international students, medical physics

Pursuing medical physics as an international student in the US

The field of medical physics has become increasingly international over the past decade. Based on the Survey of Medical Physicists, 2009 conducted by the Center for Health Workforce Studies for the AAPM, over 33% of respondents indicated that they were born outside of the U.S. and Canada.

33% of current MPs originate outside of the  U.S. or Canada (2009 Survey of Medical Physicists)

33% of current MPs originate outside of the U.S. or Canada (2009 Survey of Medical Physicists)

For immigrants, leaving their home, country, and language to pursue education and  a career takes extraordinary courage. Beyond courage, immigrants to U.S. need particular patience to traverse the work visa and permanent resident application processes. We’ve interviewed two current students and one recent graduate, all of whom moved to the U.S. during either their graduate or undergraduate studies. We hope that their stories will provide some guidance and encouragement for current and prospective trainees interested in coming to study in the U.S. Our interviewees hail from Beijing, China; Tiajin City, China; and Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

Q1. What is your educational background (i.e. DMP, MS, or PhD)?

Interviewee 1 (from Beijing):

I have a BS in physics, and am currently pursuing my Ph.D in medical physics, imaging track.

Interviewee 2 (from Tiajin City) :

1)BS in Electronic Sciences and Technology 2) MS in Radiological Sciences and Protection 3) PhD in Medical Physics

Interviewee 3 (from Belo Horizonte):

Currently pursuing an MS in medical physics, therapy track.

Q2. What made you choose your particular area of study within the field of medical physics?

Interviewee 1 (from Beijing):

I have always been interested in imaging science since undergrad. Choosing this field is a natural extension of my interest.

Interviewee 2 (from Tiajin City) :

As a medical physicist, I can provide service to cancer patient in clinic and also perform physics research in academic.

Interviewee 3 (from Belo Horizonte):

I chose therapy physics because it condensed many subjects that I was interested in. My interest in physics was able to be connected to the study anatomy and physiology, advanced computer technologies and the ability to help people.

Q3. What made you choose your particular area of study within the field of medical physics?

Interviewee 1 (from Beijing):

Upon graduating, I intend to take a position as a junior clinical physicist or resident.

Interviewee 2 (from Tiajin City) :

I am ABR certified in therapeutic medical physics, and currently hold a physicist position without clinical duties in a company.

Interviewee 3 (from Belo Horizonte):

My next step will be to join a therapy medical physics residency and continue with my board certification process.

Q4. Did you complete your undergraduate/graduate studies in the U.S.? What has been your experience with visas and permanent residency status?

Interviewee 1 (from Beijing):

I completed my undergrad study in a Chinese university in Beijing. Still working on my Ph.D at a US university. I obtained an F-1 visa when I was close to finishing my undergrad in 2008, after which I came to US for my graduate study.

Interviewee 2 (from Tiajin City) :

Yes. I came to the U.S. in 2006 (after completing my BS) and received my PhD degree in 2011
Between 2006-2011, I held an F1 student visa.

In 2011, I joined a CAMPEP Medical Physics Residency program on an Optional Practical Training (OPT) visa from 2011-2012, the moved to the H1B visa during 2012-2013.

In 2014, I started my current industrial position and obtained an O1 visa. Currently, I am still waiting to gain Permanent Residency status.

Interviewee 3 (from Belo Horizonte):

I finished my undergraduate degree in physics at Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio. I have personally never had issues with my visa status in the US. My student visa was obtained before starting my studies and I hold the same status since then.

Q5. Do you feel that you have experienced/will experience any disadvantage in medical physics? Why/why not?

Interviewee 1 (from Beijing):

I think international students definitely face greater disadvantage in medical physics, just like they do in every other aspect of life living in US as a foreign national. The challenges comes primarily from the non-academic side: how to communicate with your peers and your mentor, how to network with your colleagues, how to maintain a healthy life outside graduate school. These disadvantages are not obvious in the beginning, but will start to surface as we go further into this career unless we consciously try to overcome.

Interviewee 2 (from Tiajin City) :

The first job is always the most difficult. And with visa issues, the process is more difficult.

I have gone through two rounds of job hunting. In my experience, the large institution are willing or able to sponsor a working visa, but sponsoring is less feasible for smaller places. It can be very competitive. I remember that I even got an offer from the institution where I completed my residency, but in the end I couldn’t work there due to visa issues and eventually I had to leave the U.S. temporarily. It then took my current employer six months to get me the appropriate visa and bring me back to US.

Regarding a job search, being a Permanent Resident will definitely help.

Interviewee 3 (from Belo Horizonte):

I do not think I encountered or will encounter any disadvantage in medical physics. The field values and requires a good work ethic and effort. If you have those characteristics you should be set to be successful.

Q6. If you could give your previous self any single piece of advice regarding studying or working in the U.S., what would it be?

Interviewee 1 (from Beijing):

I would tell my previous self to spend more time and effort to get engaged in the US life. Never use “too busy in school” as an excuse.

Interviewee 2 (from Tiajin City) :

Believe in yourself. Nothing is impossible!

Interviewee 3 (from Belo Horizonte):

I would have to say to myself to always work hard and keep your priorities straight. That usually guarantees things to work out the        best way. Things will be different and new but people are very good at adapting so if your mind is at the right place, there are no reasons to     worry, just to enjoy the ride.

Q7. How do you feel about universities in the US creating medical physics programs abroad? (for example, the Duke Kunshan program)

Interviewee 1 (from Beijing):

Aside from the apparent financial incentive for Duke University, I think at this moment it is unclear how much the students engaged in this type of program can benefit from it. The profession of medical physics is (relatively) well-established in US; however, the development in other countries seems to have been lagging behind (at least this is my impression). Unless there is evidence that the future employment opportunity is abundant, I think this type of program would be a risky choice.

Interviewee 2 (from Tiajin City) :

DKU is a pioneer program and will significantly advance the development of Medical Physics in China. I had to opportunity to help recruit MP students for DKU and traveled half of China. The whole field is in great need of qualified medical physicist. With the goal of DKU to prepare globally sophisticated leaders and citizens, we shall foresee a promising future.

Interviewee 3 (from Belo Horizonte):

I think it is a good idea to try to expose students to different environments and cultures. People have different ideas and it is important for students to understand and learn from them. Acquiring these different experiences will only increase their knowledge and confidence, and make them better professionals in the future.

Conclusions and Resources:

We hope that this interview has been informative for students, trainees, and their program directors. Medical physics is certainly a global profession and we urge our domestic trainees and their groups or institutions to encourage and support our international students and colleagues.

Potential Visas for Students and Trainees

Students: F-1

Residents/Post-docs: OPT (up to 29 mos with STEM extension)

Junior Physicists/Faculty: H1B, O1, permanent residency

Proposed initiatives for non-U.S. students in U.S. STEM degree programs 

Over the past few years, legislators have been working to amend current immigration law in order to improve retention of U.S.-education students, especially in STEM degrees. Here is an example of one of the proposed bills: The STAPLE Act


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