What you need to know
Medical physicists work in healthcare and use their knowledge of physics to develop new medical technologies and radiation-based treatments. For example, some develop better and safer radiation therapies for cancer patients. Others may develop more accurate imaging technologies that use various forms of radiant energy, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasound imaging.
Medical physicists most commonly work in one of three areas: diagnostic radiology, radiotherapy, and nuclear medicine. Other medical physicists focus on research, teaching, or consulting.
Some of the things a medical physicist might do:
- Study the effects of radiation on the human body
- Study how radiation interacts with the environment
- Work with doctors to ensure the safety and effectiveness of radiological procedures
- Calculate the lowest effective dosage of medical radiation for a patient
- Test and supervise the maintenance of the equipment used in medical imaging
- Develop safety procedures for those working around radiation
- Review data related to radiation levels at a nuclear power plant
- Analytical skills: Medical physicists need to think logically in order to carry out scientific experiments and studies. They must be precise and accurate in their analyses because errors could invalidate their research.
- Communication skills: Medical physicists must effectively communicate with physicians and other team members. Medical physicists write technical reports that may be published in scientific journals. They also write proposals for research funding.
- Critical-thinking skills: Medical physicists must carefully evaluate their own work and the work of others. They must determine whether results and conclusions are accurate and based on sound science.
- Curiosity: Medical physicists work in fields that are on the cutting edge of technology. They must be very keen to learn continuously throughout their careers in order to keep up with advances in a wide range of technical subjects.
- Interpersonal skills: Medical physicists must collaborate extensively with others in both academic and industrial research contexts. They need to work well with others toward a common goal. Interpersonal skills also should help researchers secure funding for their projects.
- Math skills: Medical physicists perform complex calculations involving calculus, geometry, algebra, and other areas of math. They must express their research in mathematical terms.
- Problem-solving skills: Medical physicists use scientific observation and analysis, as well as creative thinking, to solve complex scientific problems. Medical physicists may need to redesign their approach and find a solution when an experiment or theory fails to produce the needed information or result.
- Self-discipline: Medical physicists need to stay motivated since they spend a lot of time analyzing large datasets to try to discern patterns that will yield information. This work requires the ability to focus for long periods.
The average pay for all physicists, including medical physicists, in the United States, ranges from $67,450 to more than $208,000 as of May 2020.
The specific pay depends on factors such as level of experience, education and training, geographic location, and specific industry.
Overall employment of all physicists, including medical physicists, is projected to grow 7 percent from 2019 to 2029, faster than the average for all occupations.
Physicists are projected to have employment growth in scientific research and development services, educational services, and healthcare and social assistance.
Minimum educational requirements for medical physicist jobs usually include either a master’s degree or doctorate in physics, medical physics, or a related field. This is usually preceded by an undergraduate degree in physics, although some students’ bachelor’s degrees are in other natural sciences or engineering. After obtaining a graduate degree, medical physicists complete a residency traineeship or a postdoctoral program at a hospital for 2 years.
Some states require licensing of medical physicists, and all employers require certification. Certification requirements vary by specialty but usually involve some combination of education, experience, and testing. Specific requirements are available from professional medical physicist organizations.
Discover some of the courses you will take pursuing a degree in Physics.