If you have a degree in physics and want to be involved in the latest medical technology, consider taking further training to become a medical physics clinical scientist
As a clinical scientist working in medical physics, you'll commission, develop, test, operate and maintain specialist equipment used to examine or measure what's happening in patients' bodies in order to help prevent, diagnose and treat many kinds of diseases and health conditions.
Working closely with other healthcare professionals, such as doctors and radiotherapists, you'll play a central role in developing, planning and implementing patient treatment programmes and will discuss ways of improving treatment with clinicians.
You'll also help to protect patients and healthcare staff from hazards such as radiation.
Areas of specialism
Areas of specialism within medical physics include:
- diagnostic radiology
- radiation safety/protection
- radiotherapy physics
- magnetic resonance imaging
- nuclear medicine
- ultrasound and non-ionising radiation.
Depending on the area in which you work, you may need to:
- commission, assess and ensure the safe operation of specialist equipment used by medical staff in areas such as radiotherapy, ultrasound, nuclear medicine, laser technology and physiological monitoring
- plan and supervise radiotherapy treatment in discussion with medical and other staff
- speak with patients to explain treatment procedures and possible side effects
- liaise closely with doctors to add technical results to patient reports
- negotiate and agree changes to patient diagnosis techniques in response to new procedures
- process complex patient image data
- support clinical trials
- develop techniques to show what's happening in the body using X-ray, MRI, laser, ultrasound and ultraviolet technologies
- research new equipment developments and techniques, review existing local practice, advise on procurement of new equipment and compile reports to initiate changes
- oversee the quality control of equipment to ensure that correct and consistent results or outputs are achieved and ensure that ongoing maintenance routines are followed
- train and advise medical physics technicians on new equipment and protocols
- lecture and train other health professionals, including radiographers, nurses and doctors, in clinical practice
- draft and develop policies for operating equipment
- make audit visits to hospital departments to check compliance with health and safety legislation.
- Jobs in the NHS are usually covered by the Agenda for Change (AfC) pay rates consisting of nine pay bands. Trainee clinical scientists are usually employed at Band 6, starting at £32,306.
- Once qualified, you're likely to be employed on Band 7 - £40,057 to £45,839.
- Salaries for principal and consultant scientists range from £47,126 (Band 8) to £108,075 (Band 9), depending on your experience and training.
Those working in London and the surrounding areas may receive a high-cost area supplement of between 5% and 20% of their basic salary.
Salary levels for clinical scientists working for private companies, universities, government bodies and other organisations may vary.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
You'll usually work a 37.5-hour week, although weekend, evening or on-call work may be required. In some areas, core hours are 8am to 8pm and staff will work 37.5 hour weeks within this core.
Job-share and part-time work is possible.
What to expect
- The job is mainly hospital-based and may involve working in different hospital departments, laboratories, clinics or in theatre with patients.
- Vacancies are available throughout the UK. However, you may need to be geographically flexible to progress your career.
- You will need to wear protective clothing when working with hazardous substances and radiation.
- You may have to travel to other training centres as part of your training. As the centres may be in other parts of the country, you may have to stay there for a few weeks at a time. You'll also have to travel to university to complete an accredited part-time Masters degree.
- If working in the NHS, you may have to travel between hospitals and to meetings with regional specialists and for training courses. If you're working for a commercial company, for example a healthcare equipment manufacturer, you're likely to travel more frequently. There are some opportunities to work overseas.
Training to become a clinical scientist working in medical physics is done via the NHS Scientist Training Programme (STP), a three-year, full-time, work-based learning and training programme that also includes academic study at Masters level.
To apply to the programme you'll need either a first or 2:1 undergraduate degree or an integrated Masters degree in a subject that contains a high level of physics. You can also apply if you have a 2:2 undergraduate degree in any subject and have a higher degree in a relevant subject.
Evidence of research experience through a relevant Masters or PhD is also desirable. For all applicants, getting good academic results and relevant work experience is helpful.
Applications to the STP are made via Oriel, the online application portal for postgraduate medical, dental, public health, healthcare science and pre-registration pharmacy training programmes. Recruitment usually takes place in January, but check the Oriel website for details. You must pass all stages of the recruitment process, which includes an online situational judgement test (JST), online application and interviews with employers. Sample questions for the JST are available on the Pearson VUE website.
Not all specialties are recruited for each year and depend on NHS needs, so you should check before applying that your specialty is available.
If successful, you'll be employed by an NHS Trust (or in some cases by an NHS private partner or private healthcare provider) as a trainee clinical scientist on a fixed-term contract for the duration of the programme and paid a salary.
You may be allocated to a medical physics post that has a predetermined relevant specialism, e.g. radiation safety and diagnostic radiology, radiotherapy physics, nuclear medicine or imaging with non-ionising radiation, or one in which your specialism will be decided after the first year of training.
