What is health physics and how does it differ from physics?
Health physics is the science of measuring and controlling radiation to ensure protection of people and the environment from potential radiological hazards. A health physicist is a specialist in radiation and its effects on people and the environment. Health physicists often are responsible for ensuring the safety of workers who handle radioactive material or use radiation-generating equipment in settings such as research, medical, nuclear power generation or general industry. Other health physics professionals support environmental restoration or cleanup work, where they ensure the safety of people and help prevent releases to the environment during work that involves radioactive materials.
Physics involves the study of matter and its motion through space and time, as well as related concepts such as energy and force. Health physics includes some sub-categories of physics such as atomic structure, the origin of various types of radiation and the interaction of radiation with matter. Health physics requires knowledge in multiple subject areas, such as biology, environmental science, toxicology, chemistry, nuclear engineering, physics, math and statistics.
What are the career opportunities for someone in health physics?
Health physicists usually work at facilities where radionuclides or ionizing radiation are used or produced, such as medical institutions, research laboratories, universities, nuclear power plants, regulatory agencies and manufacturers. The use of radiation is increasing, for everything from energy production to health care. Examples of man-made sources of radiation used for beneficial purposes include medical isotopes and radiation producing equipment used for diagnosis and treatment of diseases, nuclear power plants that generate electricity, pharmaceutical research using tracer isotopes and the manufacture of specialized gauges and measuring devices that incorporate radioactive sources. X-rays and computerized tomography (CT) scans are now routinely used for security checks at airports and public buildings and irradiation of food is done to destroy bacteria in foods and extend the shelf life of spices. Radiation safety professionals design and implement programs to ensure personnel radiation exposures and releases to the environment are kept as low as reasonable and within regulatory requirements. Typical activities may include assisting with design of facilities or work processes, development of radiation safety procedures, performing surveys and posting of work areas. Many career opportunities exist in the cleanup of residual radioactive material at former government and private sites. EnergySolutions routinely performs decommissioning of facilities and remediation of soil at legacy sites across the country.
Job opportunities exist at universities, utilities with nuclear power plants, medical facilities, private industry such as pharmaceutical companies, Department of Energy (DOE) sites, national laboratories and regulatory agencies such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and individual states. The Health Physics Society projects there will be a shortfall of radiation safety professionals over the next 5 to 10 years. According to information supplied by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) there were only 154 Health Physics degrees awarded in 2009, which is not enough to meet demand as more jobs become available and retirements deplete the supply of qualified professionals.
The Health Physics Society publishes salary information, which shows that in 2007 (latest available) the median annual salary for a professional with a Masters degree in health physics or related field was $96,250 and in 2009 the median salary for a Certified Health Physicist (CHP) was $122,022. Starting salaries for 2009 were in the $50,000 to $70,000 range, depending on degree level. A recent glance at job postings on the Health Physics Society website revealed 48 vacant positions in the U.S. and Canada. More openings can be found on other websites or by checking company job postings.
What educational paths are available to someone who wants to be a health physicist?
A total of 25 universities have undergraduate or graduate degree programs in Health Physics (http://hps.org/publicinformation/opportunities.html). Comprehensive programs may offer specialization in medical physics, biophysics, radioecology, radiation biology or applied health physics. As mentioned earlier, a multi-discipline curriculum could include courses such as biology, chemistry, nuclear engineering, physics, math and statistics. Some health physics professionals (sometimes called radiological engineers) have degrees in nuclear engineering, physics, chemistry or biological science.
Various scholarships and fellowships are offered by the American Association of Physicists in Medicine, the NRC, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Health Physics Society, the U.S. Public Health Service and DOE to support students enrolled in health physics or closely related fields. Due to the possible shortage of qualified graduates to fill the expected demand, Health Physics scholarships and fellowships currently have very good funding levels.
Question: What part of being a health physicist sounds most interesting to you?