Everything you need to know about becoming an oncologist

Becoming an oncologist

An oncologist is a specialized physician who works with patients that have cancer. They may work in hospitals, private practices, or even government agencies/research institutions. Some oncologists also keep one foot in academia and teach other doctors, both in university settings and in hospitals.

What does an oncologist do?

An oncologist is a doctor that diagnoses and treats patients with cancer. Patients will see an oncologist for the following:

  • The initial diagnosis after experiencing symptoms
  • An explanation of the diagnosis to the patient as well as the stage the cancer is in
  • Treatment plans
  • Overseeing and administering treatment
  • Helping to manage side effects throughout the treatment process

There are three main types of oncologists:

  1. Medical oncologists who administer chemotherapy and immunotherapy
  2. Surgical oncologists who operate to remove tumors
  3. Radiation oncologists who administer radiation therapy

These physicians may specialize even further by treating only specific types of cancer of specific patient age groups, becoming any of the following:

  • Pediatric oncologist
  • Hematologist-oncologist
  • Gynecologic oncologist

An oncologist has many medical tools available to help diagnose and treat cancers and blood disorders, as many have additional specialties in hematology. When a patient first sees an oncologist, they’ll consult with the patient on their symptoms, take a detailed family history, and answer any questions they may have.

To diagnose cancer, oncologists can perform or requisition several tests, including bloodwork and urine analysis, physical examinations, CT scans, MRIs, PET scans, and ultrasounds. Finally, biopsies of the suspected cancerous cells are taken to confirm the diagnosis of cancer. 

Pathologists are the physicians on the oncologist’s team responsible for analyzing biopsies and providing results on whether the cells are benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancerous). In addition, oncologists work with nurses and other oncologists (in the case where a medical oncologist works with a surgical oncologist). They’ll also work with lab technicians and administrative staff who assist with record-keeping, billing, and appointment-keeping.

An oncologist will discuss the patient’s prognosis with them after the diagnostic tests and pathology. They’ll suggest the treatment path and even recommend if the patient is a good candidate for a clinical trial. Receiving a cancer diagnosis is a major life-altering event, so oncologists must be compassionate when dealing with the emotions and mental health of patients. They’ll also advise on how the treatment may impact other aspects of a patient’s health, which may manifest as side effects.

How do you become an oncologist?

To become an oncologist, a four-year undergraduate degree is the first step. Though it’s not a requirement, taking plenty of general science, biology, and chemistry classes is recommended to give a leg up when entering medical school. But to apply to medical school, and MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test) must be completed.

Oncologists can study at either an allopathic (MD) or osteopathic (DO) medical school, similar to how neurologists train for their profession. After completing their medical school degree, oncologists will start a residency, which can last from two to five years. Residency is when doctors receive practical training in their specialty of choice under the guidance of an experienced oncologist. 

Oncologists also need to be certified in their selected subspecialty. For example, a medical oncologist would need to be licensed to practice medicine in their state and be certified in internal medicine, by a governing body, like the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM). Next, they would need to complete an accredited graduate medical program in their subspecialty, demonstrating competence, procedures, and ethics in their field. Finally, they need to take and pass the exam, in this case, the Medical Oncology Certification Exam

What skills do you need to become an oncologist?

Oncologists are very highly trained physicians with skills in oncology, hematology, and internal medicine. In the case of surgical oncologists, they must possess excellent hand-eye coordination to perform surgeries. But beyond their technical skills and knowledge of the human body, disease, and treatment options, oncologists must-have soft skills to be successful professionally.

Oncologists treat patients who are facing life-altering and life-threatening diseases. They need to have extreme empathy when speaking with their patients and explaining a diagnosis. They also need to have excellent communication skills, patience, and organization. Oncologists work with teams of other medical professionals, and so they need to collaborate effectively to deliver the best possible care to their patients.

What is the average salary for an oncologist?

An oncologist is represented by the category of physicians and surgeons who, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, make a median salary of $208,000 each year. Physicians and surgeons are among the highest-paid individuals in the country.

According to Salary.com, an oncologist/hematologist makes an average salary of $311,012, but salaries range from $250,296 to $396,290 based on education, experience, and location. 

What is the typical career path for an oncologist?

After an oncologist has completed their theoretical training, they enter into their residency, where they begin to earn an income, and learn the practical side of the profession. This is also the time when they are exposed to the different specialties and subspecialties of oncology. If oncologists want to remain in academia, they can pursue a career where they teach future oncologists, conduct research, and write papers with their students to further their specialty.

Other oncologists will choose to become surgical specialists and work with a team in a hospital. For physicians that thrive in a high-pressure setting or while working within a multi-disciplinary team of experts, this is the workspace that will suit them best. 

Other avenues for career progression include working for government organizations or within research-based roles at pharmaceutical companies or non-profits. And some oncologists may have a portion or all of their work in private practice. This would likely be for physicians who have already put in many years in a clinical setting, and who are ready to work fewer hours and with more control over their schedule.

Where can you find oncologist jobs?

Jobs for oncologists are expected to trend up at an average rate of 4% over the next decade, which is great news for these highly trained medical professionals looking for new opportunities.

You can take a look at the available open positions for oncologists on Ladders Jobs.