What you need to know
Oncologists are physicians who specialize in diagnosing and treating cancer using chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, biological therapy, and targeted therapy. Oncologists are often the main health care provider for someone who has cancer.
Many oncologists work long and irregular hours. Oncologists may travel between their offices and hospitals to care for their patients. While on call, they may need to address a patient’s concerns over the phone or make an emergency visit to a hospital or nursing home.
Some of the things an oncologist might do:
- Take a patient’s medical history
- Update charts and patient information to show current findings and treatments
- Order tests for nurses or other healthcare staff to perform
- Review test results to identify any abnormal findings
- Recommend and design a plan of treatment
- Address concerns or answer questions that patients have about their health and well-being
- Help patients take care of their health by discussing topics such as proper nutrition and hygiene
- Communication skills: Oncologists need to be excellent communicators. They must communicate effectively with their patients and other healthcare support staff.
- Compassion: Patients who are sick or injured may be in extreme pain or distress. Oncologists must treat patients and their families with compassion and understanding.
- Detail oriented: Patients must receive appropriate treatment and medications. Oncologists must accurately monitor and record various pieces of information related to patient care.
- Dexterity: Oncologists may work with very precise and sometimes sharp tools, and mistakes can have serious consequences.
- Leadership skills: Oncologists who work in their own practice must manage a staff of other professionals.
- Organizational skills: Good recordkeeping and other organizational skills are critical in both medical and business settings.
- Patience. Oncologists may work for long periods with patients who need special attention: Persons who fear medical treatment may require more patience.
- Physical stamina: Oncologists should be comfortable lifting or turning disabled patients, or performing other physical tasks.
- Problem-solving skills: Oncologists need to evaluate patients’ symptoms and administer the appropriate treatments. They need to do this quickly if a patient’s life is threatened.
The average pay for oncologists in the United States is approximately $403,000 according to an annual Medscape survey in 2020.
The specific pay depends on factors such as level of experience, education and training, geographic location, and specific industry.
Overall employment of all physicians and surgeons, including oncologists is projected to grow 4 percent from 2019 to 2029, about as fast as the average for all occupations.
Prospects should be especially good for oncologists who are willing to practice in rural and low-income areas because these areas tend to have difficulty attracting physicians.
Oncologists typically need a bachelor’s degree, a degree from a medical school, which takes 4 years to complete, and, 3 to 7 years in internship and residency programs.
Medical schools are highly competitive. Most applicants must submit transcripts, scores from the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), and letters of recommendation. Schools also consider an applicant’s personality, leadership qualities, and participation in extracurricular activities. Most schools require applicants to interview with members of the admissions committee.
Students spend most of the first 2 years of medical school in laboratories and classrooms, taking courses such as anatomy, biochemistry, pharmacology, psychology, medical ethics, and in the laws governing medicine. They also gain practical skills; learning to take medical histories, examine patients, and diagnose illnesses.
During their last 2 years, medical students work with patients under the supervision of experienced physicians in hospitals and clinics. Through rotations in internal medicine, family practice, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, psychiatry, and surgery, they gain experience in diagnosing and treating illnesses in a variety of areas.