The first year of training is spent on rotation in a range of settings before specialising in years two and three. Training includes:
- a programme of workplace training
- fully-funded, part-time study for an approved and accredited Masters degree in clinical science (medical physics)
- a final assessment of competence.
If you already work for the NHS, you can apply to the STP as an internal candidate.
On successful completion of the STP, you will be issued with a Certificate of Completion for the Scientist Training Programme (CCSTP) by the NSHCS and can apply for registration as a clinical scientist with the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC).
For full details on the STP, advice on how to apply and information on competition ratios for each specialism, see the NSHCS.
For information on STP training in Wales, see the Health Education and Improvement Wales (HEIW). There are separate scientist training schemes in:
- Scotland - NHS Scotland - Clinical Scientist (physical sciences)
- Northern Ireland - NI Direct Healthcare Scientist
Other routes to HCPC registration as a clinical scientist are offered by the:
- Association of Clinical Scientists - Certificate of Attainment
- Academy for Healthcare Science (AHCS) - Certificate of Equivalence.
If you don't already have a degree, you can apply for the NHS Practitioner Training Programme (PTP), which provides undergraduate training leading to a BSc (Hons) Healthcare Science in radiotherapy physics, radiation physics or nuclear medicine. Courses are full time (usually three years). The PTP is also available as a Level 6 apprenticeship.
After graduating, you're eligible to apply for Professional Standards Authority (PSA) Accredited Voluntary Registration via the AHCS as a healthcare science practitioner. If you have a 2:1 or above you could also apply to the STP.
You'll need to have:
- an interest in healthcare and the functions of the human body
- an analytical and investigative mind
- excellent oral and written communication skills
- the ability to work independently and use your initiative
- laboratory and management skills
- good IT skills, as most laboratories are highly computerised
- meticulous attention to detail
- the ability to solve problems and research alternative solutions
- a self-motivated and confident approach to work, to gain the most from training placements in busy hospital departments
- the ability to work effectively as part of a team
- the ability to lead and motivate others
- a willingness to keep up to date with the latest scientific and medical research in medical physics.
Competition for entry on to the STP is tough. To improve your chances, try and get some work experience within a hospital medical physics or engineering department. Arrange a visit to a department in your local hospital to find out more about the role. Direct experience with patients can also be useful.
If you're studying a relevant degree or Masters then you may have the opportunity to complete a placement as part of your course.
If the chance arises, attend an open day for your specialism to gain a better insight into the role and STP programme. Additional experience, such as involvement with research projects and publications, is also useful.
Find out more about the different kinds of work experience and internships that are available.
Although the majority of clinical scientists working in medical physics are employed in the NHS, you can also work for:
- private hospitals
- medical equipment manufacturers - helping to design and develop medical equipment
- nuclear medicine companies - working to protect the workforce and local environment from radiation exposure
- regulatory authorities
- the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) - independent regulator for work-related health, safety and illness
- universities and research organisations
- research and development laboratories.
Look for job vacancies at:
- Jobs.ac.uk - for jobs in academia.
- Jobs.hscni.net - for vacancies in Northern Ireland.
- New Scientist Jobs
- NHS Jobs - for vacancies in England and Wales.
- NHSScotland Jobs
Once qualified, you must keep up to date with the ongoing developments in scientific and medical research, as well as building on your laboratory and management skills. Continuing professional development (CPD) is an essential part of continuing registration with the HCPC and can include:
- work-based learning, such as in service training, expanding your role
- professional activities, e.g. being involved in a professional body
- self-directed learning, such as reading articles and published papers
- attending conferences, workshops and lectures
- publication in peer-reviewed journals
- presenting research and papers at conferences
- undertaking work exchanges abroad
- undertaking research at PhD level
- applying for research grants.
A programme of conference, study days and workshops is offered by the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine (IPEM). Members can also access online training resources.
Once you've got experience (usually at least one year post-registration), you may apply to train to become a consultant clinical scientist via the Higher Specialist Scientist Training (HSST) programme. This bespoke five-year, workplace-based training programme includes study at doctoral level.
Successful completion of the HSST programme leads to the award of Certificate of Completion of Higher Specialist Scientist Training (CCHSST) issued by the NSHCS, which you can use to join the AHCS HSS Register.
If you decide to progress into academic or research roles within a university setting, you'll need to get your research published in a relevant journal and present it at conferences.
There is a structured career path within the NHS. Once qualified, you can progress through the grades by gaining experience and completing further training, study and research. Promotion is based on merit and you may need to move to other hospitals to make the most of available opportunities.
As your career develops, you're likely to take on a more supervisory role with responsibility for the work of your department. Progression to consultant involves further training via the HSST programme. Promotion to deputy head or head of department is likely to involve the management of a large department or major departmental section. It's possible to gain a senior position by making a significant contribution in your area of expertise.
There are opportunities to move into clinical research either in academia or industry or to get involved in training and registration assessments. You can also develop your career by getting involved with professional bodies, taking on external professional roles or moving into advisory roles. You could also move into general management roles within the NHS.