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How to Become a Radiologist

March 21, 2022
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IntroductionHow Hard Is It to Become a Radiologist?The Process: Becoming a RadiologistHow to Tell if Radiology Is Right for YouFAQs

Are you considering becoming a radiologist? Explore what you need to know to pursue a radiology career below. 

Introduction

Radiologists are fully trained medical professionals who use medical imaging to help diagnose and treat injuries and illnesses. A career as a radiologist can be rewarding and fruitful, but how can you decide if radiology is right for you?

Here we’ll cover factors that can help you decide whether or not to specialize in radiology. We’ll talk about how to become a radiologist, the length of radiology programs, daily life as a radiologist, and more. Let’s get started!

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What is a Radiologist?

A radiologist is a medical doctor specializing in the interpretation of medical images (radiology). They are fully trained medical professionals with many years of specialized education. Doctors rely on radiologists to accurately determine what your medical imaging exam means, making them a key part of the diagnostic process. 

When diagnosing a medical concern, a doctor may ask a radiologic technologist to perform a CT, X-ray, ultrasound, MRI, mammography, or nuclear medicine imaging exam. Once taken, a radiologist examines and interprets the images to pass onto your doctor. 

Radiologists do not typically interact with patients or discuss medical results with the technologist. Medical imaging is only part of the complete diagnostic process. After receiving a radiologist’s results, doctors apply patient history, other test results, and background information to make a final diagnosis. 

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How Hard Is It to Become a Radiologist?

As with any medical specialty, the road to becoming a radiologist requires many hours of hard work and dedication. Radiology residency programs are considered particularly challenging as they require a lot of reading outside of your regular work hours. Many aspiring radiologists have difficulty coping with the pressure and high expectations.

Residency programs for radiology can be rather competitive and difficult to get into. However, finding a position as a radiologist once you’ve completed your residency should be quite easy as the U.S. is facing a shortage of radiologists, and many positions have opened up in recent years. 

The Process: Becoming a Radiologist

To give you a better idea of the complete process, let’s go over a step-by-step guide on how to become a radiologist. 

Step 1: Complete an Applicable Bachelor’s Degree

As you may know, you must have completed a bachelor’s degree before you can apply to most medical schools. During your bachelor’s degree, you’ll also have to complete prerequisite courses for medical school, such as biology, physics, chemistry, English, and any other courses required by your target schools. 

The most common majors for students who aspire to get into medical school are biology, physics, or social sciences, humanities, specialized health sciences, or math and statistics. Your major doesn’t necessarily have an admissions advantage but can provide helpful information to carry into your medical degree. Completing your prerequisite courses is the most important factor at this stage.

Step 2: Take the MCAT

Taking the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) is an essential component of your medical school application. Even if your prospective schools do not require an MCAT score to apply, it is still highly recommended that you take the exam. A good mcat score will make you eligible for a wide range of medical schools and increase the competitiveness of your application.

Step 3: Complete Medical School

Once you’ve been accepted to an allopathic or osteopathic medical school, you can begin focusing on medicine. During your degree, you’ll learn all of the fundamental knowledge you’ll need to become a doctor of any kind. During your four-year medical degree, you’ll choose to specialize in radiology. While the first three years of medical school are essentially the same for most students,  the fourth year is when you’ll be able to take specific electives that pertain to radiology if you so choose. 

Step 4: Pass the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam

The United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) is a “three step examination for medical licensure in the U.S.” The USMLE is an essential step if you wish to practice medicine in the U.S., regardless of where you attend medical school. 

You can take Steps 1 and 2 CK of the USMLE while attending medical school, while Step 3 must be completed post-graduation. Most students take their Step 1 test at the end of their second year in medical school, Step 2 in their fourth year, and Step 3 after their first or second year of residency. You must complete the Step 3 test before your third year of residency.

Step 5: Complete a Radiology Residency Program

A radiology residency is typically a four to five-year program in which resident doctors practice under the wing of a senior radiologist. At this stage, you’ll have hands-on experience in the field of radiology; you’ll be working on real cases as well as attending lectures and completing reading materials.

Most students report residency as being the most challenging step in becoming a radiologist. Radiology residents work long hours, see many patient cases every day, and have a high volume of reading materials to complete after clinical hours.

Burnout is common among radiology residents, so be sure to make enough time to sleep, eat proper meals, do physical activity, and stay hydrated throughout the day.

How to Tell Whether Radiology Is Right for You

If you’re having trouble deciding whether radiology is the right specialization for you, we’ve got you covered. Here we’ll go over some factors that can help you decide if you should pursue a career in radiology.

Time

Radiology isn’t the shortest program you could take. While some other residencies can take three to four years, radiology often takes five years to complete. In total, it takes 13 years to become a radiologist without a sub-specialization. If you decide to take a fellowship and sub-specialize, your training may take up to 15 years in total.

Salary

In terms of salary and benefits, radiology is one of the most well-paid medical specialties. On average, radiologists in the U.S. make between $373,390 and $496,690 per year, while radiologic technicians make closer to $63,000 annually.

Table of Radiologist Salaries

Source: salary.com 

Salary can vary based on education, certifications, geography, and work experience. Radiologists who have completed a fellowship typically make more than average.

Competitiveness

Radiology residencies are relatively competitive, as are all the other steps you’ll take to become a radiologist. With each application and test, you’ll have to continuously push yourself to be the best you can be. Once you’ve finished your training and proven that you’re ready to take on the field, finding a position as a radiologist should be relatively easy as the U.S. is facing a shortage of medical specialists.

Other Considerations

The path to becoming a radiologist is lengthy and challenging. You should only take on this challenge if you have a true passion and interest in the field. Many radiology students get drained, especially throughout residency.

Having a personal connection to radiology will not only help you stand out from your competitors on applications but will also keep you motivated during the more labor-intensive parts of your training.

FAQs: How to Become a Radiologist

Here we’ll go over some frequently asked questions about how to become a radiologist. 

1. What is a radiologic technologist?

A radiologic technologist is a trained professional who performs various types of medical imaging examinations, including X-rays, CT scans, mammography exams, and more. These scans are then handed off to a radiologist for diagnostic purposes. 

2. How long is a radiology residency?

Radiology residencies typically take five years to complete.

3. What does a radiologist do?

A radiologist interprets medical images taken by radiologic technicians to provide doctors with a diagnosis. The radiologist’s diagnosis is only one part of the complete diagnostic process, as they do not have access to the patient's other test results or medical history. 

4. How many years does it take to become a radiologist?

In total, it takes 13-15 years to become a radiologist depending on whether you decide to sub-specialize through a fellowship program after residency. 

5. Are radiology residencies competitive?

Radiology residencies can be quite competitive, especially for first-choice applicants. Of the 989 diagnostic radiology applicants in 2021, 118 were matched into PGY-1 positions, according to the NRMP Residency Data Report.

6. How much do radiologists make?

Radiologists make between $373,390 and $496,690 annually, depending on their years of experience, specialty training, geography, and certifications. The national median salary for radiologists as of 2021 is $429,390.

Final Thoughts 

Radiology is a challenging and competitive specialty that takes many years to complete. Deciding whether or not radiology is right for you is a tough decision that ultimately boils down to your passion. If you have a strong motivation to go into radiology, it will help you stay motivated and stand out from the crowd. 

Good luck!

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