By Jessica Donahue, R.T. (R) (T) (ARRT)
Radiation therapists play a critical role in cancer treatment by administering radiation to specific areas of a patient’s body. But more than that, they can enjoy an incredibly rewarding career in healthcare.
I’ve been in the radiation therapy community for more than 20 years and have had the privilege of teaching hundreds of students to become radiation therapists. I’m also chair of the Radiation Therapy Degree Program at Northwestern Health Sciences University. In the following, I’d like to share insights on why you should consider this profession.
1. Become a highly valued healthcare professional within a shorter amount of time
If you’re concerned about the amount of education (and money) it can take to become a healthcare professional, radiation therapy could be an excellent career choice.
In fact, BusinessInsider.com has radiation therapist on its list of the highest paying jobs not requiring a bachelor’s degree. (Also, U.S. News & World Report puts the profession on two of its Best Jobs lists.)
Depending on the education option you choose — and on your current education level — becoming a radiation therapist can take somewhere between one and four years.
Here are four possible paths to becoming a radiation therapist:
- You can complete an associate degree program, which takes around two years, and is the most common option.
- If you’ve already graduated from an associate degree program in the related field of radiologic technology, you can complete a certificate program in radiation therapy in about a year.
- If you already have a bachelor’s degree in any subject, you may be able to complete a certificate program in radiation therapy in about a year.
- There are also bachelor degree programs specifically in radiation therapy, which will typically take at least four years to finish.
(See How to Become a Radiation Therapist for more information.)
2. Join a healthcare profession with a promising future
The need for radiation therapists won’t be disappearing anytime soon. For example, cancer risk generally goes up with age. And as the current Baby Boomer generation ages, there will likely be an increased demand for radiation therapists.
Along with an aging population, this increased demand can also be attributed to improved cancer detection methods and evolving treatments that require a radiation therapist’s expertise.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates a positive growth rate (6%) for the radiation therapist profession over the next decade.
3. Enjoy a great work schedule
The typical work schedule for radiation therapists is an attractive feature of the profession. You usually work in healthcare facilities that operate during daytime hours, Monday through Friday. That also means you usually have weekends, evenings, and holidays off.
This aspect of the profession makes it an especially good career choice for parents trying to accommodate the needs of their family.
Note that radiation therapists are often needed for full- and part-time positions as well as for traveling therapist positions.
4. Choose a professional path with lots of flexibility
Career flexibility is another appealing feature of this profession. Once you finish a radiation therapy program and take the steps to become registered as a radiation therapist, you’ve completed what the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) calls a “primary eligibility pathway.”
If you’d like, you can then expand your knowledge and credentials through the ARRT’s “postprimary pathways,” which allow you to gain additional certifications in medical imaging procedures like the following:
- Bone densitometry
- Computed tomography (CT)
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
- Vascular sonography
And with more qualifications, you can become a more competitive job candidate, have more control over your career direction, and potentially earn more income.
It’s also worth noting that a background in radiation therapy can also be a valuable foundation for pursuing options such as:
- Medical device sales and training
- Healthcare management roles (which may require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree)
- Other healthcare professions such as a physician assistant (which would require a professional degree)
- Directly related professions such as a medical dosimetrist (which would require a professional degree)
6. Make a deeper connection with your patients
Depending on the treatment plan and the nature of the cancer, a patient typically receives radiation treatment five days a week for several weeks in a row. Because of this, radiation therapists are able to become much closer with patients compared to other healthcare professions, and even compared to other members of the cancer treatment team.
The familiarity you can develop with patients involves more than just delivering treatment. You’re in a position to listen, show compassion, and offer emotional support. You’re often getting to know family members as well.
For many radiation therapists, the daily patient interaction is the single biggest reason why they love their work.
Then there’s the general rhythm of each day. You stay busy and focused with a steady stream of daily patients.
7. Be part of a multidisciplinary cancer treatment team
If you engage with individuals easily and enjoy the atmosphere of being part of a team, then you should definitely explore the field of radiation therapy.
As a radiation therapist, you work with other team members, prepare patients for their treatments, practice safe protocols by working in pairs, and interact with additional department staff such as nurses, dosimetrists, nutritionists, and radiation oncologists.
Then, of course, there are the patients you have the privilege of helping every day.
8. Work with advanced technology in an environment that fits with your preferences
As a radiation therapist, you’ll be on the front lines of cancer treatment as you work daily with cutting-edge medical technology. And as that technology advances, it also creates opportunities for you to continually learn something new.
In fact, you’ll have opportunities for life-long learning with continuing education courses through meetings, hands-on training, and directed readings provided through the American Society of Radiologic Technologists.
Make the next move and start exploring programs
In a relatively short amount of time, you could be delivering potentially life-saving treatment and enjoying an extremely rewarding career. Could joining the profession of radiation therapy be right for you?
If you’re intrigued by the information you’ve just read, I recommend that you take the next important step and start exploring radiation therapy programs today!
Jessica Donahue, B.S. R.T. (R) (T) (ARRT) is an experienced radiation therapist and is also Program Chair for the Radiation Therapy Degree Program at Northwestern Health Sciences University.