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How to Become a Radiologist

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The human body is a mystery to most people. Not to radiologists, though: these doctors spend their careers studying the insides of people, with the assistance of medical imaging equipment. Radiologists are physicians who have to spend a decade or more training for this career. If you're not up to spending that much time in a classroom, several other career options exist for people interested in radiology.

What Do Radiologists Do?

A radiologist is a doctor who specializes in using medical imaging to diagnose and treat medical conditions. Radiologists use a variety of types of medical imaging, such as X-rays, MRIs, CT/CAT scans, ultrasounds and so on. Basically, radiologists look at physical changes or issues that are happening within a person's body.

Radiologists commonly help diagnose bone and muscular abnormalities, organ problems and cancer. Sometimes, they work "behind the scenes." For example, a patient's primary doctor might consult with a radiologist about the patient's tests, without the patient ever meeting with the radiologist.

But some types of radiologists perform procedures that require medical imaging in real time. For example, a patient who has a blocked artery may be recommended for angioplasty, which is a procedure in which a small balloon is inserted in the artery to open it up and improve blood flow. A physician who specializes in interventional radiology can perform this procedure while looking at the person's arteries and veins on a special type of X-ray, which enables the radiologist to see exactly where the blockage is.

Where Do Radiologists Work?

Radiologists provide guidance and support to physicians in other specialties. Oncology, pediatrics, cardiac and neurology teams often rely on radiologists to read diagnostic tests and to consult on cases. Typically, hospitals have radiology departments, equipped with all manner of imaging technology, which serves as a kind of home base for radiologists. Some radiologists also work in private practice, either on their own or as part of a medical group.

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What Steps Should I Take to Become a Radiologist?

Radiologist training requirements are roughly the same as they are for other aspiring doctors. Radiologist schooling starts at universities. First, get a bachelor's degree in biology, in the medical sciences or in a similar field. Next, apply to medical school. Don't worry about finding a medical school that offers a radiology specialty or similar; a general medical school is appropriate for future radiologists. Like all medical doctors, the typical radiologist education includes training in a variety of fields within the medical field.

After medical school, an aspiring radiologist should spend four years in a radiology residency. During a residency program, a doctor practices his chosen specialty in a hospital, private practice or other setting, with a lot of supervision from senior doctors. A radiology resident may meet with patients, consult with general physicians, compile research and perform some tests and procedures on patients – but the resident will have to present his cases to senior radiologists before he can sign off on any decisions, and he shouldn't be allowed to perform procedures alone.

After completing a four-year residency, a radiologist will usually go on to complete some more training in a specialized area. This training is called a fellowship. For example, a doctor who wants to work with cancer patients will complete a fellowship in radiation oncology. If she wants to work with children, a doctor will do a fellowship in pediatric radiology. Again, this is hands-on training: the radiologist will work as a doctor, but with supervision. Fellowships usually last for one or two years. When a doctor finishes a fellowship, the next step is to be hired for a full-time position as a licensed radiologist.

How Much Can I Earn as a Radiologist?

Radiologists start earning a salary after they finish medical school. Both residencies and fellowships are paid employment, although doctors are typically not paid much while they're in training. One survey of radiology residents found that they earned an average salary of $59,300, as of 2018. It's normal for residencies to have salaries in the $50,000 to $70,000 range. A resident can expect his or her salary to increase slightly each year. Residents are also eligible for benefits like health insurance, paid leave and meal stipends.

Fellowship salaries are pretty similar to residency salaries. Like residents, fellows can expect to earn salaries in the $50,000 to $70,000 range.

When these doctors finish their training and are ready to work as fully licensed radiologists, they can expect to get a huge bump in salary. Radiology is one of the most highly paid specialties in American medicine. According to a survey by the American Medical Group Association, the median salary for a non-interventional diagnostic radiologist – those who don't do procedures – was $503,225, as of 2016. Median means that half of people earned more and half earned less. Interventional radiologists, who perform image-guided procedures on patients, earned a median salary of $610,500.

What Steps Should I Take to Be an Ultrasound Tech?

Becoming a medical doctor isn't your only option, if you want to have a career in radiology. Radiologic technologists play a critical role in the field, and these jobs don't require candidates to spend a decade in radiology training.

