Radiation therapy, also called radiotherapy, is a potentially life-saving form of treatment for various types of cancer, as well as other diseases. If you consider yourself to be a detail-oriented person, possess the technical skills to learn how to operate medical machinery, and are compassionate toward patients with serious illnesses, then a career as a radiation therapist could be an excellent choice for you. While earning a rewarding salary in a fast-growing occupation, you can help patients fight their battles against aggressive diseases. To attain this career, you will need schooling beyond the high school level – and preferably a college degree. In fact, most radiation therapists hold a college degree of some type.
The Role of a Radiation Therapist
In hospitals, outpatient facilities, and doctors’ offices, these healthcare professionals administer radiation therapy to patients with various types of cancer, as well as patients with certain tissue disorders like Ledderhose disease and Dupuytren’s disease. Radiation therapists operate machines like linear accelerators that send radiation into the patient’s body, as well as x-ray machines and high-tech computer programs, in accordance with treatment plans developed by doctors. Radiation therapists are also responsible for examining these machines to ensure they are in safe working order. If patients have questions about treatment, radiation therapists address them.
Radiation therapists work with physicians called radiation oncologists and oncology nurses to care for patients. They also work with radiation physicists, the science professionals who adjust equipment like linear accelerators. Often, a radiation therapist is part of an oncology team dedicated to treating a patient with cancer. The team is made up of radiation oncologists, oncology nurses, and medical physicists, as well as radiation therapists.
The Work Environment of a Radiation Therapist
The three largest employers of radiation therapists are hospitals, physician offices, and outpatient care centers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the largest employer of radiation therapists is hospitals. Approximately 63% of all radiation therapists work in hospitals – local, private, and state. BLS also reports that 24% of radiation therapists work in physician offices The third largest employer of radiation therapists is outpatient care centers, and these facilities employ about six percent of all radiation therapists.
No matter which facility a radiation therapist works in, their work environment is similar. Radiation therapists are on their feet for most of their shift. The role is physically demanding, and requires lifting and turning disabled patients. Also, since the job requires working with radiation and radioactive materials, certain safety protocols must be followed to ensure that exposure to harmful agents is prevented. Procedures typically require radiation therapists to stand for various lengths of time in a different room while patients undergo procedures. Since radiation therapists are exposed to radiation by the nature of their work, it is not uncommon for tests to be administered on therapists to assess their radiation exposure levels over time.
Most radiation therapists work full-time. They keep regular work schedules that coincide with the center, facility, or hospital they work in. Most therapists work during traditional daytime hours, since most radiation therapy procedures are scheduled in advance.
Education Options for Aspiring Radiation Therapists
Aspiring radiation therapists must complete some sort of formal postsecondary education program to become qualified for the demands of this career. Certificate programs in radiation therapy that take only 12 months to complete exist, but they are often not the best degree paths into this career. Many employers prefer candidates who have earned a college degree in radiation therapy at either the associate’s or bachelor’s level, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Students in accredited radiation therapy programs should expect to study computer science, physics, algebra, research methodology, anatomy, physiology, and of course, radiation therapy procedures and the science of using radiation therapy.
In addition to earning a degree, aspiring radiation therapists must obtain a license to work in the field in most states. While licensure requirements vary from state to state, most require that students graduate from an accredited academic program in radiation therapy and complete the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists’ (ARRT)’s certification examination. The ARRT is a leading credentialing organization that recognizes qualified individuals working in interventional procedures, medical imaging, and radiation therapy. The organization offers certification and registration in various disciplines, and it helps individuals to develop careers in the field of medical imaging and radiation therapy. Today, there are more than 330,000 registrants with ARRT.
Important Qualities for Radiation Therapists
Beyond the scope of education and on-the-job training, there are some qualities that cannot be taught. Some important qualities for radiation therapists are innate. For example, empathy toward patients may not be something you learn in the classroom. Although not required, below are several important characteristics or qualities helpful to the role of a radiation therapist.
Detail orientation – A detail-oriented and highly organized individual may perform well in the role of a radiation therapist. Radiation therapists follow precise instructions sent to them from medical professionals and physicians. They must input exact measurements into machines to ensure the patient is exposed to proper, and safe, radiation amounts. Being detail-oriented helps a radiation therapist follow exact orders.
Good interpersonal skills – Since a radiation therapist works closely with patients, having solid interpersonal skills helps. It is comforting for patients to have a caring, empathetic, and competent radiation therapist who can assist them with treatment during times of stress. Being able to effectively communicate in a calm manner can help patients to handle emotional and physical stress.
Strong physical stamina – Radiation therapist roles require the individual to be on their feet for most of their shift. They routinely move patients who need to be lifted and assisted onto wheelchairs or treatment tables. Having physical stamina helps the therapist to be on their feet for long periods of time.
Technical skills – A radiation therapist must be comfortable operating complicated machinery and devices that administer radiation. Strong technical skills help radiation therapists operate computers and other pieces of technological equipment.
