but having an idea would be helpful. The information I googled long ago appears to be for American jobs, which seem to be much higher. What kind of range can one expect in Canada? If a residency can pay as much as ~60K in Alberta and only ~35K in Quebec, I'm expecting a bit of a discrepancy across the country in terms of actual employment salary. Are you knowledgeable of ballpark estimates, or know a good source to find them?

  8. Mar 6, 2014 #7


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    The "requirement" is not a legal one. It's more of a consequence of the times. There are a lot of PhDs in medical physics competing for positions and in Canada most centres are somewhat more academically oriented than is typically the case in the US. So PhDs tend to be hired over MScs. As to the residency it's more or less the same issue. You are not legally requried to have certification through membership with the CCPM, but when a position opens up, there usually enough people who have that, that they all move to the front of the line.

    As I've pointed out above (see the link), there are options for an MSc graduate who doesn't want to or can't continue to a PhD. In some cases they do get residencies. But sometimes they go and get work in the industry doing research and development, techinical support, technical sales, teaching and training, etc.

    The best sources of information on these are the COMP and AAPM salary surveys, which are available to student members. Median salaries vary by experience, education level and certification level, and yes, geography (note of course that cost of living is not accounted for).
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