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Paths of Study

Pathways in medical physics

The field of medical physics is just a few decades old and rapidly growing — which makes it an exciting place to study, to perform research, and work.

Like the similar fields of biophysics, health physics, and biomedical engineering, medical physics explores the intersection of physics and biology, but adds a greater emphasis on direct patient care.

Finding your niche within the field may take time and exploration, but here are a few pointers to help you determine which path to follow.

Choosing a Specialty Track

How do I know which specialty track is right for me?
Our medical physics program features two main specialties:

1. Diagnostic imaging
2. Radiation therapy

Medical physicists typically choose one of these specialties for the focus of their training and career.

In diagnostic imaging, medical physicists work with a clinical radiology team to test diagnostic equipment for quality assurance, aid in diagnosis based on imaging results, and provide patient radiation dose estimations from imaging studies, and to develop new imaging technologies and protocols to improve the quality of medical imaging.

Diagnostic imaging might be right for you:

  • If you want to help improve imaging techniques used to diagnose a variety of conditions and pathologies
  • If you enjoy precise calculations and machine calibrations
  • If you want to work with a wide variety of imaging equipment: CT, MRI, X-ray, and much more
  • If you’re considering a consulting career evaluating diagnostic imaging machines
  • You are primarily interested in the use of low-dose ionizing radiation, or other non-invasive imaging technology to diagnose human disease.

In radiation therapy, medical physicists work with a clinical oncology team to plan and deliver radiation treatment to cancer patients. Physicists research and develop new technologies used to target cancers with tumor-killing doses of radiation. They also oversee quality assurance and safety protocols for accelerators and other technologies used in cancer treatment. Areas of research in medical physics are often multidisciplinary, broad, and typically include aspects of both experimental and computational work.

Radiation therapy might be right for you:

  • If you want to work directly on treatment plans for individual patients
  • If you want to be more personally involved in each patient’s care
  • You are primarily interested in the application of high doses of ionizing radiation to treat cancers

Choosing a Degree Program

How do I choose which degree to pursue?
At Vanderbilt, you have two main pathways for training in medical physics:

  1. A two-year Master of Science in Medical Physics (MS) in diagnostic imaging or radiation therapy
  2. A four-year Doctorate in Medical Physics (DMP) in diagnostic imaging

Our Master of Science in Medical Physics (MS) might be right for you if you…

Want to keep exploring both specialties of medical physics

At Vanderbilt, we offer an MS path for both radiation therapy physics and diagnostic imaging physics. Since the first year of coursework looks fairly similar for both paths, you can explore both sides more fully during your first year and make your final decision about your specialization at the end of your second semester.

Aim to apply to residency after your two years of training here

While the DMP builds two years of residency-equivalent training into the program, most MS graduates attend a residency program for their desired specialty, either at Vanderbilt or elsewhere.

Want to get a degree and go right to work as a resident, pay for which is typically on par with medical residencies.

Have an interest in a PhD or research-focused career

Our MS pathway includes a thesis option, so you can explore research in a low-risk way to see if a PhD might be right for you.

The MS and DMP are both clinically-focused degrees, but the timeline of the MS degree is typically better suited for a transition to a PhD program in medical physics or another science.

Historically, some of our MS students have continued graduate study by joining the Vanderbilt University Physics PhD program and crafting a dissertation on a medical physics topic. Interested students would need to find a Vanderbilt lab able to fund their project.

Importantly, after completing our CAMPEP accredited MS degree, students are free to pursue a PhD in any scientific field. Students wishing to continue with a PhD at Vanderbilt may apply, for example, to Physics, Cancer Biology, Neuroscience, or Biomedical Engineering, or apply to outside programs.

Click here to view a sample academic plan for a Masters candidate.

Our Doctorate of Medical Physics (DMP) might be right for you if you…

Want to pursue a career in Diagnostic Imaging, rather than Radiation Therapy

The DMP program at Vanderbilt focuses on diagnostic imaging. If you’d like to specialize in radiation therapy, consider the MS Therapy track.

Not quite sure about your specialization yet? That’s okay! Check out our MS program, which gives you a taste of both therapy and imaging tracks. In the MS, you have the opportunity to switch tracks after your first year of classes, if you’re drawn towards the other specialty instead.

Want to dedicate yourself to a clinical career, rather than to full-time research

Unlike a traditional PhD, the DMP is a clinical degree— much like a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or a Doctor of Audiology (AuD). Vanderbilt’s DMP includes a valuable research component, but hands-on clinical experience is the heart and soul of the four-year program.

If you think you may want to pursue a PhD later, which focuses more on academic research, including a multi-year independent study dissertation, consider the Vanderbilt MS program. This two-year master’s degree is the perfect jumping off point for applying to PhD programs in medical physics.

Would like to earn the highest clinical degree available in the medical physics field in four years.

The DMP is the highest terminal clinical degree for medical physics, unlike a PhD that focuses on independent research over several years. Earning a DMP increases your marketability as a job applicant in clinical medical physics. With a DMP, you’re expertly equipped to help train the next generation of clinical medical physicists.

MS graduates typically participate in the NMS match to find a place to continue clinical training in residency. But your path through the DMP automatically includes the two years of coursework that an MS degree covers, plus two years of clinical training equivalent to a residency. After successful completion of the requirements for the first two years, an MS in Medical Physics degree (in passing) is awarded as you move into years 3 and 4 of the DMP program.

Once accepted into DMP, you have two guaranteed years of residency-equivalent training at our state-of-the-art medical center under the guidance of the expert team of diagnostic imaging physicists at Vanderbilt

Would like to commit to one place for four years, rather than moving again for a separate residency

In our DMP, you’ll develop deep working relationships with world-renowned medical physicists, who’ll be your professors and advisors throughout your four years here. To them, you’re far more than an observer— you’re a future colleague.

If you have family or would like to avoid changing cities again for residency, the four-year DMP program could also be a great choice. You’ll be able to complete all the training required to become a qualified medical physicist, right in Nashville.

Click here to view a sample academic plan for a Doctoral candidate.

No matter which route you choose, you’ll gain personalized medical physics training on a small group level and a robust network of mentors and future colleagues to support you.