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How to Become an Oncologist

May 11, 2022
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About OncologySteps to Becoming an OncologistOncologist SalaryIs Oncology Right for You? How to DecideFAQs: How to Become an Oncologist

Reviewed by:

Luke Hartstein

Former Admissions Committee Member, NYU Grossman School of Medicine

Reviewed: 5/4/22

Have you been considering a career as an oncologist? Here we discuss oncology, how to become an oncologist, and how to decide if the field is right for you.

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

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

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About Oncology

Oncology is the field of medicine that practices the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer. A doctor trained in the oncology specialty 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 different types of radiation therapy to treat cancer. A doctor practicing radiation oncology is referred to as a radiation oncologist. These specialists typically administer radiation therapy over a period of time according to a treatment plan. 

To become a radiation oncologist, medical students need to participate in a radiation oncology residency program after medical school. 

Medical Oncology

Medical oncology uses medication for cancer treatment. A doctor trained in the field of medical oncology is called a medical oncologist or just an oncologist. Medical oncology 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 medical fellowship program. 

Surgical Oncology

In surgical oncology, cancer is treated using surgery. A surgeon specializing in oncology is called a surgical oncologist. Common procedures for a surgical oncologist include removing tumors and performing biopsies as a way to diagnose cancer.

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

Other Types of Oncologists

As you may already know, cancer can occur all over the body. This means there are many different types of oncology specialists and, therefore, many different educational paths. 

The typical path for other types of oncologists is taking a residency that focuses on the system you’re interested in and then sub specializing in oncology through a fellowship program. Other types of oncologists include:

In the following guide, we will be mainly focusing on how to become a medical oncologist. However, the steps can still be applied to other oncology specializations by adjusting the residency and fellowship programs you take.

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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 pot-residency. 

1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

Most US medical schools require applicants to have a complete bachelor’s degree. Your major during your bachelor’s 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:

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 for medical school. 

To ensure you are properly prepared, you should check each of your target school’s prerequisite requirements when building your course schedule for the final two years of your bachelor’s degree. Medical school prerequisite courses will 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.”

You should have completed medical school prerequisite courses to prepare you for the MCAT by finishing your bachelor’s degree. If you are concerned about taking or re-taking 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 US and Canadian medical schools, you can begin by filling out an AMCAS application. You’ll also have to submit all necessary application materials such as your premed CV, MCAT score(s), your personal statement, transcripts, letters of recommendation, and secondary essays. Medical schools may also request an interview.

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 craft your best application possible, from editing your personal statement to coaching you for your interviews. 

4. Complete a Four-Year MD or DO Degree

Once you’ve been accepted to medical school, you can begin the process of earning your medical degree. Both osteopathic (DO granting) and allopathic (MD granting) medical schools will grant you a medical degree and allow you to choose any specialty later on.

It typically takes four years to complete a medical degree. The first two years of your degree will be spent taking general science courses, while the last two can have more of a centralized focus on an area that interests you. The most common courses taken in medical school are:

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

5. Apply for a Residency Program

Now that you’ve completed your medical degree, you can begin applying for residency programs. Oncology is a subspecialty, which means you’ll most likely have to attend an oncology fellowship program after residency unless your area of oncology is offered as a residency program. 

The residency you choose at this stage should reflect the type of oncology you want to practice in the future. For example, gynecologic oncologists would need to take a gynecology residency before sub-specializing, while surgical oncologists need to take a general surgery residency before attending an oncology fellowship.

For medical oncology, you have to take an internal medicine residency before moving on to an oncology fellowship program. Internal medicine residency programs typically take four years to complete. 

Unless a program has provided its own application, you’ll need to complete an ERAS to apply for residency programs. If a residency program is interested in your application, they will most likely 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 residency programs to create a “rank order list.” This list allows medical students to rank their potential programs in order of preference, while residency programs can rank applicants in order of preference. Once each list is 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 that correlates with the area of oncology you want to practice, you can dedicate the next few years to studying that system. As mentioned above, oncology is a sub-specialty 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. For medical oncology, you’ll want to attend an internal medicine residency program before moving on to an oncology fellowship.

7. Attend an Oncology Fellowship Program

If you haven’t already attended an oncology-related residency program, you’ll have to follow up your residency training with an oncology fellowship program. Oncology fellowship programs are typically two years in length.

During your fellowship training, you’ll be able to apply what you’ve learned in your residency program to the sub-specialty of 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 have successfully completed medical school, residency, and your fellowship program, you should have taken all three USMLE Step exams and a board certification exam. There is only one final step to full medical licensure.

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

Oncologist Salary

Now that we have discussed how to become an oncologist, let’s discuss how much they make. The average salary for an oncologist is $195,563 per year in the United States. According to indeed, the highest paying cities for oncologists are as follows:

Table showing the average annual salary for oncologists by city in the US

Oncologist salaries can also vary greatly depending on the individual company you work for. Sky Lakes Medical Center is currently the top paying company for oncologists in the US, with salaries as high as $496,815 per year, more than double the national average.

Is Oncology Right for You? How to Decide

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

Length of Studies

Oncology is a longer educational path because it requires sub-specialty training through a fellowship program after residency. This means the shortest possible length of study to become an endocrinologist is fourteen years. If you are 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. There are also many doctors who have had moving experiences with cancer, meaning you’ll be up against passionate competitors. If you are considering oncology, make sure 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?

In total, 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 then requires four to six years in an internal medicine residency. Finally, you’ll take an oncology fellowship program which is typically two years in length. 

2. Do you need a fellowship for Oncology?

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

3. What residency program should I take for Oncology?

There are many different types of oncology, as cancer can develop all over the human body. The residency program you take for oncology should reflect the bodily system on which you’d like to practice oncology. For example, medical oncology requires an internal medicine residency program, while surgical oncology requires residency training in general surgery. 

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 begin planning to become an oncologist in medical school before choosing your residency program. The specialty you choose in residency will reflect the type of oncologist you will be later on.

If you are 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 complete the school and training for oncology.

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.

Final Thoughts

Oncology is a noble profession and helps millions of people around the world fight the battle against cancer. If you are passionate about oncology, you should absolutely pursue the specialty. You should simply be aware that oncology residencies and fellowships can be highly competitive, and the training to become an oncologist is longer than 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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