How to Become an Oncologist

August 23, 2023

Reviewed by:

Luke Hartstein

Former Admissions Committee Member, NYU Grossman School of Medicine

Reviewed: 5/4/22

Have you considered becoming an oncologist? We’ll discuss oncology and how to decide if the field is right for you.

When deciding on a medical specialty, you may have thought about oncology. Since many of us have had negative experiences with cancer, oncology is a popular specialty. But how does one become an oncologist? Let’s talk about it!

Here we’ll cover a step-by-step guide on how to become an oncologist. To help you make the best career decision, we’ve also included important facts about oncology, such as study length, the specialty’s pros and cons, oncology salary, and more. 

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Steps to Becoming an Oncologist

Here is our step-by-step guide on how to become an oncologist. Note that oncology is a subspecialty, meaning a fellowship program is required post-residency. 

1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

Most U.S. medical schools require applicants to complete a bachelor’s degree. Your college major won’t impact your chances of admission to medical school. However, you should ensure that your major allows you to take the mandatory prerequisite courses for medical school. 

Commonly required medical school prerequisite courses are:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Mathematics
  • English
illustration outlining the medical school course requirements

Each medical school you apply for will have a unique set of mandatory or recommended prerequisite courses. The above list represents the minimum typical prerequisite courses. 

To ensure you’re prepared, check each of your target school’s requirements. Medical school prerequisite courses also help you prepare for the MCAT. 

2. Take the MCAT

Most medical schools view your MCAT score as an important factor in your acceptance. The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is a “standardized, multiple-choice, computer-based test that has been a part of the medical school admissions process for more than 90 years.”

Completing medical school prerequisite courses helps you prepare for the MCAT. If you’re concerned about taking or retaking the MCAT, contact an experienced tutor to help you study for the test.

3. Apply for Medical School

At this point, you’re ready to begin applying to medical schools. To apply to most U.S. medical schools, you’ll fill out an AMCAS application. You’ll also have to submit necessary application materials such as your: 

  • Pre-med CV
  • MCAT score(s)
  • Personal statement
  • Transcripts
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Secondary applications/essays 

Medical schools typically request students participate in an interview if they want them to continue in the admissions process.

infographic outlining the medical school application process

The medical school application process can be long and challenging. To give yourself your best chance at admission, you may want to contact an experienced admissions consultant. Admissions consultants help you polish your application, from editing your personal statement to interview prep. 

4. Complete a Four-Year MD or DO Degree

Once you’ve been accepted to medical school, you can begin earning your medical degree. Osteopathic and allopathic schools grant you a medical degree and allow you to choose any specialty later.

It typically takes four years to complete a medical degree. In a standard educational model, the first two years are spent taking general science courses, while the last two are centralized on clinical experience and rotations in areas that interest you. The most common courses taken in medical school are:

  • Anatomy
  • Biochemistry
  • Ethics
  • Pharmacology
  • Physiology
  • Psychology

Medical school is also when you’ll begin the process for medical licensure. Most students take Step 1 of the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) at the end of their second year in medical school. You’ll typically take Step 2 at the end of your fourth year of medical school and Step 3 during your residency.

5. Apply for a Residency Program

You can begin applying for residency programs. Oncology is a subspecialty, so you’ll likely have to attend an oncology fellowship program after residency unless you find oncology residencies related to your interests. 

Your residency choice should reflect the oncology type you want to practice. For example, gynecologic oncologists must complete a gynecology residency before subspecializing. For medical oncology, you must take an internal medicine residency before moving on to an oncology fellowship program.

Using the ERAS application, you can apply for oncology residencies (or other related programs). If a residency program is interested in you, they’ll ask you for an interview or additional application materials. You can then move forward with the matching process.

The National Residency Matching Program (NRMP) system allows future residents and programs to create a “rank order list.” This list allows students and programs to rank each other; once the lists are submitted to the algorithm, the “Match” pairs each resident with the most compatible program possible.

6. Complete A Residency Program

Once you’ve been accepted into a residency program, you can dedicate the next few years to studying that system. As mentioned above, oncology is a subspecialty and typically requires fellowship training post-residency. 

Certain types of oncology offer residency programs, such as radiation oncology. However, you can still expect to attend five or more years of residency/fellowship training to become an oncologist. 

7. Attend an Oncology Fellowship Program

If you haven’t already attended an oncology-related residency program, you’ll have to enter an oncology fellowship program. Oncology fellowship programs are typically two years long.

During your fellowship training, you’ll apply what you’ve learned to oncology. Oncology fellowship programs are highly competitive and require a high level of dedication to attend. Once you’ve completed your oncology fellowship, you can complete the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) exam for board certification. 

8. Obtain Your Medical License

Once you’ve completed all these steps, there’s one hurdle left: obtain full medical licensure.

You’ll likely need to obtain state licensure at this stage. Most U.S. states have separate requirements for medical licensure and must verify your documents, education, and exam results before granting your license. You should apply for state licensure in every state you intend to practice in to avoid delays. 

