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What Does an Oncologist Do?

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Highly Trained Specialists Wage War on Cancer

Oncology is a demanding profession for working moms, who nevertheless report a high level of job satisfaction associated with saving lives and restoring patients to health. Oncologists are among the highest paid of medical doctors.

Job Description

An oncologist is a medical doctor who specializes in the care and treatment of individuals with cancer. Medical oncologists use chemotherapy and other targeted therapy, such as radiation or various medications. Surgical oncologists perform biopsies and operate to remove cancerous tumors and surrounding tissues. Some oncologists specialize in pediatrics, which is the treatment of cancers in children and adolescents.

Education Requirements

To become an oncologist, you must first earn a degree from an accredited medical school. Medical school is four years of specialized education beyond the bachelor's degree. Although there is no formal requirement for a major, it's recommended that medical school applicants complete coursework in advanced mathematics, life sciences, chemistry, physics, psychology, social sciences, English and communications. Admission to medical school is competitive; some applicants have post-baccalaureate credits or an advanced degree prior to application. Acceptance is based on a solid grade-point average, usually 3.65 or higher, and an acceptable score on the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). Work or volunteer experience in health care or human services may work in your favor in the admissions process.

Upon completion of medical school, new physicians take a national exam to obtain licensure in the state where they will practice. Then they must complete two to five years of residency training in oncology, which includes clinical rotations in sub-specialties. Medical residents typically work long hours and may have to be on call evenings and weekends.

Continuing education is required for oncologists who want to earn and maintain board certification. Professional hours can be earned through offerings by medical schools and professional organizations.

Work Environment and Industry

Oncologists work in hospitals, medical centers and clinics, in private practice, and as part of larger health care networks. They may consult with patients, physicians and other health care professionals in an office setting. They administer treatment in the sterile environment of a specialized clinic or operating room.

Although most oncologists work full-time, opportunities are available for part-time practice. Although oncologists find great reward in helping their patients, continual exposure to suffering and death also put them at risk of job burnout. The demands of practice, which can include long hours and an irregular schedule, means that oncologists with young families need reliable child care.

Geographic State and Metropolitan Salary Map for Physicians

Years of Experience

Pay for oncologists depends on geographic location, specialty practice and years of experience. In general, the average base pay for an oncologist is $275,994 per year. Salaries typically range as follows:

  • 0‒1 year experience: $248,330‒$281,256
  • 3‒4 years’ experience: $250,863‒$283,789
  • 7‒9 years’ experience: $257,617‒$289,699
  • 15‒19 years’ experience: $279,568‒$319,341
  • 20+ years’ experience: $283,789‒$325,269

Job Growth Trend

Job growth for physicians and surgeons in all specialties, including oncology, is expected to continue at an above-average pace. The increasing population, as well as advances in the diagnosis and treatment of cancers, will likely mean strong demand for oncologists who practice any sub-specialty.


Denise Dayton is a a freelance writer who specializes in business, education and technology. She has written for, Library Journal, The Searcher, Bureau of Education and Research, and corporate clients.

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