Wednesday, 4 February 2015

So You Want to Be a Medical Physicist: Part 3 - How To Prepare for a Career in Medical Physics as an Undergraduate

So You Want to Be a Medical Physicist
Part 3: How to Prepare for a Career in Medical Physics as an Undergraduate

Students who are interested in clinical Medical Physics as a career commonly wonder what they can do to improve their chances of getting into accredited graduate programs, or to set themselves up for a successful entry and career into the profession.  Is there any way to get a leg up in the competition?  Are there specific elective courses that are better than others?

In my experience, there's no single "best" way to prepare yourself for graduate school or a career in Medical Physics.  And if there was, that single route would eventually become detrimental to the profession, as we all benefit from people who bring different skills and experiences to the table.  Medical Physics is largely a profession of clinical problem-solving and developing new ideas - both of which benefit from intellectual and skill set diversity.

That said, I do have some advice to offer.

Considerations for Undergraduates Interested in Medical Physics

  1. Chose a program that's going to give you a solid foundation in physics.  I see a few programs out there that are oriented towards "Medical Physics" that look like they may have watered down the core physics courses or replaced them altogether with other classes that you'll end up taking again in a Medical Physics graduate program anyway.
    I have heard of graduate programs not accepting students because they don't have a strong enough physics background.  I have never heard of anyone rejected for knowing too much physics.
  2. Admissions are competitive.  The average 4.0 scale GPA for admission into Medical Physics graduate programs is about 3.5 - 3.6 according to CAMPEP.
  3. A high GPA is important, but not at the expense of sacrificing a good foundation.  You don't need to overload yourself (i.e. take more than a standard course load), but if you find that the only way you can get decent marks is by underloading, or by taking the bird courses (I'm looking at you Kinesiology 305: Body, Mind and Spirit), you're going to run into a load of trouble in graduate school and as a resident when you don't have the option of lightening the load.
  4. Get involved with a research project.  It's great if you can do something that relates directly to Medical Physics, but don't stress yourself out if you don't have that opportunity.  The point is to get some experience working on a scientific project.  It doesn't have to be through a formal program like the NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates program either.  A summer job in a lab counts.  A senior thesis project counts.  Volunteer positions count.
  5. If at all possible, visit the graduate schools that you're most interested in and speak with faculty and graduate students and spend some time figuring out what kind of research project you would like to be working on.
  6. Make sure you spend some time independently reading up on your own interests - Medical Physics-related or otherwise.  It's very easy to get burned out through classwork.
  7. Like with any rewarding career, Medical Physics can be very competitive.  When plotting your undergraduate coursework, try to set up your program so that you'll have some fallback options if you don't make it into graduate school or if you decide that physics just isn't for you.  

What Electives to Take

While an undergraduate degree in physics will give you the necessary foundation in physics, a lot of students wonder about the other dimensions of Medical Physics that aren't typically covered in a physics undergraduate program.  Generally speaking the didactic coursework in an accredited program will cover everything you need to know, so you don't have to take anything outside of the regular curriculum.  But that said, here are a few recommendations of courses to fit in if you have the room (in no particular order) and that are not already part of your curriculum (which they may be).

  • Biology
    Ideally you want an understanding of how DNA works, the cell cycle, respiration, and mitosis - so basically what's covered in a first year course. If you want to got a little more advanced it can help to take a cancer biology course.
    An introductory anatomy and physiology course can also help.                                                    
  • Chemistry
    Honestly I don't know how anyone could be awarded a physics degree without a first year chemistry class, but there it is.  Organic chemistry wouldn't hurt either.
  • Computer Science
    Perhaps not necessarily a course, but it's important to learn to program well in at least one language. Lot's Medical Physics research involves coding.  It would help to be familiar with Monte Carlo methods and simulations.  It also really helps to have a strong understanding of computer networks.
  • Engineering
    If you can swing it, try to get into a signal or image processing course.
    An introduction to process engineering (failure modes effects analysis etc.) wouldn't hurt.    
  • Humanities
    Learn to write well.  People underestimate how important a skill writing is.                      
  • Mathematics
    I would assume that a physics degree would cover a basic calculus sequence, differential equations, linear algebra, and include a mathematical methods for physicists course.  If your program doesn't get you to this level through core courses, take them as electives.  To do any imaging work you need to know what a Fourier Transform is.
    On top of that I might also recommend a statistics or biostatistics course.                    
  • Neuroscience/Psychology
    If you're interested in this kind of thing - particularly if you want to any MRI work, it would help to take at least introductory courses here.                                                                
  • Physics Options You Should Take
    • A senior laboratory class with error analysis methods
    • Computational physics or numerical methods
    • Electronics and/or digital circuits
    • Introductory Medical Physics course (if available)                                                                     