About Oncology

Oncology is the field of medicine that practices cancer prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. A doctor trained in oncology is referred to as an oncologist. The field of oncology is broken up into three major areas based on types of cancer treatments: radiation oncology, medical oncology, and surgical oncology.

Radiation Oncology

Radiation oncology uses radiation therapy to treat cancer. Radiation oncologists typically administer radiation therapy over time according to a treatment plan. 

Medical students must participate in a radiation oncology residency program after medical school to become radiation oncologists.

Medical Oncology

Medical oncology uses medication for cancer treatment. Treatments include chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy. To become a medical oncologist, you must complete an internal medicine residency program and then subspecialize in oncology through a fellowship program. 

Surgical Oncology

In surgical oncology, cancer is treated using surgery. Common procedures for a surgical oncologist include removing tumors and performing biopsies to diagnose cancer.

To become a surgical oncologist, medical students must complete a general surgery residency and a surgical oncology fellowship program. 

Other Types of Oncologists

Cancer can impact many vital organs and body parts. This means there are many types of oncology specialists and, therefore, many different educational paths. 

The typical path for other oncologists is completing a residency focused on the system you’re interested in and then subspecializing in oncology through a fellowship program. Other types of oncologists include:

  • Geriatric oncologists
  • Gynecologic oncologists
  • Hematologist-oncologists
  • Neuro-oncologists
  • Pediatric oncologists
  • Thoracic oncologists
  • Urologic oncologists

This guide mainly focuses on how to become a medical oncologist. However, the steps can be applied to other oncology specializations by adjusting the residency and fellowship programs you take.

Oncologist Salary

Now that we’ve discussed the steps needed to become an oncologist let’s discuss how much an oncologist makes. Depending on what site you look at, the average salary of an oncologist tends to range from the high $200,000 to the low to mid $300,000 range

Your average salary depends on what state you practice in, your industry, and other factors, such as your specialty. For example, a surgical oncologist salary may be similar to how much radiation oncologists make, but your experience level and other factors can tip the scales more in your favor. 

Is Oncology Right for You? How to Decide

Choosing a specialty is a tough decision. Let’s review some points to help you decide if oncology is right for you. 

Length of Studies

Oncology is a longer educational path because it requires subspecialty training through a fellowship program. This means the shortest possible time to become an oncologist is fourteen years. If you’re an older medical student or are anxious to get to work as soon as possible, oncology may not be right for you.

Passion for the Specialty

Oncology takes a lot of passion and dedication. The programs you’ll need to attend are highly competitive, and training takes many years. Many doctors have had moving experiences with cancer, meaning you’ll be up against passionate competitors. 

If you’re considering oncology, ensure you have the passion required to stand out and secure your position in residency and fellowship training. 

FAQs: How to Become an Oncologist

Here are our answers to the most frequently asked questions about how to become an oncologist.

1. How Long Does It Take to Become an Oncologist?

It takes 14-16 years of school to become a medical oncologist. The first four years are spent completing a bachelor’s degree, followed by four years in medical school. Medical oncology requires four to six years in an internal medicine residency. Finally, you’ll take an oncology fellowship program which is typically two years long. 

2. Do You Need a Fellowship for Oncology?

Medical oncology is a subspecialty and requires fellowship training post-residency. 

3. What Residency Program Should I Take for Oncology?

There are many different types of oncology. The residency program you apply for should reflect the bodily system on which you’d like to practice oncology. 

4. Is Oncology a Competitive Specialty?

Oncology typically requires fellowship training, which can be highly competitive. The overall competitiveness of the specialty depends on the residency program you attend. For example, pediatric oncology may be more competitive than medical oncology due to the comparative popularity of pediatrics.

5. What is the Difference Between Hematology and Oncology?

Hematologists specialize in hematology, which is the diagnosis and treatment of blood diseases. Oncologists specialize in oncology, which deals with the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Often, the two subspecialties are covered in a single fellowship program. 

6. When Should I Begin Planning for an Oncology Career?

You should plan to become an oncologist in medical school. If you’re considering a career in oncology, you must also consider the time it takes to complete the necessary training. It can take up to 16 years to become an oncologist.

7. How Hard Is It to Become an Oncologist?

Oncology is a challenging specialty, especially because you must participate in a fellowship program after residency to become an oncologist, in most cases. 

8. What Does an Oncologist Do? 

An oncologist diagnoses, treats, and provides care for individuals with cancer. 

9. What Type of Oncologist Gets Paid the Most? 

According to the U.S. Physician Employment Report, radiation oncology was ranked as the fourth-highest paid specialty. 

Final Thoughts

Oncology is a noble profession and helps millions of people worldwide fight cancer. If you’re passionate about oncology, you should absolutely pursue the specialty. Be aware that oncology residencies and fellowships can be highly competitive, and the training to become an oncologist is longer than in other specialties.

If you’re struggling with any part of the medical school, residency, or fellowship application process, consider contacting an experienced admissions counselor. Admissions counselors can help you with anything from writing personal statements to preparing for tests and interviews. Good luck!

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