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Should I pursue medical physics?

  1. Sep 16, 2015 #1
    Hello, new to the forum. I am currently in high school taking a full load of college classes through dual enrollment. I will graduate high school with an Associates of Science degree. I really enjoy math. It has always been my favorite subject. At the moment I am in Calculus 1 and it isn't so bad. It's my favorite class this semester. I am also in a Conceptual Physics class, which you all know, is basic physics. I enjoy that class too although not as much as calculus. To be honest it is a little boring.. I like more numbers and equations. My mother was a radiation therapist and that is how I heard about medical physics. From what I know about the demands of Medical Physics it sounds like a job that I could handle and maybe even enjoy. Although I would like to have a family and not be all about my career which is what Medical Physics sounds like to a certain extent. At least through the school years. Then there is the choice of going ahead and getting my PHD or sticking to my Masters. At this point I don't know much about research and how that works in the Medical Physics field so could someone explain what it takes to be a Medical Physicist that researches vs a Medical Physicist that is strictly clinical? And is there a lot of writing when doing research, like writing scholarly journal type of things for what you are researching on? Or is that a pretty small part of the actual research process. Basically, from the little that I have told you, would Medical Physics be a good fit for me? I like the idea of it a lot. The idea of being able to use math and physics every day and apply that to something in my life. It sounds fun. And from what I understand I would get to work alone a good portion of the time which I will also enjoy, although, I am decent at communication and getting along with people which is also really important. But when it comes to reality I have never actually seen a medical physicist in action. I have seen my mom work at her radiation therapist job and I could work in that same environment I believe.
    I would like your input and an explanation of what it means to be a Medical Physicist, the rewards it gives you, and what it feels like to work at such a job. Meaning do you feel accomplished and successful?

    Also, one last thing, from your experience going through school to be a Medical Physicist, would it be possible that I minor in computer science?

    Thank you! Sorry if this seems scattered and a little strange, I have a cold and it is making my brain a bit foggy and hard to focus on what exactly I'm trying to say.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 16, 2015 #2


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    Welcome to the forums YoungGun!

    Wow. That sounds impressive. Just don't forget to spend some time being a kid. There's no reward for finishing first, but I can certainly understand wanting to challenge yourself.

    I'm a medical physicist. Yes it's a lot of work and there is a lot of uncertainty as you go down that route. Consider: undergrad -> grad school -> residency -> board exams -> job. Between each stage (and even within each stage) there's a check point where you have to qualify for the next. You will likely have to move to a new city for almost every stage too. Time-wise at minimum you're looking at 4 + 2 + 2 years. But in reality a lot of people are well into their thirties before they have a secure job. And even then the hours are long and demanding. I don't have much down time.

    That said, lots of medical physicists have families and hobbies and lives outside of the clinic.

    It's really too early to be worrying about this for someone who is still in high school. Get through undergrad first. I came through the Canadian system where you by default state with a master's degree and then either complete that or jump to a PhD if that's what they want to do. I think this model is fairly common in the US for medical physics as well. There's also the DMP option too.

    The clinical side of medical physics is what pays the bills, and so the majority of medical physics work is clinical in nature. But a lot of medical physicists will supplement their clinical work with some kind of academic responsibilities as well. Particularly those who work in larger centres will have more opportunities for research. The big question is often how much of each. In a larger centre you're more likely to have dedicated research time and/or teach as a part of a graduate or residency or some other kind of program (RT, Rad Onc, dosimetry, etc.) program. In a smaller centre you're more likely to be entirely clinical, although research opportunities are available for those who want them. (Often the determining question is at what point do you want to go home?)

    Writing is a big part of research, in my opinion. Sometimes the amount that you do can depend a lot on the people that you get involved with. Some people contribute more on different aspects of the work, but as a general rule writing is very important. Not only do you need to write papers for academic journals, but it's also important in getting the grant money that you need to conduct the research. Even if you're not involved in research a lot of medical physics can involve writing technical reports, developing procedures, writing up investigations, etc.

    No one can tell you if it's perfect, but it certainly sounds like a career you should explore more. Maybe your mom could help you get a position volunteering in a clinic.

    It's a long and hard road, but for me it's been worth it. Its not for everyone. The hours are long and the job can be very stressful. When a medical physicist makes an error it can have huge implications. But it's rewarding both financially and in that the problems you get to work on have direct and often immediate impact on people.

    Sure. Why not? A lot of medical physics involves computing: Monte Carlo simulations, parallel computing, informatics, neural networks, optimization problems, process automation, deformable image registration, etc.

    You might be interested in this article:
    How to Become a Medical Physicist
  4. Sep 16, 2015 #3
    Thank you for your reply! It has helped me a lot. I definitely don't forget to be a kid! For me personally, taking college classes early helped me not be bored. School isn't my whole life though.

