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Physics Question about Physics Careers

  1. Dec 12, 2016 #1
    Hello, I am an undergrad student not currently studying physics (doing pre-med atm), but considering either switching programs, or, if possible applying for the MSTP MD/PhD program. An area that I'm interested in on the physics side is Medical Physics.

    I have several questions about this path and was wondering if you could answer them?

    1.
    Would you say it is normal for Physics majors to switch over to Med School incase they either didn't get accepted into the MSTP, or if they later on decided not to pursue an advanced degree in physics?

    2. What are the job prospects for medical physics degrees? If you do work in medical physics, would you say that employment in that area is fairly high? And if possible could you give an example of a typical day at the job?

    3. Would you even recommend pursuing a degree in physics? I know this is a very subjective question, but whenever I look up something like this I always get mixed responses. On one hand I hear stories about PhDs not getting tenure, or a position in a research facility, and are instead stuck doing some low-paying job with little relevance to their field of study, but on the other hand, I hear stories expressing the joy of being part of the advancement of modern physics knowledge. What's your take on this?

    I know these are probably questions I should be asking to profs in the faculty, which I have, but I sometimes forget to ask all the questions I wanted to ask.

    Thanks in advance.
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 13, 2016 #2

    Choppy

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    That's a lot of questions. For a general overview of medical physics check out this Insights Post: https://www.physicsforums.com/insights/become-medical-physicist-3653-easy-steps/.

    1. I don't know what MSTP is. It's not uncommon for physics majors to apply to medical school. Anecdotally I understand they tend to do better than average on the MCAT. But I wouldn't say that medical school is a common backup for those who don't get in to graduate school. Medical school admissions are extremely competitive - so much so that it pretty much has to be the "plan A" for those who are successful.
    2. Employment prospects in medical physics are very good relative to other academic branches of physics because it's a professional field. You have profession-specific employment options outside of academia. An MSc in medical physics is not a meal ticket though. Currently across North America there are approximately half the number of residencies as there are students admitted to graduate medical physics programs. There are other options for graduates that don't get residencies: post-doctoral or other research positions, junior medical physics positions where board certification is not required, physics assistant positions, positions with companies that have radiation therapy or medical imaging products, radiation safety or health physics positions, etc. Most graduates tend to do something related to the field, but you have to be flexible. It's difficult to tie yourself down to a specific geographic location.
      I can respond to a "day in the life" later.
    3. It's not for everyone, but in context, I think a degree in physics provides more options once outside of school than a "pre-med" degree.
     
  4. Dec 13, 2016 #3
    Thanks for the response. I am seriously considering applying for the physics program. I don't see many downsides to it: I can still apply to med school after graduation if I want, and a major in Physics does seem like a more useful degree than the pre-med degree.

    I've been reading posts by other people who say they either know the field, or actually work in them, and I've heard the most popular area is radiation oncology?

    I'm just wondering about the health risks associated with such a field. Is there some level of radiation exposure medical physicists go through during the course of their work?
     
  5. Dec 17, 2016 #4

    Choppy

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    Yes, radiation oncology tends to be the largest sub-discipline. About 80% of the AAPM membership was in the rad onc speciality last I checked. There have been efforts to expand the other sub-disciplines. Certainly healthcare would be better off for it. But for the time being therapy is the biggest house on the block.

    Typical exposures for medical physicists are minimal. You do become a nuclear energy worker (sorry if I'm using Canadian terminology) and this does depend on your employer. Basically that means that your legal radiation exposure limit is higher than that allowed for members of the general public. That said, facilities are and processes are specifically designed to keep occupational exposures as low as reasonably achievable, social and economic factors considered.

    For ballpark numbers - background radiation exposure in most places results in effective doses of about 2-3 mSv. Members of the public are limited to 1 mSv per calendar year. Nuclear energy workers can receive up to 100 mSv over a five year period or 50 mSv in any given year. In healthcare facilities, effective doses to medical physicists are generally less than 0.1 mSv per year. The increased risk for cancer induction is roughly 4% per Sv (not mSv).

    In a nutshell, the most dangerous thing I do every day is drive or bike to work.

    That's a hard one to answer in great detail because my days can vary considerably, and I think that there is a fairly broad spectrum of experience across the profession. Although my own job is primarily clinical, I have an academic appointment with a nearby university and so I also run a research program and teach/supervise graduate students.

    The clinical work is taxing, but engaging. At it's core there's a lot of quality management work. This means running a quality control program on linear accelerators to ensure that they're producing radiation in a manner consistent with your treatment planning system, and the all of the machine's subsystems are operating within tolerance (and fixing them [usually with the help of specialists] when they're not). There's a lot of repeated measurements. We also run quality control on the treatment planning process - reviewing radiotherapy treatment plans, making sure that the treatment planning system is operating properly and consistently, managing system upgrades, etc. In some clinics, physicists will do the planning too. In others, they act in more of a consulting role, offering input and guidance on problematic planning situations. Another big part of the workload is commissioning new equipment and establishing new procedures. Many physicists also double as radiation safety officers, running an occupational exposure monitoring program and ensuring all licence conditions are met. On top of that you often end up doing a lot of clinical problem solving.

    Then there's the administrative side of things. Because medical physicists tend to speak a lot of different "languages" (i.e. physics, medicine, electronics, IT, academics, radiation safety legalese, management, etc.), we tend to end up on a lot of different committees.
     
  6. Dec 17, 2016 #5
    Thanks for the responses, they've helped a lot. I have another question though, regarding research done in this field. Would you say the medical physics field is research-intensive like astrophysics is? Or is it more of a professional field and less about research?
     
  7. Dec 17, 2016 #6

    Choppy

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    Compared to astrophysics it's a lot more of a professional field. The majority of astrophysics work is done in academia. The majority of medical physics is done outside of academia - mostly in the healthcare setting. A lot can depend on the position that you end up in and, to an extent, your preferences. The lion's share of medical physics positions are predominantly clinical or entirely clinical in nature. That means that you don't always have "dedicated" research time. My own experience (in the Canadian system) is that even in predominantly clinical positions, you can do as much research as you want to, provided you keep the clinic running. You're somewhat enabled in that you'll have access to journals and equipment. The limiting factor tends to be how late you want to stay after the clinic is done.
     
  8. Dec 17, 2016 #7

    ZapperZ

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    There are strict OSHA standards, regulations, and protocols for such professionals. If your employer follows the rules, you will not have any measurable exposure beyond what the normal population gets.

    Zz.
     
  9. Dec 28, 2016 #8

    marcusl

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    You don't mention what year you are in. Keep in mind that a physics program is intense and builds on a string of prerequisites of increasing complexity. Your ability to successfully switch majors will, in part, depend on how many years you have available.
     
  10. Dec 28, 2016 #9
    First year. I guess that makes the situation a bit better?
     
  11. Dec 29, 2016 #10

    marcusl

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    Yes, you have time to switch and complete a new major.
     
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