Frequently Asked Questions

What is health physics?
Health physics is the discipline responsible for the protection of humans and their environment from the harmful effects of ionizing radiation while providing for its beneficial uses. Health physics can be considered an allied health profession, but as a discipline it is much more diverse—health physicists may be involved in many areas such as regulatory-required radiation safety programs, nuclear engineering, medical physics, accelerator physics, ecology, public health, and radioactive waste management.

Health physics is a rigorous scientific discipline requiring fundamental abilities in mathematics (minimally at the level of differential equations), chemistry (including organic and biochemistry), physics with emphasis on radiation physics, and biology spanning the subdisciplines like anatomy, physiology, zoology, and botany. Health physics is perhaps the ideal profession for someone with many interests who has strong analytical and communication skills.
What is a health physicist?
Health physicists (HPs) are found in universities, hospitals, national laboratories, regulatory agencies, and industry. The responsibilities of HPs can be quite variable. HPs may do applied work involving periodic monitoring of radiation fields and radioactive materials in the occupational environment or the outdoors surrounding nuclear facilities. They also may conduct cutting-edge research considering, for instance, the patterns of energy deposition in human tissue produced by different types of radiation or radiation-producing machines.

The field incorporates radioecology, dosimetry, instrumentation, radiation physics, radiobiology, radiochemistry, and many more subdisciplines. If you are the kind of individual who enjoys studying a broad range of disciplines and applying the knowledge from many different areas to solve specific problems, the profession of health physics may suit you well.
What would be the best way for me to obtain a health physics job?
Evaluate your expertise and the job descriptions of a potential employer. If the two are a reasonable fit, then contact the organization in question. It would seem reasonable to describe both your strengths and weaknesses with respect to the required job expectations so that both parties are adequately informed of the circumstances. If you don't find a fit in an area in which you are interested, you might wish to consider additional education in health physics.
I wish to pursue opportunities in the nuclear medicine/hospital radiation safety field and would like advice on how to break into the field.
These two areas—nuclear medicine and hospital radiation safety—have quite different entry requirements. Your eligibility to work in a radiation field is more a function of the course work you undertook during your educational experience and expertise than that which you developed in the workplace. One can practice the profession of health physics in most states without a license or professional certification, so to some extent your preparation and experience would be considered adequate in many situations. Depending on your education and experience, your employer may support your attendance at a training program, e.g., a week-long radiation safety officer course.

Becoming a nuclear medicine technologist (NMT), on the other hand, is quite different. Most health care organizations and some regulations require the NMT to have attended an accredited nuclear medicine technology program and be certified.
Should I major in health physics or biology (or any other discipline for that matter) to become a health physicist?
What are your career goals? Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years? And what do you see as your academic strengths? These questions are designed to narrow a field with many possibilities to those most appropriate for your strengths and initiative. With an appraisal of goals and ability, one can start evaluating the opportunities and challenges presented by the different degree programs throughout the country.

An unedited list of programs that provide various levels of training or education in the discipline of health physics can be found on our webpage, Health Physics Academic Education Resource Information. Most health physics program directors can make time for someone interested in the discipline.
Are nuclear engineers and health physicists similar?
Health Physics is the profession dedicated to the protection of humans and their environment from the harmful effects of ionizing radiation while providing for its beneficial uses.

Nuclear Engineering is concerned with the design, construction, and operation of nuclear facilities.

Nuclear engineers are responsible for some tasks that probably never involve health physicists to any appreciable extent and vice versa. To contrast that, there are some tasks in which these professions are both intimately involved.

Both professions require multidisciplined individuals to understand and solve, in many cases, unique problems. They are clearly entwined professions. Health physicists and nuclear engineers collaborate daily in some facilities, while professionals in other facilities may have little interaction. They are all part of a team interested in the positive and safe application of nuclear and radiation technology for the betterment of humankind.

Nuclear engineering is a slightly larger profession, so one can anticipate, in total, more participants at every level in nuclear engineering than in health physics. Both, in the scheme of things, are relatively small occupations with respect to the total number of participants.

Growth potential in both professions can be categorized as very good. If the application of nuclear power production is again invested in by the United States, the growth potential in both occupations will be considered exceptional. Even if nothing new happens, we already know in health physics that the demand for professionals currently exceeds supply. This is due to the fact that there are more retirements than individuals coming into the field.

The salary earned is by and large comparable when folks are employed in the same facilities and have basically the same educational and experience credentials. Because health physicists have a tendency to be associated with more diverse employment opportunities, they have a slightly larger diversity in their salary distribution.
Is there any advantage to getting an MS in health physics from a physics department instead of radiological engineering from a nuclear engineering department?
There are a lot of ways to get "into" health physics and, to some extent, the route is less important than the end result. Most employers will look to see what credentials (education, experience, recommendations) you have to determine whether or not to interview you, but they'll make any final decisions based on your interview as much as anything else. From that perspective, whether you receive a degree from a physics, nuclear engineering, or public health department really doesn't matter.

The bottom line is that if you have experience, many different degrees will help to further your career in health physics.
A couple of years ago I graduated from college with a BS. For what sort of entry-level health physics positions would a person like me be qualified?
There are many possible opportunities for individuals with your education in technician-level positions. Most facilities would be likely to offer you an entry-level job with the understanding that you would be involved in a great deal of on-the-job training.

If your desire is to find employment in a professional health physics position, an advanced degree in health physics would be the most appropriate starting point. What are your career goals? Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years? And what do you see as your academic strengths? These questions are designed to narrow a field with many possibilities to those most appropriate for your strengths and initiative.
I am interested in medical physics as a career option. How does that relate to health physics?
Medical physicists work in the field of diagnosis and treatment of disease, most often in hospitals and clinics. Health physicists work in the field of radiation safety in hospitals, nuclear power plants, industry, and academia. You can learn more about these two related fields by going to our website description.

For more information on medical physics go to the American Association of Physicists in Medicine website.

You can learn about Careers in Health Physics and find out about Health Physics Academic Education Resource Information.