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What do you think From MD to Physicist?

  1. Feb 8, 2009 #1
    So here's the deal...

    I'm in medical school and am planning on doing a residency in Radiation Oncology... Is it possible to segue into a career in Physics later on in life? Say once you are in your forties?

    I saw somewhere else on this forum that most theoretical physicists were under the age of 30 or something like that... I am finding that I am more interested in the physics aspect of science than the medical. Radiation oncology has the most physics in it of all the medical fields (thus the reason I am heading towards that), but I was just curious to see what you guys thought about heading towards physics after practicing as a radiation oncologist for a while.

  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 8, 2009 #2
    Interesting question, because I'm in graduate school to be an astrophysicist, and I've been toying with the idea of going to medical school sometime in the future. I don't feel qualified to fully answer your question, but I will say that I've seen many people in grad school who've started later in life. Back in undergrad I had a TA who as in her early forties. One of the first years in my department did time in the Navy before starting. And one of the graduating grad students was a high school teacher for several years before starting his PhD. So I guess it's possible.

    Anyway, sorry I can't be more informative, but I hope this is helpful.
  4. Feb 8, 2009 #3
    Well if you have any questions about medical school, or the process of applying feel free to PM me. And it is helpful just to know that you've seen people who were older doing it.

    If anybody else has some thoughts on the original question that would be awesome! Thanks!
  5. Feb 8, 2009 #4


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    You've got quite the road ahead of you if you want to be a radiation oncologist. The residency is 5 years (or at least it is where I work). After that long + years of working in the field it might be difficult to give up that lifestyle to become a student (not impossible, but difficult).

    Was your undergraduate work in physics? Most grad schools won't accept an undergraduate medical degree as sufficient for admission to graduate studies. So unless you have the appropriate background, you'll have to start with a good grounding in undergraduate physics.

    That being said, RO's (after their residency) don't have the same professional demands as other physicians, from what I understand. So another option would be to pursue physics on a part-time basis.

    Also, RO's are often intimately involved with medical physics research, so when you're looking for a hospital to practice in, you may want to keep in mind one that has a strong medical physics research group. Personally, I think its great when ROs are on board with the research we do at my institution. (I should probably mention that I'm a medical physics resident).
  6. Feb 8, 2009 #5
    Thats great! Thanks, yea there is definitely a long road ahead... But you get to a certain point and for financial reasons you really have no choice but to finish it out and become a doctor if for no other reason so you can pay off the massive student loans ya know? Yea, the residency is 5 years...

    My current plan is to try and get into a physics heavy RO program, hopefully at an academic institution so that I can take graduate physics courses for free and then at some point kind of segue into physics. Some of the RO's I know practice medicine a couple days a week and then do research a few days a week so maybe I could practice a couple days and then work on a physics PhD a few days a week or something like that.

    The two big careers I've ever wanted are a physician and a physicist, and I figured it would be best to start with the physician since it is so hard to get into medical school. I guess I was just hoping to hear whether it would be too old to really dive into theoretical physics in your forties... Sounds like its not.

    As a medical physicist resident I'd love to hear your opinion on the field of RO. I am mainly considering it because it seems like the field of medicine with the most physics in it. What do you think of the field of radiation oncology?

    Thanks for your response!
  7. Feb 8, 2009 #6

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    I think that's the least realistic part of your proposal.

    It takes on average something like 6 years to get a PhD. If you work 2 days a week on your PhD (and I think that is at or past the upper limit of what's realistic) it will take you 5/2 * 6 = 15 years to put in the same work. That's assuming you are no less efficient than a full-time student, which is itself questionable, but let's keep that assumption. Many schools have classes "expire" after 10 years.
  8. Feb 8, 2009 #7
    Yea, it is slightly unrealistic... I know several PhD candidates who "work" in a lab or environment. I guess I was trying to express that I was hoping to work a few hours a week as a doctor for monetary purposes ya know? I guess we'll see... If it came down to it and it needed to be that I had to completely quit being a doctor and become a full time graduate student then that may very well be what ends up happening.

