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Physics Some doubts about medical physics

  1. Sep 29, 2009 #1
    I've been seriously considering going to grad school for medical physics for past couple of months. During that time, I've read some posts on the internet and visited the medical physics department at a local hospital a number of times. Based on my admittedly limited experience, I've found the day-to-day routine of the clinical medical physicist to be rather mundane and uninteresting (quality assurance, dealing with federal regulations, etc.). I can understand that every job has boring aspects, but I was hoping clinical medical physics would have a little more medicine and/or physics in it! So I thought maybe research in medical physics would be interesting (neuroimaging and cog. science appeals to me), but from what I've read on the internet the CAMPEP-accredited schools are primarily concerned with training clinical medical physicists (please correct me if I'm wrong). So I'm having doubts about applying to a medical physics program, and maybe I would be better off doing something else?

    Basically I'm seeking assurance that there is fun and interesting research going on in medical physics and it is not unreasonably difficult to get involved in such projects (or assurance that clinical duties aren't actually as boring as they seem to be). Thanks in advance!
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 29, 2009 #2


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    The thing about medical physics is that it's both a profession and an academic discipline.

    The didactic courses in the accredited programs generally focus on preparing the student for the professional aspects of the field which include treatment planning, calibration and measurement, quality assurance, radiation protection regulations... a lot of the mundane stuff that physicists are responsible for in the context of their clinical duties. That ends up being a significant chunk of the professional side of the job and in order to satisfy CAMPEP requirements, graduate schools must ensure that they are producing students that can perform those tasks.

    To an extent what the schools are doing these days, is producing MSc programs that cover all the didactic stuff. The question you're asking, and you're not alone, is what about the academic discipline?

    What tends to get burried, I think, is that that routine stuff is not what the medical physics profession is really about. A lot of the routine stuff in the end is actually performed by radiation therapists, medical dosimetrists, and physics technicians and/or graduate students under the supervision of medical physicists. What we get paid the big bucks for, is our ability to problem solve. When problems come up in the clinic and everyone else has done the IT-problem-equivalent of 'jiggling the cord' they turn to the physicist. I've listed in multiple other threads the kinds of problems that I encounter in my job. I can't tell you that you'll find them interesting, but I do.

    Of course, you're asking about research. There is a lot of fascinating research going on in medical physics and it involves a lot of physics, medicine, engineering and other sciences. To start, I would suggest you browse through the journals "Medical Physics" and "Physics in Medicine and Biology" to get a feel for the research that medical physicists do. Then speak with potential supervisors at the schools you want to apply to and ask about the projects they have in mind, or if they're open to some ideas that you have.
  4. Sep 30, 2009 #3
    I can't say too much about research in the hospital setting. But I'd guess that you'd want to try for one of the bigger research hospitals to find more cutting edge research. Hospitals are (I'm guessing) where a lot of research is done on 'protocols'.

    On the other hand, an alternative you might look into is research at some of the equipment manufacturers. Philips, GE, Siemens, Toshiba, Varian..... That is where a lot of research is being done in (how to generate) power, radiation, software algorithms, dosing, etc. Right now, in my work, we are working on (imaging) ways to get the most resolution from CT xray sources with limiting dosage and getting the best diagnostics for doctors. There is also research in oncology, mri (research in this field is very interesting), etc. Not sure if this interests you though.

    I would say you have three ultimate choices

    1) find an academic research program that you can go through, maybe get a PhD, post doc, etc. and stay in academic research (I have no idea about this route)

    2) hospital research (see Choppy)

    3) industrial research

    Good luck.
  5. Sep 30, 2009 #4
    That's a good point. Also we should note that wherever there is a private sector, there are a variety of jobs. Management, sales, research, quality control, legal, etc. Some of those are actually more interesting than they sound.

    On a side note - Vector Joe, it sounds like you are located in the US, is that correct?

    Choppy, where are you located? For some reason I thought it was the UK, but I could be making that up.
  6. Sep 30, 2009 #5


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    I'm in Canada. Feel free to PM me if you want anything more specific.
  7. Sep 30, 2009 #6
    US, Illinois specifically.
  8. Sep 30, 2009 #7
    Thanks for all the replies. I have a few more questions:

    For research jobs in academia, hospital, or industry, is it necessary to become a board-certified medical physicist? Or even go to a CAMPEP-accredited program?

    Also, I'm pretty sure that I would like diagnostic imaging more than radiation therapy, but all the medical physicists I've met with were radiation therapy specialists. So, could anyone enlighten me as to what diagnostic imaging specialists do in clinical setting?
  9. Sep 30, 2009 #8
    As a present graduate student of medical physics I have recently seen both sides of the fence. If you have any doubts I urge you to sit in on actual medical physics classes. I did not do this and I think it would have changed my mind (from positive to negative) about the field. Medical physics involves little medicine and little physics.

    For instance, Vector Joe says he's working on CT dose reduction. Now, the physics of CT is well-known and has been down for a long time, so he's certainly not doing any *physics* research. What he is likely doing, and correct me if I'm wrong, is looking for a better way to reconstruct a CT image that is made using fewer photons. In CT reconstruction there is a lot of math involved -- the kind of math you'd learn as an engineer, but not as a physicist. There are concerns over SNR, resolution, types of algorithms (iterative vs. analytic), etc. There is much work to be done in all of these topics, but you're not going to learn any novel physics along the way. So if you love physics above all else you should reconsider the field.

