Wednesday, 4 February 2015

So You Want to Be a Medical Physicist: Part 2- Becoming a Medical Physicist

So You Want to Be a Medical Physicist
Part 2 - Becoming a Medical Physicist

It's not uncommon for physics students to check out Medical Physics at some point during their studies.  Sure, Medical Physics may not be as sexy as working on wormholes in space-time.  But the prospects of working through a PhD to become a thirty-something jumping from post-doc to post-doc for years, all for perhaps a 1 in 10 shot at landing an academic position, can loom like dark clouds over the "purist" physicist.  And Medical Physics is ever-present, hovering in that no-man's land between academia and "industry," with the promise of a well-paying career that will make a difference in people's lives.

About the time I realized I wasn't going to be the one to derive the secret formula for a real-life warp drive engine, I began to look at Medical Physics as a potential career.

Here, I'll try to give an overview of how one can become a clinical Medical Physicist.

I'll start at the end point, with the term Qualified Medical Physicist.  What that usually refers to is a clinical Medical Physicist who has obtained a recognized certification of clinical competence.  That certification has more-or-less become the gateway that one has to get through in order to work as a Medical Physicist.  This certification is given by a number of internationally recognized bodies.  In North America these bodies are:

Technically speaking there are only a handful of states that legally restrict the practice of medical physics to state-licensed Medical Physicists.  In most other places in North America, to work as a Medical Physicist, board certification is not technically mandated.  But don't let that allow you to brush off it's importance.  Any person considering a career in Medical Physics, you should really treat board certification as a mandatory career step because:
 (a) in any job competition those with certification are chosen over those without it,
 (b) general trends in all healthcare fields are moving towards increased regulation, and
 (c) preparing for certification actually does make you more competent in the clinic.

In order to get to board certification, the post-secondary education and training route typically looks something like this:

  1. Undergraduate Degree in Physics (or a closely related field)
    Your undergraduate degree should provide you with a solid foundation in physics.  Medical Physics is very much an applied physics field, and in many ways a lot closer to engineering than some other branches of physics.  Closely-related fields include engineering physics, nuclear engineering, physical chemistry, biomedical engineering and some (but not all) undergraduate programs that focus speficially on medical or health physics.  Competitive GPAs for entry into most graduate programs are in the ballpark of 3.5 on the 4.0 scale.                
  2. Graduate Degree in Medical Physics
    Graduate programs in Medical Physics combine (in different ways) roughly one year of didactic courses that you need to cover to be competent in the field, and a research project, and differing degrees of hands-on experience.  At minimum you require a master's degree for certification, however due to the competition for residencies a PhD is often the status quo.  It's not uncommon for students to get the MSc first, attempt to get a residency and return for the PhD if unsuccessful.  Just as in other branches of physics, the PhD has a much larger research project that is expected to be novel.

    Program accreditation is critical.  CAMPEP, the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Physics Education Programs, is a commission set up to ensure consistent quality of education in Medical Physics graduate programs and residencies, and they maintain a list of accredited graduate programs.  By 2016, the CCPM will require that applicants for membership have completed either an accredited graduate program or an accredited residency.  In order to write part 1 of the ABR Medical Physics exam, candidates will need to be enrolled in or have graduated from an accredited medical physics program.                                                                                                                    
  3. Medical Physics Residency
    A residency is a 2-3 year position where the resident moves through various clinical rosters (in radiation oncology these would include: machine QA, commissioning, treatment planning, CT simulation, brachytherapy, special techniques, etc.) while working under the supervision of a Qualified Medical Physicist.  It is also common for residents to be expected to make substantial contributions to clinical or research projects (which is why the PhD is often preferred for these positions).  Again the CCPM will require either the graduate program or the residency to be accredited.  In order to write part 2 of the ABR medical physics exam, you need to have completed an accredited residency.                                                                                                  
  4. Other Options - DMP Programs
    Another option for students coming out of undergrad are the Doctor of Medical Physics (DMP) programs, which roughly combine an MSc with a residency over four years.  These are fully accredited programs and offer the guarantee of a residency.  My understanding, however, is that the student pays for the residency component, where I personally feel that residents need to be reimbursed for the valuable work they do for a Medical Physics Department.
    Side note: I believe there is currently only one of these programs that is accredited.                              
  5. Other Options - Physics PhDs from Other Fields
    There are also options available for those who have PhDs in other branches of physics who are interested in a professional career in Medical Physics without completing a second PhD.  The first, is obviously to do an accredited two-year MSc.  In my experience a person with a PhD in a different field and and MSc in Medical Physics is seen as equivalent to a candidate with a PhD in Medical Physics in terms of competing for jobs (all other factors being equal).

    Another option is a post-PhD certificate program (see accredited graduate programs, or University of Calgary ROP), which can be completed in under a year.  These essentially allow the PhD to complete the didactic coursework in Medical Physics and are treated as equivalent to having completed a graduate degree in medical physics.
It's probably worth mentioning that if you live in Ontario they may use a slightly different system that relies on a peer review examination that occurs at the end of a residency.  CCPM membership is generally accepted on par there however.

For details about how the training process works in other parts of the world, I would recommend:

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