Things to Look For in a Graduate Medical Physics Program

Choosing the graduate program that's right for you can be a tough choice.  There are roughly 35 accredited graduate programs out there and countless other non-accredited ones.  Unlike with schools themselves there is no Medical Physics graduate school ranking that I'm aware of.  Nor should there be.  Numbers can carry more authority than we sometimes intend.  When you rank schools according to a set of criteria, those rankings are only relevant to the extent that the criteria reflect what's important to the student.

What matters most in graduate school is what you get out of the experience.  It matters what you learn.  It matters what skills you acquire.  It matters what results you produce.  And it matters what networking connections you make.  The different schools have different strong and weak points so it's important to make choice based on your goals, personality and interests in a manner that's going to set you up for success.

One thing that does matter to almost everyone considering a career in Medical Physics right now is CAMPEP accreditation.  You need this to get certification, and while you can still work as a Medical Physicist without certification, that's going to be an uphill battle.

After that, you really have to figure out what's most important to you.  Here are some factors to consider (again in no particular order) that might help you to do that.

  • Access to modern equipment and facilities.
  • Is the program affiliated with a hospital? What imaging an treatment modalities are available there?  Has anything new been installed recently?  Does the program have access to a PET or PET/CT machine for example?  An MRI machine?  Does the facility perform any form of stereotactic radiotherapy?
  • Hands-on experience with that equipment.
  • Most students won't get to use hospital equipment freely, but are you going to get through the program without ever having touched a linac?
  • An empahsis on the physics of medical physics compared to rote regurgitation of the didactic material.  Technology in medical physics changes quickly.  The physics doesn't change that much. (Flags to look for might include lower admission standards compared to other programs [don't require a physics degree], students who tell you the course work is easy compared to undergrad, minimal research done by faculty, etc.)
  • Opportunities to do QA work.
  • This will (i) give practical, relevant experience, (ii) give insight into the work involved with being a clinical Medical Physicist, and (iii) help to pay some of the bills.
  • Research interests of the faculty.
  • Even if you are more oriented towards clinical work than research, you'll be doing some kind of project for your graduate work and as a clinician, you'll be bringing new technology into the clinic on a regular basis and constantly challenged by problems for which there is no readily available answer.  Look at the current projects being done in the department.  Look at how much funding the faculty has and for which projects.  How closely does what's being done align with your own interests?
  • Another dimension of research that can be easily overlooked is commercialization opportunities.  Over the years there have been lots of start-up companies that have come out of medical physics research.  Not everyone is interested in such things, but if I was a student today I would certainly factor this in.
  • Faculty dedicated teaching time.
  • When you talk to current students in the program, do they have regular meeting times with their supervisors? Are they happy with the quality of the lectures? Or are the faculty impossible to pin down due to clinical committments?
  • Where the graduates end up?
  • Most accredited medical physics programs now publish such information online. Are the graduates getting residencies? Are they going places you could see yourself going?
  • Cost and financial support.
  • Not all programs cost the same.  Not all guarantee financial support or opportunities for QA work or TA/RA positions.  Also factor in cost of living.
  • Quality of extra-curricular life.
  • It's important to weigh in all the other stuff too (available activities, sport, groups, city life, commute times, weather, will your partner be happy there, etc.)  You don't want to be miserable in your down time.

If at all possible visit the schools on the top of your list and talk with faculty and current graduate students.  This can help you get the answers to the above questions and any of your own, and give you a feel for the atmosphere you'll be plunging into head first.  Are the current students happy?  Do they get to attend conferences?  Are there particular faculty members that might fit well with your learning style, or vice versa?  A visit also gives you advantages in the competitive admissions process.  It's a tangible demonstration of interest in the specific program.  It will help you to tailor your application to the specific school and program.  And, it puts a face to your name.

All of this assumes that you have a choice.  You have a choice of where to apply of course.  But ultimately, you're limited to where you're admitted.  And we're only talking about a couple hundred positions in total across North America.  Admissions are competitive.

That said, you may find yourself with a choice and for some, a choice between two good options can be agonizing.  If you're stuck in this position, it's best to keep in mind that sometimes there is no identifiable single optimum.  Sometimes you have multiple good options that are on par with each other.  I can't offer any better algorithm for figuring out the way to go in such circumstances.

Sometimes, you just have to make a decision.

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