How to Become a Radiation Therapist
A radiation therapist plays a vital role in helping treat patients with cancer. If you’re deeply interested in helping people, love working with technology, and are looking for a rewarding career in healthcare, this could be the profession for you.
BusinessInsider.com puts radiation therapist at #7 on its list of The 40 Highest-paying Jobs You Can Get Without a Bachelor’s Degree. And U.S. News & World Report puts the profession on its list of Best Healthcare Jobs.
Northwestern Health Sciences University (NWHSU) is dedicated solely to preparing students for careers in healthcare. In this comprehensive overview, we’ll share what it takes to become a radiation therapist and provide even more reasons to pursue this profession. We’ll cover:
- What a radiation therapist does
- The requirements to become a radiation therapist
- Information on how long the process can take
- The benefits of being a radiation therapist
- Tips on how to choose a radiation therapist program
What is a radiation therapist?
A radiation therapist is a healthcare professional who assists in the treatment of cancer by administering radiation to a specific area of a patient’s body.
As an integral part of an interdisciplinary healthcare team, a radiation therapist also works closely with radiation oncologists and other physicians, in addition to medical dosimetrists, nurses, and other healthcare professionals.
Providing physical and emotional support to patients is an integral part of a radiation therapist’s role. Depending on the treatment plan and the nature of the cancer, a patient typically receives radiation treatment Monday through Friday for roughly two to seven weeks.
Because of this, a radiation therapist will become much more familiar with patients compared to other healthcare professions. Also, it’s common for a radiation therapist to interact frequently with the family members of patients.
A radiation therapist’s daily roles and responsibilities may include:
- Using medical imaging procedures and technology to direct the radiation
- Operating the equipment and technology to deliver radiation
- Addressing questions, concerns, and challenges of patients
- Assessing the physical and emotional state of patients over the duration of radiation treatment and alerting appropriate members of the healthcare team as needed
- Providing guidance to patients for alleviating the potential side effects of radiation therapy
What kind of education do you need to be a radiation therapist?
There are several possible academic paths to becoming a radiation therapist:
- Many complete an associate degree program. For example, NWHSU offers an Associate of Science in Radiation Therapy.
- You can complete a certificate program in radiation therapy if you’ve already graduated from an associate degree program in the related field of radiologic technology.
- There are also certificate programs for those who already have a bachelor’s degree in any subject.
- Finally, there are bachelor degree programs specifically in radiation therapy.
What prior education do you need to enroll in a radiation therapist program?
A high school diploma or GED is generally the only education you need to enroll in a radiation therapy program, although programs may require a minimum cumulative GPA.
Note that there may be additional admission steps, such as submitting a personal essay, providing professional references, and passing a criminal background check.
How long do you have to go to school to be a radiation therapist?
Depending on the ultimate credential you earn—a certificate, associate degree, or bachelor’s degree—a radiation therapist program can vary in length from approximately one to four years.
To obtain an Associate of Science in Radiation Therapy from NWHSU, for instance, you will need to complete a 27-month program, comprising five trimesters of coursework and two trimesters of clinical internship.
Your actual completion time will take longer if you opt to take courses on a part-time basis. Alternatively, the program can take less time if you have credits that transfer.
What classes do you take to become a radiation therapist?
Specific course requirements will vary from one program to another, although all students need to become competent in the same practices as dictated by The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT).
To give you an idea of the classes you’ll take to become a radiation therapist, here’s a brief overview of coursework for NWHSU’s Radiation Therapy Program:
- General education courses in anatomy, physics, mathematics, composition, and communications, in addition to the humanities and the social sciences.
- Program-specific courses and lab work related to radiation therapy, including topics in:
- Medical terminology
- Cancer pathology
- Radiation therapy physics
- Sectional anatomy
- Radiation protection
- Treatment planning and practices
- A clinical internship of approximately nine months.
For more detailed information, check out this curriculum list, which also includes course descriptions.
How do you become certified to be a radiation therapist?
To practice as a radiation therapist, you need to be registered with The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT).
By completing a radiation therapy program approved by the ARRT, you will then be able to sit for the ARRT’s registry exam for radiation therapy. Once you pass that exam, you will be a registered radiologic technologist certified in radiation therapy.
Note that, depending on where you practice, you may need to meet a state’s licensure requirements. According to the ARRT, “[S]ome—but not all—states require you to be certified and registered through ARRT before you can obtain a state license.”
Can radiation therapists make good money?
As noted above, radiation therapist is #7 on BusinessInsider.com’s list of The 40 Highest-Paying Jobs You Can Get Without a Bachelor’s Degree. That’s one indicator of just how financially rewarding this profession can be.
Keep in mind that salary estimates vary widely from one region of the country to another.
You also want to take into account workplace benefits like health insurance and retirement plans—as well as stress levels, work/life balance, and the opportunities for professional development.
Finally, no matter how “good” the pay is, the job has to be the right fit for you. If you don’t find it enjoyable and rewarding, it can be increasingly difficult to perform at your best, which is ultimately what your patients need and deserve.
What are the benefits of being a radiation therapist?
1. Join a highly valued profession with a promising future
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates a faster than average growth rate for the radiation therapist profession between 2018 and 2028.
Cancer risk generally goes up with age. As the current Baby Boomer generation ages, there will likely be an increased demand for radiation therapists.
This demand can also be attributed to improved cancer detection and evolving treatment technologies that require the expertise of a radiation therapist.
