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How to Become a Radiologist

August 10, 2022
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What is a Radiologist?How Hard Is It to Become a Radiologist?The Process: Becoming a RadiologistHow to Tell Whether Radiology Is Right for YouRadiology Career Path FAQs

”Rohan

Reviewed by:

Rohan Jotwani

Former Chief Resident in Anesthesiology, Weill Cornell Medicine, & Admissions Officer, Columbia University

Reviewed: 6/2/22

Are you considering becoming a radiologist? Explore how to become a radiologist below. 

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

We’ll cover factors that can help you decide whether or not to specialize in radiology. Our guide outlines what you need to know to pursue a radiology career, 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 who interprets medical images (radiology). Doctors rely on radiologists to accurately determine what your medical imaging exam means. Radiologists diagnose or treat illness/disease through various methods, such as: 

Picture of radiologist analyzing medical images

Medical imaging is vital but only one part of the 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 years of hard work and dedication. Radiology residency programs are particularly challenging: they require a lot of reading outside regular work hours.

Radiology residencies can be rather competitive to get into. However, finding work as a radiologist once you’ve completed your residency should be quite easy. The U.S. faces a shortage of radiologists, and many positions have recently opened up. 

The Process: Becoming a Radiologist

To understand the process better, let’s go over a step-by-step guide of requirements radiologists must meet. 

Step 1: Complete an Applicable Bachelor’s Degree

You must have completed a bachelor’s degree before you can apply to most medical schools. During your undergraduate career, you’ll have to complete prerequisite courses for medical school, such as: 

The most common majors for students who aspire to get into medical school are: 

Your major doesn’t necessarily give you an advantage, but science/math majors 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 essential to your medical school application. Even if your target schools don’t require MCAT scores to apply, it’s still highly recommended that you take the exam. A good MCAT score will make you eligible for a wide range of medical schools and give you a competitive edge.

Step 3: Complete Medical School

Once you’ve been accepted to medical school, you can begin focusing on medicine. During your degree, you’ll learn the fundamental knowledge you’ll need to become a doctor. 

During your four-year medical degree, you’ll choose to specialize in radiology. The first three years of medical school are essentially the same for most students. The fourth year is when you can take specific electives that pertain to radiology. 

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 the Step 1 test at the end of their second year of medical school, Step 2 in their fourth year, and Step 3 after their first or second year of residency. 

Step 5: Complete a Radiology Residency Program

Radiology residency lengths can vary, but it’s 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 work on real cases, attend lectures, and complete reading materials.

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

Burnout is common among radiology residents, so ensure you 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 right for you, we’ve got you covered. We’ll review factors that can help you decide if you should pursue a career in radiology.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Radiologist?

Radiology isn’t the shortest residency program you could take. While other residencies can take three to four years, radiology often takes five years to complete. How long it takes to become a radiologist depends on whether you subspecialize. 

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.

Salary

Regarding salary and benefits, radiology is among the most well-paid medical specialties. On average, radiologists in the U.S. make approximately $300,000 annually. 

Table outlining the average salary for radiologists in the US

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

How much a radiologist makes varies based on education, certifications, geography, and work experience. Radiologists who complete a fellowship typically make more.

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 need 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. Having a personal connection to radiology keeps you motivated during the more labor-intensive parts of your training. 

Radiology Career Path 

There are three main career paths for radiologists that can branch into further specialized work and positions. 

Diagnostic Radiology

Diagnostic radiology involves medical imaging technology to diagnose and treat illness and disease. After certifying in radiology, there are six subspecialties in this main career path that require additional training: 

Table showing the subspecialties in radiology and its descriptions

Source: American Board of Radiology

These subspecialties each require a fellowship for additional training and education. 

Interventional Radiology/Diagnostic Radiology

Interventional radiology involves imaging techniques to diagnose patients and treat the thorax, abdomen, pelvis, and extremities. The subspecialties associated with this branch of radiology include: 

To pursue career paths in interventional radiology, you must obtain certification in interventional and diagnostic radiology.

Radiation Oncology 

Radiation oncologists use radiation to treat malignant and benign diseases. Subspecialties in this career path include Hospice and Palliative Medicine, and Pain Medicine. 

Training to become a radiation oncologist includes one year of clinical work and four years of radiation oncology training. 

FAQs: How to Become a Radiologist

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

1. How Long is a Radiology Residency?

Radiology residencies typically take five years to complete.

2. 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 don’t have access to the patient's other test results or medical history. 

3. How Many Years of School Do You Need to Be 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. 

4. 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.

5. 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 average annual salary for radiologists is around $300,000.

6. Is Becoming a Radiologist Worth It? 

Becoming a radiologist is worth it if you’re passionate about radiology. Although it takes 13 to 15 years to become a radiologist, you can enjoy a lucrative career that helps you improve the quality of life of your patients

7. What Qualifications Do You Need for Radiology? 

Radiologists must obtain a bachelor’s degree, attend medical school, pass all three steps of the USMLE, and complete a radiology residency. You can also complete a fellowship for additional training, but it’s optional. 

8. Do You Have to Go to Med School to Become a Radiologist? 

Yes, you must attend medical school before completing a radiology residency. 

Final Thoughts 

Now that you know how to be a radiologist, you understand that this competitive specialty takes many years to complete. Deciding whether or not going to school for 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’ll help you stay motivated and stand out from the crowd. Good luck!

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