Thinking about a career in radiation oncology? Learn more about the field and explore frequently asked questions on application and interview process. In addition, take advantage of helpful resources for medical students interested in radiation oncology.
What is radiation oncology?
Radiation oncology is a field in medicine that uses ionizing radiation to treat patients with cancer and other benign conditions such as trigeminal neuralgia and keloids. The goal is to deliver radiation precisely to a defined target while providing minimal damage to surrounding normal tissue.
How long is residency?
Residency is a total of five years. Some institutions have a built in first year of general medicine, while others ask that you apply to a separate internship. The internship can be a pure medicine, pediatric or surgery preliminary year or a combination of fields called a transitional year.
Are there fellowships following residency?
There are numerous fellowships across the country including those in pediatrics, research, brachytherapy, protons and individual sub-sites or combinations of sub-sites within radiation oncology.
Is applying to radiation oncology competitive?
Though there is no absolute cutoff as to scores needed to apply in the field, most programs look favorably at above average board scores, research both in the field and outside the field, class rank and recommendation letters from radiation oncologists.
What if I don't love physics?
You don’t have to love the subject material. Most residency programs in the country teach a formal physics course. Physicians work with physicists to ensure that treatment is delivered accurately to patients.
What is a typical week like in radiation oncology?
A resident's day varies from day to day. As a resident you will typically see consults, follow-ups, throughout the day and be involved in the treatment planning and delivery for a significant portion of your day. On some days, you will perform brachytherapy procedures in your department or in the operating room. Treatment planning typically entails simulating the patient prior to treatment in the appropriate position, outlining tumor volumes and normal structures to plan treatment fields and reviewing treatment plans with dosimetry/physics. In addition throughout the week, you will also approve port films to ensure patients are treated in the right position. Typically departments operate Monday through Friday as primarily an outpatient practice.
What is call like for a radiation oncology resident?
Typically call is taken in week long segments from home. Residents on call do not stay in-house, but are available by pager for patient issues and emergency consults. Commonly called emergencies are spinal cord compressions and superior vena cava syndrome which may warrant urgent radiation therapy. The frequency of call depends upon the size of your department.
Where is radiation oncology as a specialty headed?
The field is constantly growing and the technology is amazing. We are constantly working to increase the accuracy of the treatment while decreasing the toxicities of our treatment through the use of new technology (e.g., IMRT, Protons, etc.) and radioprotectors. It is an exciting time to be in the field and watch it change to improve patient care.
Are my kids going to have three eyes and four ears if I go into the field?
Studies have revealed that in the modern age of radiation oncology in the United States that there is no increased risk for a cancer or increased risk birth defects to progeny. In addition, all of the staff that works in the department wears film badges to track the amount of radiation exposure.
Who governs the specialty?
Radiation oncologists receive board certification from the American Board of Radiology. Historically radiologists who received additional training in radiation oncology delivered radiation. As radiation oncology expanded, the specialty created a completely separate residency.
How many boards must a radiation oncologist take to become board certified?
In total radiation oncology residents take four different board examinations. Radiation oncology residents take physics and radiobiology boards after their fourth year of residency, clinical written boards after their fifth year of residency and oral clinical boards one year after completing residency.
Who should write my letters of recommendation?
Many programs recommend that you get at least one letter from a radiation oncologist. Like most specialties we value the opinion of our colleagues. Rotating within your home institution, away electives and research give medical students ample opportunity to connect with individuals within the field who can write letters of recommendation for them during the application process. Getting letters from other fields is not discouraged and may provide a balanced view of applicants.
How many programs should I apply to?
There is no set amount of programs one should apply to. The most important thing is that you are comfortable with how many programs you applied to. When completing the residency matching process, you don't want to have any regrets.
Are people happy in the field?
Radiation oncology is an amazing field that constantly challenges you as an individual. You will be constantly rewarded as you work to improve the health of your patients. The rewards far outweigh the work you will put into the field. We encourage you to face the challenge and join us in the exciting and ever-changing field of radiation oncology.
When do programs begin to offer interviews?
Generally programs wait for the Dean’s Letter to be released on November 1 of the application year. Do not be dismayed if you get rejections before November 1. Some programs will make initial cuts before the Dean’s Letter release date.
How soon should I schedule my interview once I am offered one?
Some programs fill up their interview spots the day they begin offering interviews. It is best to contact the program as soon as possible to schedule interviews or you may lose your spot.
How many interviews do I need to go on?
A good goal is eight or more interviews. If you look at the match statistics released annually from the National Resident Match Program (NRMP), almost all applicants with eight or more interviews match into a residency position.
Where should I interview?
Interview anywhere you will be happy training for four years. If you absolutely know that you do not want to move to a particular location, then consider not applying/interviewing.
How should I prepare for my interview?
Use your travel time to review your research projects, read about the program on their website. Prepare a few stock questions that you will ask at the end of interviews since you will likely be asked, "What questions do you have for me?"
What should I wear?
How long is the interview day?
Most programs will use an entire day. You can expect to interview with several attendings and residents. Do not be surprised if you interview with physics, radiobiology or physics staff. Some programs use a panel style interview rather than many individual interviews. Programs will generally inform you prior to your interview day of what to expect.
If a program offered a pre/post-interview social, does this mean I have to attend?
This is a good chance to get to know a program well and interact with residents. Keep in mind, this may be a place you will work for four years. Most programs make decisions based on the actual interviews, so missing the dinner to catch a flight is likely OK. Programs understand how hectic the interview season can be.
Should I send thank you notes?
Aaah, the great thank you note dilemma. Although certainly the polite thing to do, decisions on ranking applicants likely are not affected by thank you notes. Unless a program specifies whether or not to send thank you notes, there is no right or wrong answer. With electronic communication, hand-written thank you notes may be overkill. Also, certainly do not hesitate to email any of the residents or attending with whom you interviewed if you have questions about the program that were not answered. If you are still unsure, consider a second-look interview.