2. Seize the opportunity to help people through a career in healthcare
If you’ve wanted to join the healthcare field but had concerns about the time and expense it could take to pursue a bachelor’s degree or an advanced degree, the path to become a radiation therapist could be a great choice for you.
In just over two years, you can begin your radiation therapist career in a rewarding field that allows you to:
- Deliver potentially life-saving treatment to patients with cancer.
- Work one-on-one with patients over an extended period of time and use your compassion, expertise, and communication skills to help them as they confront health concerns and challenges.
- Enjoy the great personal satisfaction that comes with the privilege of helping others.
- Play a vital role on an interdisciplinary cancer treatment team.
3. Create a foundation for further credentials and other directions in healthcare
As a registered radiation therapist, you’ve completed what the ARRT calls a “primary eligibility pathway.”
Should you choose, you can continue to expand your skill set through “postprimary pathways” and gain additional certifications in medical imaging procedures like the following:
- Bone densitometry
- Computed tomography (CT)
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
- Vascular sonography
Importantly, these do not require completing additional programs or acquiring more degrees.
Rather, you’ll need to complete continuing education units (CEUs), often available through online courses, demonstrate competency by performing the procedures under supervision in a professional setting, and then take the requisite certification exam.
The education, training, and experience of a radiation therapist can also be a valuable foundation for pursuing paths such as:
- 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)
- Medical device sales and training positions
4. Enjoy a profession with a great work schedule
Radiation therapists typically work daytime hours, Monday through Friday. Though there can be exceptions, you likely won’t need to work weekends, evenings, and holidays.
Also, radiation therapists generally have plenty of opportunities for part-time positions.
Features like these make the profession a great option for parents trying to accommodate the needs of their family.
5. Work in a steady-paced, satisfying environment
Radiation therapists often find the pace of their job satisfying. Their work keeps them busy, focused, and productive—but not necessarily under high-stress conditions.
The roles of a radiation therapist also provide both variety and consistency. For example, your patients and the specific radiation procedures you use to treat them will vary from day to day.
And you can likely count on each day moving quickly as you work through a predictable, well-defined schedule of appointments.
6. Be an expert in using cutting-edge medical technology
Advances in radiation therapy continue to help improve its effectiveness. As a radiation therapist, you’ll be on the front lines of cancer treatment, working daily with cutting-edge medical technology.
The next step: Review radiation therapy programs and find the best one for you
You’ll want to weigh a number of factors as you consider radiation therapist programs—and ask lots of questions. Here are some of the most important.
Is the program accredited?
When a program is accredited, that means it’s been reviewed by an outside education authority to verify that it meets specific requirements and standards for educational quality.
For example, at NWHSU the Associate of Science in Radiation Therapy program is accredited by the Joint Review Committee on Education in Radiologic Technology.
How flexible is the program?
Look for a program that can fit well with the various responsibilities you’ll be juggling as a student. You can understand how flexible the program is by asking questions like:
- How often do classes meet?
- Is there an online component?
- How does the program handle the lecture and laboratory portions of its courses?
At NWHSU, for example, courses are typically offered in a hybrid format. That means some lecture and pre-lab activities can be completed online when it best fits into a student’s schedule.
Meanwhile, other classroom and lab components are integrated within the same on-campus class period.
This allows students to learn about practices and procedures through direct instruction, followed immediately by demonstration and hands-on practice. This format is effective for reinforcing learning.
Also, full-time radiation therapy students at NWHSU typically only need to be on campus two days a week (generally Tuesdays and Thursdays or Mondays and Wednesdays).
What is the instructor-to-student ratio?
Find out about your class sizes. Your preparation to become a radiation therapist should involve an extensive amount of hands-on work. Smaller class sizes will make it much easier to get valuable one-on-one attention.
How supportive is the learning environment?
You may want to speak with current students to see how accessible and responsive instructors and other faculty are to answer questions and provide extra support to help you succeed.
You’ll also benefit from a program in which you can practice procedures in a comfortable, supportive setting under the supervision of helpful instructors.
What kind of equipment does the program provide?
Since the hands-on component of your radiation therapy education is so critical, make sure to inquire about the instrumentation and technology that you’ll have access to for on-campus training.
At NWHSU, for instance, students gain valuable training experience by using a simulated 3D linear accelerator, the primary technology radiation therapists use on a daily basis.
What’s the program (and the college or university in general) like?
To give you an idea of what a program is like, schools may put on multiple admissions events a year for prospective students. If it’s not possible to attend in person, check out the program’s virtual events.
Similarly, to get a feel for the campus and the life of a student, you can schedule a visit or a virtual tour.
How much does radiation therapy school cost?
A program in radiation therapy should be as transparent as possible as it clearly lays out its fees. As you consider cost, be sure to consider all the other expenses that will be involved in attending. For example, how will you get to school? And what will the expenses be related to that travel?
Make sure you incorporate financial concerns into your search early on. The best place to start is with a school’s financial aid specialists. Be sure to also research both school-sponsored scholarships and external scholarships.
Finally, here’s an important caveat as you research programs: Don’t simply look for the lowest cost. Remember that the value you gain from attending a given program will depend a lot on how well it prepares you to be a successful professional.
The best programs not only deliver subject matter. They also help you develop both the hands-on technical skills and the patient communication skills that are integral to being an effective radiation therapist.