Physics to Medical Physics: Switching Paths
We were recently contacted by an individual who was studying physics at the doctoral level and was interested in switching to a career in medical physics. Switching to a career in medical physics with a Ph.D. in any branch of physics was a relatively easy task, say 20 years ago, but has become increasingly more difficult with the growing number of medical physics degree programs and the restrictions of residency admissions to those who have specifically graduated from an academic program in medical physics. It’s certainly an exciting time to be in medical physics, but it’s become difficult (albeit, not impossible) for those who have not specifically trained in medical physics to join the party. It’s worth mentioning that many past (and current) leaders in our field did not graduate from medical physics degree programs, which makes one wonder how many talented individuals with the potential to contribute to our community are unable to become medical physicists simply because they chose to study a different branch of physics instead.
Those who are thinking of switching to medical physics, however, should not give up, as there are certainly ways to transition to the field. And, of course, where there’s a will, there’s a way. I am unable to publish the email we received, since it included a lot of personal specifics. Instead, I am publishing our response to the individual who contacted us with the hope that it will help others who are in the same boat:
First, I have to tell you that if this was 30-40 years ago, you could switch from your current background to the medical physics profession with great ease. Many well-known medical physicists (including some of the “greats” of our profession) who made seminal contributions to our field entered “medical physics” with backgrounds similar to yours. Back then, there were only a few academic programs in medical physics, such as Wayne State University (which dates back to the early 70’s), that offered a degree specifically in medical physics. If you had a Ph.D. in physics or a closely-related field (including engineering), you could switch to a career in medical physics by simply getting a job as a medical physicist in a hospital and working under the supervision of a physicist. Alternatively, you could complete a two-year fellowship program at a big cancer institution such as MD Anderson or Memorial Sloan-Kettering. In the late 80’s/early 90’s, more schools started offering degree programs in medical physics. As these programs started growing in number so did the demand for their graduates. Some job and fellowship descriptions started requiring applicants to have graduated from a medical physics program (and these days some have started requiring/giving preference to applicants who have graduated from a CAMPEP-accredited medical physics program).
The fact is, these days, the option to immediately get a job as a medical physicist with a physics degree after graduation is practically obsolete. Even most those with a degree in medical physics do not immediately obtain a job after graduation without any type of post-graduate training (such as a residency or fellowship). This leaves the other option, which is the route most taken: complete post-graduate training, such as a post-doc or residency. The problem is that most of the opportunities are limited to those who have completed a degree program or had graduate training specifically in medical physics. Medical physics residencies and fellowships are highly competitive these days, and as you said in your letter, candidates with medical physics degrees (especially from a CAMPEP-accredited program) have an edge. However, with your background, if you have strong recommendation letters and a compelling essay stating your enthusiasm and reasons for pursuing medical physics, I believe you have a chance to be accepted into a program. I wouldn’t say that it’s a lost cause by any means. What you must concentrate on is articulating the reason for your switch to medical physics. Your intentions should be clear and should be a natural extension of your background, experiences and interest. You must also look at your (what these days is considered a non-traditional) background as an asset rather than a liability. Try to leverage your background and experiences: you bring a lot to the table, but more importantly, you bring a lot to the table that the traditional medical physics Ph.D. does not. You have a chance to offer a different perspective (skill sets, experiences) to any program, which is always a plus in admissions. All these, however, must be articulated–no one reading your application is just going to assume all of this.
That said, you did not mention what particular branch of medical physics you are interested in. From your background, I believe that your odds of getting into a fellowship program in diagnostic physics are much higher rather than a fellowship program in therapeutic physics. Of course, you should pursue your own personal interest at the end of the day; however, you could best leverage your past educational and research experience as a diagnostic medical physicist as opposed to a therapeutic physicist. It is worth mentioning that there are a few residencies/training programs in diagnostic medical physics that do not require a degree in medical physics. Currently, for example, Mayo Clinic is accepting applications for a residency that may be a great fit for you: “The Department of Radiology, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota, is offering a clinical medical physics training program focusing on imaging for diagnosis and image-guided interventional procedures … Candidates should possess a recent doctoral degree in medical physics, physics or engineering.” Notice that the program is not restricted to those with only a medical physics doctorate. When applying to residency programs, keep in mind that in 2012 you must have graduated from a CAMPEP-accredited medical physics degree program OR completed a CAMPEP-accredited medical physics residency to be qualified to sit for the boards (ABR certification). In 2014, the rules become such that you must have completed a CAMPEP-accredited medical physics residency to be qualified to sit for the boards (ABR certification).
A last option also exists, which is to pursue a masters degree in medical physics. I have known several experienced Ph.D. scientists/physicists who switched to medical physics by going through a degree program and finishing a masters degree in medical physics. With your background, I believe you would have no problem gaining admissions to an MS program. While plowing out an extra 2 years of schooling may not be the most attractive option, it is your safest bet in terms of then being admitted to a residency program and (if you get an MS at a CAMPEP-accredited program) being certain you will be qualified for ABR certification when 2012 rolls around.
(This is a good time to ask yourself: do you want to work clinically as a medical physicist or do you see yourself doing research as a medical physicist? If you have no desire to work clinically, then you do not need to concern yourself with graduating from accredited programs. So long as you complete a residency or post-doc, you would be able to do research as a medical physicist without the need to sit for the ABR certification exam.)
I will assume that you do want to work clinically. So, in terms of making your application stronger, you may want to consider shadowing a medical physicist at a university hospital. Are there any hospitals associated with your university? Volunteering at a hospital is a good first step, but the most valuable clinical experience you will receive is being able to gain knowledge of the daily duties of a medical physicist. Also, while not a requirement, a strong letter of support from a medical physicist would be beneficial to your application.
Lastly, you mentioned you have been taking pre-med classes. Do not limit yourself to pre-med courses, which are mostly basic science classes (organic chemistry, biology, general chemistry+labs). Take an anatomy class, which while not a pre-med course, is indispensable for a physicist working clinically. I would suggest taking a look at the coursework at medical physics programs and trying to find equivalent or similar courses at your university (or another university nearby):
I hope this gives you some ideas in your decision making. I think you are taking some good steps, and I do believe your background will ultimately make you a better medical physicist. I personally believe that if you have a passion for what you are doing and work hard for it, you can achieve anything you want.
If anyone has any additional or supplemental advice for this individual or others looking to switch paths to medical physics, please feel free to share your thoughts by leaving a comment at the bottom of the post.
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