Licenses, Certifications, and Ongoing Education
Most states require radiation therapists to be certified or licensed in order to practice. While requirements vary by state, most jobs require basic life support (BLS) certification, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) skills, and ARRT certification.
To become ARRT-certified, an applicant must complete an accredited radiation therapy program. ARRT certification is often earned as part of a radiation therapy program. ARRT certification requires adherence to ARRT ethical standards and a passing score on the certification exam.
To successfully pass the certification exam, candidates must know certain clinical concepts in radiation oncology, be skilled in patient care and education, and understand both treatment delivery and planning. To be eligible for ARRT certification, you must meet one of three different pathway requirements. The most common pathway is to complete an ARRT-approved educational program. From there, you can earn credentials in five different disciplines. These disciplines include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), nuclear medicine technology, radiation therapy, radiography, sonography, and vascular sonography.
Radiation Therapist Earnings Potential
Job satisfaction comes from many different factors. Advancement or upward mobility, earnings potential, flexibility, and stress levels impact job satisfaction. Since most Americans work well into their sixties, finding an enjoyable career that is fulfilling and rewarding is important. Jobs with low stress levels, high earnings, favorable advancement opportunities, and a good work-life balance make employees happy. Employers know that when an employee is happy, they will typically work better.
A career as a radiation therapist offers many components that can add to job satisfaction. Earnings potential is one of the many rewards that becoming a radiation therapist can provide. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for radiation therapists, as of May 2020, was $86,850. The lowest 10% earned less than $61,000, and the highest 10% earned over $132,000.
In certain industries, earnings are better. BLS reports the top-paying industry for radiation therapists is outpatient care centers. An outpatient center is an ambulatory clinic where patients receive preventive, diagnostic, and treatment services that do not require overnight stays. According to recent data published by BLS, radiation therapists working in outpatient centers earn a median annual wage of $112,280. The next highest-paying industry for radiation therapists is physician offices. Radiation therapists working in the offices of physicians help support medical staff by fulfilling orders for radiation therapy. The median annual wage for therapists in this industry is approximately $89,000. Recent publications with BLS report that the third highest-paying industry for radiation therapists is hospitals at the local, private, and state level. The median annual wage for radiation therapists in this industry is $84,630.
In addition to industry, other factors, such as geographic location, may impact the average earnings of a radiation therapist. Top-paying states and the corresponding annual wages for radiation therapists are as follows:
New York: $120,470
Top-paying metropolitan areas for radiation therapists include San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, California; Sacramento-Roseville-Arden-Arcade, California; San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, California; and San Diego-Carlsbad, California. New York City, New York; Seattle, Washington; and Portland, Oregon also rank high for top-paying metropolitan areas.
Some nonmetropolitan areas also rank high for top-paying locations. In fact, BLS reports that the top-paying nonmetropolitan areas are Eastern Ohio, Northeastern Wisconsin, Northern Florida, South-Central Wisconsin, and areas of Kansas.
Another factor that may impact earnings potential is the years of experience working as a radiation therapist. Typically, more experience results in higher earnings. If you are just graduating from college, you will likely have less work experience that a competitor who is already employed in the industry. To showcase your experience as a recent college graduate, highlight any internships, volunteer work, or research that may be viewed as work experience.
Of note, all data collected from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) regarding earnings and geographic locations was last updated March 31, 2021.
Radiation Therapist Job Outlook
Radiation therapy is a fulfilling job in many ways. These highly-skilled healthcare professionals help patients combat very serious diseases, and their work often saves or extends lives. From a career perspective, radiation therapists enjoy both a good salary and rapid growth in job opportunities.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of radiation therapists is expected to grow seven percent over the next eight years. This growth is faster than the average for all occupations. But even with the growth, competition for jobs remains. Candidates for radiation therapist jobs should expect some level of competition for most positions. Recent graduates with prior work experience in healthcare positions and with more education, such as graduate degrees and health certifications, should see the best job prospects. Having a relevant bachelor’s degree can also help set you apart from the competition.
The favorable job outlook and increased demand for radiation therapists should stem from an aging population. As baby-boomers live longer lives, the incidences for disease, such as cancer, continues to increase. Also, as advancements in technology and research increase the detection of cancer, there should be an increased demand for radiation therapists. As of 2019, there were approximately 18,500 radiation therapist jobs reported by BLS. However, 19,900 jobs are projected for 2029. As more treatment techniques are developed, the demand for radiation therapists will increase, and with a promising job outlook, now is an ideal time to pursue a degree in radiation therapy.
Final Thoughts on the Best Degree Path to Becoming a Radiation Therapist
Radiation therapists earn competitive wages while working rewarding jobs. While their patients do not always win the battle with cancer, radiation therapists do assist in providing quality treatment. They often see the same patients more than once, caring for them as they go through a series of treatments. Often, radiation therapists build relationships with their patients while administering treatment over time. But in addition to patient care, a higher-than-average earnings potential and a favorable job outlook make radiation therapy a solid career option in the field of healthcare.
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