    Thanks for the input!
  9. Feb 9, 2009 #8
    I've mentioned this before, but I know a 45 year old ex-truck driver who just got her Ph.D in physics. I also knew a 40+ year old guy who was laid off from the telecom industry, and who got his Ph.D in physics.
  10. Feb 9, 2009 #9
    Thanks for sharing!
  11. Feb 9, 2009 #10


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    I have a great deal of respect for the RO specialty. I think as far as medicine goes it's definately one of the specialties that includes a lot of physics. I've taught some components of the physics courses the RO residents take. That being said, they don't get nearly as involved with the physics as the medical physics graduate students. However there is at least one RO who regularly attends our weekly departmental seminars - which get about as deep into physics as one can get. And personally, I welcome any interest from physicians in what we do.
  12. Feb 9, 2009 #11
    Awesome, that's more or less what I've always wanted to do too, except that I went the physics route first. I hope it works out for you.
  13. Feb 14, 2009 #12
    From MD to physics is a career suicide
    Millions out there dream to be MD coz of prosperous life this career choice guarantees
    One can't be more insane to make this switch
  14. Feb 14, 2009 #13


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    I don't think it's all that unreasonable. Naturally you can expect a significant reduction in earning potential, but money isn't everything. Many MDs work very long hours, and when they are off a lot of time they are still on call. Depending on their specialty, some physicians have to deliver a lot of bad news, and there's a whole lot of responsibility which can lead to very high stress levels. I think medicine can be a very difficult thing to do if your heart isn't in it.

    And then on the other side of the argument, physics can lead to a very enjoyable career if you have a passion for it.
  15. Feb 15, 2009 #14
    Well depending on what you mean by "career suicide" I guess you could be right. I'm fairly certain that compensation will be lower but hey, its not all about money right?

    Actually my plan may or may not come to fruition by the time I finish medical school and residency and am working as a radiation oncologist I may just enjoy taking the occasion math class at the university. OR I may decide to try and get an advanced education and do research, who knows. I was mainly just trying to get a feel for the field and how accepting it was of career changers!

    Thanks though!
  16. Feb 15, 2009 #15


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    I agree. To express this proposal in terms you may be more familiar with JD:

    Studying for a PhD in Physics part time and working as an MD on your "off" days will be at least as difficult as trying to get your MD by only studying 2 days a week and having another career outside of medical school.

    I'm sure you understand all to well how difficult that would be. Whatever you decide to do, I wish you the best of luck.
  17. Feb 15, 2009 #16
    Yea, sorry... I wasn't trying to imply that a physics PhD was somehow "easy" and could be accomplished in a couple days work. (Although for the record, I think that medical school could probably be condensed down into 2 or 3 days of coursework. A couple days a week we only have an hour or two of classes... but that is besides the point... )

    My goal was to express that I would do my best to continue working a tiny bit while pursuing a PhD in physics or what not. Perhaps work a couple half days as a MD... Since it is so far away I have no clue how the logistics would work.

    Perhaps finish my coursework over a couple years and then focus purely on research for a few more after that. I totally understand your point though and appreciate your response. I will plan on having less time to work as an MD than 3 full days!
  18. Feb 15, 2009 #17


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    Won't it be hard to start a practice if you are only working three days a week. Will that be enough to cover overhead (pay office staff, insurance, nurses, technicians for the office, etc.?) I don't know, I'm not sure what goes on in the practice of RO, but it seems to me that it will be hard to have a practice and only work less than 3 days a week.
  19. Feb 16, 2009 #18
    You are correct, it would be very hard to start a practice at 2 or 3 days a week. I was referring to doing this after being in practice for a little while when you have more seniority. I intend to work in an academic hospital setting so rather than be part of a practice I would be a salaried employee of a hospital.

    Many people cut their hours later, but as you know hours worked directly relates to how much you get paid. So I would take probably a 50% pay cut, but that would still be a lot of money to help get through school and what not. RO is unique because as it is many of the doctors in an academic setting will "practice" a few days a week and the other 2 or 3 are dedicated to research. So it seems like a field that could lend itself to further study.
  20. Feb 22, 2009 #19

    Interesting. I just read an autobiography last summer on a guy who did a Ph D in physics, then decided he wanted to be a doctor and went and did med school. It covered his decision, his time in med school and his time as an intern and in residency. I wish I could remember the name of the book, I had it from the library, it must have came out sometime last spring or summer.
  21. Feb 22, 2009 #20
    I'd love it if you could find out the name of the book! Let me know!
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