non-clinical tracks

Non-Clinical Career Blog Series #1/7: Introduction to Non-Clinical Careers and General Advice

Introduction

Medical physics started as an academic effort of scientists to develop new elements of diagnostic and therapeutic medicine, but over the past few decades has expanded to become a profession with a substantial clinical component. . Students in medical physics can and do participate in a wide array of careers, including clinical, academic, research, industry, and regulatory. Despite the breadth of opportunity, the clinical career path is the most common for students in training today. Information, guidance, and additional training for non-clinical careers is less common in many academic programs, and less than 50% of students (median: 3.3 years of experience in medical physics; 165 respondents) feel knowledgeable about their non-clinical career options [1].

The lack of student awareness of non-clinical careers is, in part, because many current medical physics graduate programs are heavily biased towards clinical careers. Many graduate programs are staffed by physicists who hold primary appointments as clinical medical physicists. The remaining faculty tend to be physicists working in academic research. Thus, graduate students are well prepared for and knowledgeable of clinical and academic career paths, but not as knowledgeable about other careers. Most graduate programs strive to obtain (or maintain) Commission on Accreditation of Medical Physics Education Programs (CAMPEP) accreditation, which follows standards appropriate for the training of clinical physicists.  CAMPEP accreditation does allow the option for programs to have tracks for students not interested in certification by the American Board of Radiology (ABR), though only a small number of students generally participate in that track. A common experience is that, non-clinical training is not prioritized and students are not necessarily informed of all the opportunities open to them as they enter the world of medical physics.

Although students are primarily educated about their clinical opportunities, there is no guarantee that students will be able to pursue an ABR-certified clinical career. In 2014, the ABR began requiring students who entered into the ABR process to complete a CAMPEP-accredited residency program prior to their eligibility for full board certification. This standardized clinical training, but also limited the number of physicists able to become ABR certified. In 2016, 258 students graduated with a master’s degree, doctoral degree, professional doctorate, or certificate from a CAMPEP-accredited program; yet there were only 144 residency positions available [2]. This disparity demonstrates the need to educate medical physics students about non-clinical career opportunities that may be available.

To help address this unmet need, the Working Group to Promote Non-Clinical Careers in Medical Physics (WGNCMP) was formed in 2014. The mission of the WGNCMP is to investigate opportunities for trained medical physicists outside of the clinic, and to disseminate this information as well as the necessary training to obtain these positions. This series of blog posts is intended to educate medical physicists about the career options available to them beyond clinical physics, including entry requirements for these alternative careers.

General advice

The 2015 AAPM Professional Survey reports that 81% of its members work in primarily clinical roles [3]. The remaining 19% work primarily in academic, administrative, regulatory, or industrial roles. However, it is unclear how many non-AAPM physicists work in non-clinical roles in fields that could be considered as part of medical physics. A separate report from the Centers for Health Workforce Studies discusses an independent model for non-clinical medical physicists [4]. In this report, it is noted that board certification is typically not a requirement for employment, and that specialization in a category such as therapy or diagnostic imaging is not as prevalent. The lack of certification and specialization requirements may make non-clinical jobs potentially easier to obtain, while frequently offering comparable pay and potentially better work-life balance to clinical positions. Non-clinical career paths are open to physicists with either a master’s or doctoral degree. These factors make non-clinical careers attractive to those physicists who are not exclusively interested in a clinical career. Additionally, physicists looking to change career paths from clinical to non-clinical do not face the same “administrative” hurdles as ones trying to go in the reverse direction.

In a series of interviews with professional non-clinical medical physicists, three common skills were stressed as a requirement of applicants: communication, interpersonal skills, and organization [5]. Communication includes being able to send effective, efficient, and courteous e-mails, present research to both fellow scientists and to an audience of non-experts, and write technical reports. Interpersonal skills include effective and professional interaction with co-workers, customers, and others. Organization is the efficient use of time, budget, and other resources and is an important quality for communicating with others. These skills are important for any career – clinical or non-clinical – and can be developed during training. Those surveyed recommended that students practice these skills while still in school and ask for feedback and criticism from both mentors and fellow students. Individual career paths require additional training, which will be described in depth in the blog posts to follow.

References:

[1] Tanny, S., Roth, A., Peeler, C., Rodrigues, A., and Ready, J. SU-E-E-04: Assessment of Medical Physics Students and Trainees Interest and Awareness of Non-Clinical Careers. American Association of Physicists in Medicine (2015), DOI: 10.1118/1.4923926. https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B4m2DyLfzC1EQm5GRGx4TTE4czQ.

[2] Loughery, Brian, et al. “Navigating the medical physics education and training landscape.” Journal of Applied Clinical Medical Physics 18.6 (2017): 275-287. DOI: 10.1002%2Facm2.12202.

[3] AAPM (2016). Professional Survey Report Calendar Year 2015. https://www.aapm.org/pubs/protected_files/surveys/AAPM-Salary15.pdf

[4] Center for Health Workforce Studies (2010). Workforce Study of Medical Physicists in the U.S. Rensselaer, NY. https://www.aapm.org/pubs/studies.asp

[5] Unpublished WGNCMP interviews conducted with professionals having experience with non-clinical careers.

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