We’ve learned a lot about cancer, but there’s still much more to discover. That’s why the world needs dedicated oncologists—doctors who specialize in cancer treatment. Are you interested in becoming one? It’s a path filled with hard work and the rewarding goal of helping patients with cancer.
In this guide, we’ll walk you through what it takes to become an oncologist. We’ll cover the education you need, the training involved, and answer common questions. If you’re considering this career, keep reading to learn more!
What Is an Oncologist?
Oncologists are doctors who focus on cancer care. They diagnose cancer, treat it, and manage patients’ care after treatment. There are three main types of oncologists:
- Medical oncologists: They treat cancer using medications such as chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and immunotherapy.
- Surgical oncologists: These doctors perform surgery to remove tumors and affected tissue.
- Radiation oncologists: They specialize in treating cancer with radiation therapy.
These specialists often work together as a team to provide comprehensive care for cancer patients, from diagnosis through treatment and follow-up care.
What Does an Oncologist Do?
An oncologist’s role centers around diagnosing and treating cancer. They use various tests, such as biopsies, scans, and blood tests, to identify the type and stage of cancer. Based on these findings, they develop a personalized treatment plan, which may include options like surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, or newer treatments like immunotherapy.
Oncologists don’t work alone; they collaborate with a team of specialists to ensure comprehensive care for their patients. They closely monitor treatment progress, manage any side effects, and watch for signs of the cancer returning. In cases where cancer cannot be cured, they focus on palliative care, helping to ease symptoms and enhance the patient’s comfort and quality of life.
How To Become an Oncologist
Becoming an oncologist requires several years of education and training, amounting to 13-14 years after finishing high school. Here’s what you need to do to become an oncologist:
Get a bachelor’s degree
Your path to a career in oncology starts with securing a bachelor’s degree. While the field of your major is flexible, it’s essential to incorporate key courses required for medical school. Concentrate on areas such as biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. These subjects are not just prerequisites for medical school; they also form the foundational knowledge needed for future medical studies.
Take and pass the MCAT
Your next step is the MCAT, a crucial standardized test for medical school admission. It’s a computer-based, multiple-choice exam that tests your critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and knowledge in sciences and social sciences. The test is roughly seven and a half hours long and consists of four main areas:
- Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
- Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
- Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior
- Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills
Complete a four-year medical school program
Once you’ve earned your bachelor’s degree and passed the MCAT, your journey continues in medical school. This pivotal four-year phase culminates in earning either an MD (Doctor of Medicine) or DO (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine) degree.
The curriculum is divided into two parts. The first half focuses on foundational science courses like anatomy, physiology, and biochemistry. In the second half, you transition to practical training, gaining valuable clinical experience in hospitals or other healthcare settings.
Complete a medical residency program
After completing medical school, you can apply to residency programs in a hospital or clinic. Here, your chosen specialty shapes your trajectory. Each path guides you through a unique residency journey, laying the foundation for your future expertise in the field.
Secure a fellowship
After your residency, you’ll move on to an oncology fellowship. This is where you’ll gain in-depth knowledge about diagnosing, treating, and managing various types of cancer. Fellowships offer specialized training in areas beyond the general fields of medical, surgical, and radiation oncology. These include subspecialties like pediatric oncology, neuro-oncology, hematology-oncology, interventional oncology, and gynecologic oncology.
An important step is getting a license to practice in the state where you plan to work. Although licensing requirements may vary among states, they typically involve passing the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) for MDs or the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX) for DOs.
The journey to becoming an oncologist concludes with obtaining board certification. This step involves passing a rigorous exam that tests your knowledge and skills in your chosen specialty. Board certification is a recognition of your expertise and dedication to maintaining high professional standards in oncology.
Essential Skills of an Oncologist
Oncologists navigate emotionally challenging situations daily, requiring a blend of specific skills and personal qualities beyond medical expertise. Key skills for a successful oncologist include:
- Diagnostic Skills: A critical ability for oncologists is accurately diagnosing the type and stage of cancer. This skill is fundamental to developing effective treatment plans.
- Research Skills: With constant advancements in cancer research, staying informed about the latest studies and findings is essential to provide top-notch care.
- Interpersonal Skills: Oncologists often encounter patients struggling to come to terms with their diagnoses. Showing compassion, empathy, and kindness during these times is vital. Additionally, a calm and confident demeanor can reassure and comfort patients.
- Communication Skills: Effective communication is crucial, as oncologists collaborate with a diverse team of healthcare professionals, including nurses, surgeons, radiologists, and counselors. Clear and precise communication ensures the best possible care for patients.
Career Growth and Opportunities
There are many ways you can advance in your career as an oncologist. Experienced oncologists can take on leadership roles within healthcare institutions by becoming the head of a research or medical department.
As an oncologist, you can achieve prominence in the field by publishing articles and medical studies, engaging in clinical research and trials, or participating in professional organizations like the American Cancer Society or the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Or you can get involved in healthcare policy and advise government bodies on health issues that impact cancer care at local, national, or international levels.
The Financial Perspective
From a financial perspective, pursuing a career in oncology can be rewarding, as the average salary for physicians and surgeons, which encompasses oncologists, stands at $229,300. However, it’s important to note that this figure can be subject to variation based on different factors such as specialization, years of experience, geographic location, and the type of healthcare facility.
Challenges and Considerations
A career in oncology has many advantages, such as the opportunity to positively impact people’s lives by treating cancer, working in an intellectually stimulating field with cutting-edge technology, and the chance to contribute to advancements in cancer care.
However, a career in oncology also comes with its share of challenges. So, if you’re considering a future as an oncologist, here are some of the key things to keep in mind:
- Emotional Impact: Oncologists experience the highs of patient recoveries and the lows of difficult cases. This emotional rollercoaster can significantly affect one’s well-being.
- Work-Life Balance: The demanding nature of the job, including long hours and on-call duties, can make it challenging to maintain a healthy balance between work and personal life.
- High Responsibility: Oncologists are tasked with making critical decisions in high-pressure situations. The weight of these decisions can be stressful and, over time, may lead to burnout.
The Bottom Line
The path to becoming an oncologist, while filled with challenges, is incredibly rewarding. Each stage of the journey, from your foundational undergraduate education to the intensive hands-on experiences of residency and fellowship, shapes you into a professional capable of making a significant impact on patients’ lives.
In this field, you’ll collaborate with top experts and engage in pioneering research, contributing to advancements in cancer treatment. Thus, choosing a career in oncology is not just a profession—it’s a commitment to a deeply fulfilling and meaningful purpose.
If you’re ready to take the next step, join our esteemed medical school, where devoted educators and cutting-edge resources will guide you toward becoming a compassionate and competent oncologist.
How long does it take to become an oncologist?
Becoming an oncologist can take 13-14 years after graduating high school. That includes four years to complete an undergraduate program, four years of medical school, three years of internal medicine residency, and around two to three years of fellowship.
Is it hard to become an oncologist?
Yes, becoming an oncologist is challenging. It requires extensive education and strong emotional resilience due to the nature of cancer care.
Is oncology a good career?
Oncology stands out as a deeply impactful career. It allows you to significantly help patients facing cancer. Also, the field is ever-evolving, filled with opportunities to be at the forefront of medical advancements. So, for those passionate about making a difference in healthcare, oncology is not just a good career choice; it’s a path filled with purpose and reward.