    I know I will ultimately have to make the choice between a Masters and a Phd later down the road if I do choose to pursue this as a career, but I am a plan person. I like to know all of my options well ahead of time and have plan A-D laid out just in case.

    It is actually really encouraging that I can work clinically and do research on the side. They both sound very interesting to me and I think I would enjoy it if I were able to do both with my career.

    I sometimes enjoy writing, quite a bit actually, but other times I hate it. From what it sounds like the writing that is required for Medical Physics is to be preformed in such a way that is logical and a bit persuasive, which is the kind of writing I enjoy. I like to convince people to see things my way through logic so this shouldn't be so bad. However, the reason I am looking into Medical Physics is because I like numbers and being able to explain things with those numbers. So I'm not sure if I will enjoy this aspect of Medical Physics as much at the others, but there is always something that just has to be done whether we like it or not.

    I believe that this road will be worth it if I can keep focused. I know I need a career that is intellectually stimulating and always letting me experience and learn new things. I get bored fairly easily, but with this career I think I could keep my mind active and be happy. The stress however I am not sure about. At this point in my life I am not mature enough to know if I can handle the responsibility that comes with this job or not. It, like the Masters vs Phd debate, is something I will have to decide on later. The thought that if I mess up it affects so many people, is scary. And it should be. Because a respectable amount of fear is what keeps your head straight and double checking yourself so you don't make a mistake. However, this fear is something I need to decide if I can live with for the rest of my working life, or if I need to choose a different career. Definitely a thought I will be keeping in the back of my head.

    If I do choose this as a career then the rewards financially and reward of helping people will definitely help me keep my head up through the long road of achieving such a career. I will have to sacrifice a lot of my time as a young adult to successfully become a well trained Medical Physicist. I believe I am okay with this though. I mean what else would I do with my time..? Party? Work a low income job? Those don't sound fun. I'd rather be furthering my education and one day be making a positive impact on people's lives. That's how I see it now anyway. You said there are Medical Physicist with lives and families outside of the clinic and really this was my only concern with devoting so much time to a career. If I can have a healthy family life and such a beneficial and rewarding career it seems like the light at the end of the tunnel just became a little bit brighter.

    Thank you so much again for helping me. I will still keep my options open as I am still young, but I am a little more positive about a Medical Physics career. It sounds like a very good possibility for me.
  5. Sep 18, 2015 #4
    Your mother is a radiation therapist. Can she put you in contact with the medical physicist at her center so that you might shadow her/him to experience their routine duties?
  6. Sep 18, 2015 #5
    Unfortunately my mother became ill a few years back and can no longer work. She now does not have contact with a Medical Physicist. I would love to shadow one though! I have looked into it some, but haven't found any that I can follow around for a day haha!
  7. Sep 18, 2015 #6
    Your mother may still know the physicist or another therapist who might intercede for you and help establish contact. I have been retired from MP for seven years and still am in contact with my former clinic. Or you could call the chief therapist refer to you mother explain you situation and ask to speak to the physicist. As they say he/she can only say no but I doubt that will happen.
  8. Sep 18, 2015 #7
    She doesn't keep in contact with them anymore. I have talked to her about it. When I have the time I'm planning on making a few calls to local places and see if I can find a Medical Physicist to shadow.
  9. Sep 18, 2015 #8


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    Don't be discouraged if you have a hard time getting in for a job shadow. Often because of issues of patient confidentiality bringing students into the clinic can be a pain.
  10. Sep 18, 2015 #9
    Yes I expect I won't be able to actually shadow a Medical Physicist for this reason, but I think they might allow me to interview them, and maybe they can give me an example of what they do without me being exposed to any aspect of their job that can expose a patient. Maybe they will be kind enough to show me the clinic after the patients are gone or something. I really just need to call around to find out. Thank you all for your help and advice on this! I do appreciate it.
  11. Sep 21, 2015 #10
    Where I work all of the requests for student observation are routed through our department manager and that person organizes confidentiality training and the dates for shadowing. If someone wants to shadow a medical physicist (pretty rare!) the manager will come ask us for a few dates that work for us and then sets the rest up with the student. Call the hospital and ask for the radiation oncology department and then when you are speaking with someone in radiation oncology (probably a receptionist) say that you are a student and ask for the radiation oncology manager or supervisor. That person should be able to help you get something set up.

    If we have large groups of students that want to see the department at the same time those are typically scheduled after-hours, but for one person wanting to shadow a single job we schedule it during the work day.
  12. Sep 21, 2015 #11
    This is very helpful! Thank you:) I will definitely be remembering this when I make my phone calls.
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