clinical medical physics

Non-Clinical Career Blog Series #3/7: Non-Clinical Careers in Academic Research & Education

Academic medical physicists pursue research and educational activities. Their research is often focused on improving disease diagnosis and/or treatment. Many of these academic scientists work with advanced, experimental technology and can be developmental (creating new techniques, applications, or approaches), theoretical (e.g., developing methods for scientific analysis of images), or translational (adapting techniques for direct use in the clinic). In a university setting, these physicists may work in medical physics, physics, medical (oncology, radiology, etc.), or engineering departments. As such, they may be teaching medical physics and related subjects to future medical physicists or to a larger population within these departments. Different positions have a range of teaching, clinical, research, professional development, and administrative duties. Additionally, there are positions outside of universities that physicists may pursue including positions at large research facilities (e.g., National Cancer Institute (NCI), research hospitals).

Medical physicists involved in academic research are often primarily funded through research grants available from public and private agencies. In the United States, the NCI and National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) within the National Institutes of Health (NIH), in particular, have active grant programs and provide significant funding for medical physics and cancer treatment researchers. Funding is highly competitive with overall success rates for R01 and R21 grants for the NCI at 12.5% and 8.0%, respectively, in 2017 [1]. NIBIB applications had overall success rates of 19.2% and 8.5% for R01 and R21 grants, respectively, for the same year. The success rate is often lower for new investigators who do not have an extensive publication record, but grant mechanisms have been developed specifically to encourage more junior researchers and increase their funding opportunities. Additionally, the university at which the academic medical physicist is based will often provide start-up funds that can help establish a research program and obtain pilot data in support of grant applications. Grants or contracts may also be obtained from private companies or philanthropic organizations looking to fund certain research projects that align with their interests. Finally, some researchers receive more limited funds for teaching students in the classroom as well as their laboratory.

Physicists hoping to pursue academic research should be prepared to teach and perform research. Graduate students can gain teaching experience through a variety of activities, including working as a teaching assistant, providing guest lectures, and tutoring. When applying for teaching positions, candidates will be expected to provide a teaching philosophy, sample syllabus, and lecture in a relevant topic. It is recommended that interested candidates seek resources to help develop each of these items (e.g., [2]).

While graduate schools provide research experience, additional experience in the form of a 1 to 3 year post-doctoral (post-doc) fellowship is often required to competitively pursue tenure-track research positions. One alternative to the traditional post-doc is a hybrid clinical medical physics residency and research program (guidelines for such programs are being developed by AAPM Task Group No. 278). The aim of such programs is to prepare medical physics trainees for both clinical and academic and/or research careers.

The degree requirements for academia are typically a doctoral degree for research positions and, at minimum, a master’s degree for teaching positions. According to the 2017 AAPM Professional Survey Report, approximately 5.3% of members who responded to the survey (173) work primarily in academic positions (many more are primarily clinical with some academic duties) [3]. These include 60 uncertified members with a doctoral degree, 98 certified members with a doctoral degree, and 6 certified members working in Canada with a doctoral degree. The average self-reported salary for these members ranged from $139,300 for uncertified doctoral degree-holders (median 16 years of experience) to $223,100 for certified doctoral degree-holders (median 18 years of experience). In Canada, certified doctoral degree-holders working primarily in academia reported an average income of $189,000 (median 30 years of experience). It should also be noted that in recent years, the academic job market has become increasingly competitive. A recent study shows that overall only 12.8% of doctoral degree graduates can obtain academic positions in the US [4], though this is highly dependent on the field of study.

Secondary institutions and community colleges

Teaching high school or community/technical college physics is an additional non-clinical career option. This career typically offers the flexibility of 2-3 months of contiguous vacation per year, positions in a variety of geographic areas, and the opportunity to include medical physics topics as examples in the curriculum. Teaching high school physics typically requires a pedagogical degree, such as a Bachelor of Education or, more commonly, a Master of Education. This may be unnecessary, however, for private schools and many states now provide alternative licensure pathways for physics teachers with advanced degrees. As of 2017, the US average salary for a public school teacher was $58,950 (for a 9-month contract); however, salary ranges widely depending on geographic location [5].


[1] National Institutes of Health (2018). Research Project Grants and Other Mechanisms Competing Applications, Awards, Success Rates and Total Funding.
[2] Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CIRTL).
[3] AAPM (2018). Professional Survey Report Calendar Year 2017.
[4] Larson, R.C., Graffarzadegan, N., and Xue, Y. Too Many PhD Graduates or Too Few Academic Job Openings: The Basic Reproductive Number R0 in Academia. Syst Res Behav Sci. 31(5): 745-750. January, 2015.
[5] National Center for Education Statistics (2017). Estimated average annual salary of teachers in public elementary and secondary schools, by state: Selected years, 1969-70 through 2016-17.


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