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Masters or PhD in Medical Physics??

Posted: Mon Oct 01, 2012 4:01 pm
by kbk5033
I am currently a Nuclear Engineering Masters student planning to graduate in May 2013. I am now applying to both Masters and PhD Medical Physics programs, however I am not exactly sure which route to take. Is it worth going for the PhD if I plan to do clinical work in hospitals? Prestigious schools, such as Columbia and UPenn, only have Masters programs which makes me question the necessity of a PhD if you do not plan on doing research all your life. Also, could someone in the field also explain the demand for/responsibilities of the different specialties (i.e. nuclear medicine, diagnostic imaging, radiation oncology, medical health physics)?

Thanks a bunch!

Re: Masters or PhD in Medical Physics??

Posted: Tue Oct 02, 2012 8:56 am
by twistor
A Ph.D. is still useful for clinical work if you are willing to put in the time commitment it takes to attain it. That's because clinical physicists with Ph.D.'s have more upward mobility and will tend to get better salaries than their peers with masters degrees only. You can check out the AAPM website for some stats on medical physics jobs.

That being said, a Ph.D. certainly isn't necessary to get involved in clinical physics. However, keep in mind that while a Ph.D. is almost always funded by the department a masters degree will require you to take out some significant loans unless you happen to be independently wealthy.

There is little demand for physicists in nuclear medicine and diagnostic imaging. I don't know about health physics but it's probably a bit better. Radiation oncology has the most demand..

As far as responsibilities diagnostic imaging physicists typically work to keep machines up to standards by performing QA (quality assessment), contacting vendors when there's an issue and basically doing a whole lot of mundane maintenance tasks like calibrating the non-linearity corrections tables on a gamma camera. In nuclear medicine those responsibilities my be extended to calculating doses for nuclear medicine treatments such as I-131 ablation or the FDG dosages for PET scans. Because there isn't much to do in these areas there are very few positions that are 100% clinical in these areas. In universities you will typically find that diagnostic physicists are 40% clinical and 60% research and there is only one of them.

Medical health physicists jobs vary a bit more if I remember correctly. They can range from calculating the thickness of the walls necessary to block out a certain amount of radiation when facilities like radation therapy wings of hospitals are designed to measuring radiation levels around nuclear power plants to overseeing radiation workers and monitoring their doses by issuing personal dosimeters.

Medical physicists working in radiation therapy (clinical medical physicists) oversee treatment planning (which is typically done by dosimetrists), calibrate and commission LINACs, perform QA, possibly calibrate, monitor and issue dosimeters.

Re: Masters or PhD in Medical Physics??

Posted: Tue Oct 02, 2012 10:37 am
by kbk5033
Wow, I truly appreciate your response. Are you currently a medical physicist in the field? If you are, would you recommend med physics as a good career to pursue?

From what you said and from the research I have done, it seems like radiation therapy is the way to go. I noticed that there are about 6 times more accredited residency programs available for therapy compared to diagnostics...Now I know why. I have applied to both PhD and Masters programs, so I guess it will come down to which schools I can get in to.

Also, I have looked at job openings and noticed that they require a minimum of a Masters degree with at least 3 years experience. Not sure if those requirements will be changing in a few years, but I figured it may be wiser to get my schooling and clinicals done asap so I can start gaining experience in the field. Thoughts?

Re: Masters or PhD in Medical Physics??

Posted: Tue Oct 02, 2012 11:43 am
by twistor
I am currently a graduate student in the field. As for my recommendation, please read the following thread: viewtopic.php?f=3&t=2466

I'm not really involved in therapy. If you are interested in therapy make sure that no matter what school you go to it has a strong therapy related track. Talk to current graduate students. Find out how many of them got actual clinical experience. If the program advertises that you can do research in radiation oncology but all the funding is being used by current graduate students then it really does you no good. One thing I learned is that programs are not always honest in what they advertise.

Re: Masters or PhD in Medical Physics??

Posted: Sun May 28, 2017 6:17 pm
by HPfeen
I'm sure you're done with school by now but for others looking at this post... If you're going to school for medical physics I would stick with the radiation therapy route if you want to do clinical work. This will give you the most opportunity to work with patients. In a perfect world, you'll be an integral part of the radiology department, consult with the MD and patient about the risks and rewards of therapy options... and even deliver the bad news when radiation therapy doesn't work. Just as most medical physics fields, you'll need to be certified by the American Board of Radiology. This is the most important thing. A PhD is not necessary to practice, unless you want to do research.

Health physics can turn out to be a lot of different things. It will not necessarily require certification with the ABR but will most likely require certification from the ABMP or ABHP as a Certified Medical Health Physicist or Certified Health Physicist, respectively. Either can take you into hospitals, universities, power plants, government facilities, or industry, with a focus on radiation protection and regulation of use (lots of regs!), NOT radiation treatment. Health Physics is not an exact science and most things simply come down to a judgement call. If you go this route you will most likely start out as a specialist and no matter what it will take lots of experience to build the knowledge base you will need to be a successful supervisor, so a PhD will not start you out higher but will give you the opportunity to move up faster than your counterparts (but not by much) and you may get jobs easier. In fact you will spend a surprisingly long time at the same level of us mere mortals with only BSc degrees or people who went to law school. This is mostly due to the heavy emphasis on regulations. There's also not a lot of opportunity for research. If I were starting out in this field now, I would definitely go the masters route. Either way, health physics is a pretty interesting field, sort of a merge between hard science, soft science, and medical practice. You're not a real physicist, physician, engineer, scientist, or safety officer, but you'll need to be a lot of those things and once you're certified you'll be paid pretty well.