Last Updated: 03/17/15
Oncology Career Guide
Oncology physicians are specially trained in the diagnosis and management of cancer. They are involved in the treatments of radiation and chemotherapy as well as surgery to remove cancer. Oncologists see their patients in the hospital and on an outpatient basis depending on their condition. As an oncology doctor, you can also choose to focus on the research aspect of oncology and conduct clinical trials for new cancer treatments. Alternatively you could also choose to become a professor and train medical students in either the clinical or research side of oncology. As a clinical oncology physician, you can choose to specialize in one particular area, including:
- Medical Oncology: treating solid tumors, generally with chemotherapy or referral to a surgical oncologist
- Surgical Oncology: to practice surgical oncology you would become a general surgeon then do additional training on tumor removal and oncology
- Hematology Oncology: focuses on treating malignancies and blood disorders like sickle cell anemia and leukemia. To practice in this field you would need to do both a medical oncology and a hematology fellowship after your residency.
- Gynecological Oncology: focuses on cancers of the female reproductive system. If you wanted to practice this specialty you would first become an OB/gyn then sub-specialize in oncology with a fellowship program.
- Pediatric Oncologist: focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of cancer in children
Most oncologists work between 35 to 50 hours per week. According to a 2012 Medscape physician compensation survey, 19% of oncologists reported that they worked 51 to 65 hours a week and 4% reported working more than 65 hours a week. Oncologists typically see 50-75 patients a week, in the 2012 Medscape survey mentioned above, 9% reported seeing 125 patients per week. The same survey found that a little more than one quarter of oncologists who took the survey said they spend 10 to 14 hours a week doing paper work, which is a little more than any other physician specialty that responded to the survey.
While oncologists are often among the highest paid physicians, it can be a very emotionally draining career as you are treating patients who have life-limiting diseases. At the same time you can also save a lot of lives through cancer treatments, so it can be emotionally rewarding as well.
In order to become an oncologist, you must first complete four years of a medical school program and receive your M.D. or D.O. degree. Then you must complete a three to five year residency program; the length of the program depends on which subspecialty you choose. If you are going to become a medical oncologist, you will do a three year internal medicine residency followed by a two year oncology residency. If you are going to subspecialize in pediatric or radiation oncology, you will have a different residency track. You will also have to become board certified in whatever area you are going to specialize in. Before practicing as a physician in any area, you must also pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE).
According to a 2010 physician compensation survey in Modern Healthcare, the annual salary for oncologists ranged from $242,900 to $518,991. In a survey published on Salary.com in 2011, oncologists that specialized in hematology made a median annual salary of approximately $260,000. Another survey, published on Payscale.com showed that the middle segment of oncologists earned between $132,916 and $257,742. How much you make depends on what kind of facility you work for and what subspeciality you practice.
According to the American Cancer Society, cancer affects close to 12 million people a year, on average. While this is unfortunate, it does mean that the demand for oncologists in all specialties will continue to grow. The good thing is, however, that the mortality rates in patients with cancer have been continually decreasing because treatments have become more effective. This also means that there is increasing demand for oncologists in the research and teaching sectors of the field.