    It is good that you have experienced clinical medical physics firsthand. There is little I could tell you that you probably haven't already experienced yourself in regards to that so let me tell you a bit more about the research that's going on in medical physics. There is a lot of interest in CT reconstruction, as I mentioned above, and this is mostly because CT brings in a lot of money to hospitals. Increasing CT throughput and reducing dose are very important because it's used so much. There is a lot of research going on in MRI, and in that field you do need to know a bit of physics. It seems to me that a lot of the interest is in developing pulse sequences to image various aspects of anatomy and physiology ("molecular imaging" is the new research buzzword). There is some research into new types of ultrasound and better reconstruction techniques. The field I used to think was the most interesting, radiation oncology, I now think is the most boring. This is largely because the research in this field can be summarized by saying that the radiation oncologist makes a lot of mundane phantom measurements or sits at a console running Monte Carlo simulations. I won't say that there isn't interesting research going on because there is; what I will say is that it is definitely NOT physics research.
  10. Sep 30, 2009 #9
    The few (and there are VERY few) clinical medical physicists I've spoken to in diagnostic imaging do things like machine calibrations and QA on clinical equipment. Even then, they only spent about 20-40% of their time doing that with the rest spent on pure research.
  11. Sep 30, 2009 #10
    So just a bit more clarification, you would probably call what I do 'engineering physics', not sure. I'm not on the CT system side, so I work with people who do the reconstruction sometimes, but not my job. I'm actually on the tube side (cathodes primarily), so we deal with a system of cathode, anode, electrons, sometimes plasma, high voltage, static and dynamic magnetic fields, and the generation of xray photons, etc. One of my primary duties are modeling and designing electron beams (and space charge) from cathodes. Some of what we are doing research on is how to quickly (microsecond scale) modulate photons from the xray tube. We also do a lot of testing in the lab with how to manipulate the e beam to get different effects. You just have to remember that this is industrial research and development, not academic research.

    On the other end of the tubes, we have guys working on thermal (a loooot of heat), stress (a lot of spinning of heavy objects) and other mechanical issues.

    qball is absolutely correct on the CT systems side though. A lot, most of that is electrical engineering and computer science.

    MRI is cool if you like looking at magnets, focusing and containing magnetic fields, super conducting magnets, etc.
  12. Sep 30, 2009 #11


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    If you want to go into pure academia or industry then board certification is not required. (In fact for a lot of clinical positions, board certification isn't mandated. You're just a lot more competative if you have it.)

    In academic positions you would have more freedom with respect to research. With a clinical position, it can be hard finding time to do any research. Of course the pay is correlated with clinical duties and certification. I might also add that clinical experience is a tremendous advantage in defining research directions.

    As for diagnostic imaging specialists - my experience (I'm a radiation oncology physics specialist) is that they end up doing a lot of QA work supporting equipment in "regular" hospitals.
  13. Sep 30, 2009 #12
    How does the salary of a research medical physicist compare to that of clinical medical physicist? Compared to other physicists?
  14. Oct 1, 2009 #13


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    Doing strictly research generally means that you have an academic position. In these cases you're usually getting paid on par with a physicist in any other discipline. With a clinical position the salary increases considerably. Eactly how much is a complicated matter as pay varies by region, experience, credentials and an individual's ability to negotiate. If you're looking for ballpark numbers, I would say that with the same amout of time in, clinical physicists will make about 1.5 x the medial salary of their academic counterparts... maybe. Some full professors in well-funded institutions do quite well. Some clinical physicists are at the mercy of a health-care system that worries about cost of treatment.

    Of course, with the increased salary comes increased responsibility. Academic physicists don't get sued very often when an experiment doesn't work.
  15. Oct 1, 2009 #14
    I see. I guess that would mean research medical physicists would also have to seek tenure, just like other physicists.

    I really am interested in MRI research though. Does anybody know of schools that has active MRI research groups? I know UWisc for one has such a group, but I couldn't figure out how to go on about looking for other ones. Also, I'm starting to wonder if biomedical engineering would be worth looking into. Is it unheard of for students with physics BS to go for masters or Ph.D. in biomed. engineering?
  16. Oct 2, 2009 #15


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    Just to be clear, physicists with clinical duties do reasearch - or at least the opportunity is there. At both institutions I've worked at, it's been expected that I maintain a research program.

    It is getting more popular these days for medical physicists to work in smaller centres, either by themselves or with one or two other colleagues. In such situations, there is often less opportunity for research than in larger centres, and there are some medical physicists who at happy to keep their heads down and concern themselves only with clinical duties.

    As for your particular interests Elante, MRI physics is considered a seperate specialty from diagnostic imaging (at least in Canada - I assume the same is true in the US). The MRI medical physicists that I know are involved in some very interesting research: MR spectroscopy, MR-based treatment planning, image fusion, MRI-guided radiation therapy, motion tracking, tracking biological responses to radiation... and that's just the radiation oncology-related stuff.

    As for BME, I know one guy who did his undergraduate degree in physics and a master's degree in BME. Depending on the program, BME is generally a better way to get into the MRI specialization. You'll have to check out the particular schools for the entrance requirements though.
  17. Oct 6, 2009 #16
    Here's one; I don't know if it is what you are looking for...I had 2 classes from him as an undergrad.

  18. Oct 9, 2009 #17
    The reason I asked where people were located is because of the possibility that the experience of being a medical physicist - which has been discussed in several threads, including this one - may vary by country.

    Does anyone have a feel for how much it varies?
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