One option is to become an ultrasound tech. They're also often called diagnostic medical sonographers, or just sonographers. These are the people who operate ultrasound machines, which use sound waves to create images of the human body. The tech presses a special wand against the part of the body he or she is scanning, which then sends images to a computer. A sonographer might do ultrasounds on a pregnant woman, which her doctor then uses to evaluate the heath of the fetus and the progress of the pregnancy. Sonographers also do ultrasounds on other parts of the body, like breast tissue and internal organs, which doctors and surgeons use to create treatment plans.

Becoming a diagnostic medical sonographer requires some advanced education and training. A candidate doesn't necessarily have to have a bachelor's degree but does typically need to be certified to work as a sonographer. Some universities and community colleges offer associate degree programs in diagnostic medical sonography_._ If you already have a bachelor's degree and have completed relevant prerequisites, you may be able to join a certification program and become certified within 18 months to two years. CAAHEP, Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs, is a good place to find local accredited programs in the field of sonography.

Are Ultrasound Techs in High Demand?

A large group of aging Baby Boomers means that ultrasound techs have solid job security in the coming years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that job opportunities for diagnostic medical sonographers will grow by 23 percent between 2016 and 2026. Considering that the average rate of growth across all fields is 7 percent, prospective sonographers should be able to find plenty of job openings when they're ready to start job hunting.

How Much Can I Earn as an Ultrasound Tech?

Ultrasound techs can expect to earn a fairly generous salary, especially considering that they don't have to have four-year college degrees. The median salary for diagnostic medical sonographers was $71,410 as of 2017, and the highest 10 percent of sonographers earned more than $99,840.

Some work settings are more lucrative than others. In 2017, sonographers working in outpatient centers earned a median salary of $81,200. By contrast, those techs who worked in doctor's offices earned a median salary of $69,890.

How Long Do You Have to Go to School to Become an MRI Tech?

MRI technologists perform a similar function to ultrasound techs in that they use imaging technology to capture images of the inside of a person's body. The difference is in the type of technology used. These techs use magnetic resonance imaging, called an MRI, to create three-dimensional images of the body. Unlike sonographers, MRI techs don't work up close with patients. An MRI machine is large and shaped like a tube. The tech helps the patient get into position on a table that slides into the tube, and the tech operates the machine from another room.

The educational requirements are similar for ultrasound techs and MRI techs. In order to become an MRI tech, you'll need at least an associate degree in medical imaging science or radiologic technology. These programs generally prepare students to work as MRI techs or CT or computed tomography techs, although you can pick one to specialize and get certified in. Certification requirements vary by state. In total, expect to spend between two and four years in school preparing for a career as an MRI tech.

How Much Can I Earn as an MRI Tech?

The salary range for an MRI tech is fairly similar to that of an ultrasound tech. As of 2017, the median salary for these professionals was $69,930. The top 10 percent of MRI techs earned salaries of more than $97,460. Techs who worked in outpatient care centers earned the highest salaries, with an annual median salary of $77,140. By comparison, MRI techs working in doctor's offices earned a median salary of $69,020.

Like sonography, the MRI field is expected to grow in coming years. But while employment of sonographers is projected to increase by 23 percent, employment of MRI techs is projected to increase by 14 percent between 2016 and 2026.

Which People Skills Do I Need to Work in Radiology?

Because radiologists often work behind the scenes, these physicians don't necessarily need great people skills – although people skills do help. But a radiologist does need to be able to work well with peers. Because these doctors are commonly called upon to consult with other doctors in other fields, radiologists should be able to communicate their findings clearly and to be willing to collaborate with others.

On the other hand, ultrasound and MRI techs should have a reassuring bedside manner. Patients who are undergoing an ultrasound or an MRI are often anxious about what the results will show. MRI techs have to also be sensitive to the fact that being inside the MRI machine is scary for people who are at all claustrophobic. Ultrasound techs who work with pregnant women also have to be very careful and sensitive, because they are often the first person to realize that something is wrong with the fetus.

One of the things that some radiology technologists find challenging is that they can't give information to the patients – their job is to test, not discuss findings. An MRI or ultrasound tech may realize that a patient has a tumor or has had a miscarriage but can't share that with the patient. Techs also have to be willing to present their findings to physicians and defer to those doctors, who are the doctors who will analyze the techs' findings and make treatment plans based on them.

About the Author

Kathryn has several years of experience writing about career topics, especially those affecting working parents. Her work has appeared on WorkingMother.com and Indeed.com.

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