One of the most important tasks a medical student has during medical school is to figure out what they want to do with their lives. Perhaps the most important decision a medical student has to make is choosing their medical specialty.
There are MANY different specialties to choose from, each with its unique benefits and drawbacks. In this post, I’ll talk about why you should consider radiology – the best of the medical specialties.
Why is Radiology the Best Specialty?
Because I already committed myself to it and I have to justify my decision… Just kidding!
Radiology is a unique specialty with many different options that allow you to essentially “choose your own adventure” when choosing a job – there’s a Goldilocks job out there for most people.
Here are my top reasons why radiology is the best specialty:
1. Radiology is a Growing Field
The volume of imaging studies performed in a given year has been constantly and consistently growing, reaching new all-time highs on essentially an annual basis.
As baby boomers age, they will require more medical care, which will include imaging examinations and interventional procedures. There will be plenty of work for radiologists for the foreseeable future and job security is a good thing! (I’ll touch on artificial intelligence and my thoughts on this later in the article).
While the vast majority of radiology studies are performed for diagnostic and problem-solving purposes, screening exams are also on the rise. Now that we can screen for various cancers via imaging (lung, breast, colon), we’re seeing another pathway for volume growth – even more job security!
Diagnostic imaging is also a staple in the emergency setting, aiding in the diagnosis of innumerable pathologies and sometimes substituting for the physical exam… (just kidding).
2. Radiology is a High-Paying Specialty
Keep in mind though that money does not guarantee happiness and salary should not be the primary factor influencing your career decision. Believe me, there are plenty of unhappy rich people out there. That being said, you should be able to afford a VERY comfortable life!
3. Radiology has an Excellent Work-Life Balance
In general, radiologists have an excellent work-life balance.
- We benefit from shift work, which allows us to go home and not have to think about work.
- Most of us don’t take overnight call (interventional radiology may have call or utilize a night float system).
- The average radiologist, especially in private practice, has plenty of vacation (6-34 weeks depending on the group and position with night radiologists frequently working 1 week on followed by 1-2 weeks off) and frequently knows their time off 6-12 months in advance. If you like to travel, this is a huge plus!
- There is also a lot of job variability – with all the different subspecialties, you can find something that best fits you. Need patient interaction and like procedures? Interventional radiology and mammography/women’s imaging have you covered. Want a little patient interaction, but spend the majority of your time in the reading room? Most hospital sites and some outpatient clinic sites have either fluoroscopy or light procedures to scratch your itch. Prefer to be confined to a dark room? Teleradiology is for you!
*Disclaimer: Any person can overwork his or herself at pretty much any job.
4. Diagnostic Radiology is Intellectually Stimulating
Every imaging study a radiologist interprets is a potential mystery. All radiologists are diagnosticians – we are problem solvers.
As you go through your radiology training, you will realize that radiology residents have to learn a lot about a lot. It’s an incredibly steep learning curve. Think of it as mental cardio, preparing you to use your brain on a daily basis.
There is a broad range of specialties, ranging from body imaging to interventional radiology. Everyone will learn general radiology during their radiology residency and the vast majority will go on to complete a fellowship in their subspecialty of choice.
It’s hard to get bored in radiology. Even the most seasoned radiologists see new interesting cases almost daily. If you like problem-solving, diagnostic radiology is the career choice for you.
5. Need Patient Interaction? Allow Me to Introduce You to Interventional Radiology and Mammography!
As radiologists, we play both direct and indirect roles in patient care – diagnosing disease and injury from behind the scenes and to patients directly.
While we’re frequently stereotyped as introverts hiding in our reading room, that’s frequently far from the truth. Most radiologists perform fluoroscopy exams and light procedures such as joint injections and all radiologists interact with other physicians and clinicians, calling with unexpected results. For those in other specialties out there, it’s generally not a good sign when we call – sorry in advance 🙁
Interventional radiology and mammography are subspecialties with continuous direct patient contact, performing a range of procedures from biopsies to life-saving embolizations (you’ll probably want the interventional radiologists for this one…).
Interventional radiologists also directly treat patients, offering treatment for various cancers, vascular diseases, and more, both within a hospital or clinic setting.
A pediatric radiologist also frequently interacts with both their pediatric patients and their families.
Regardless of the fellowship you choose, you can find patient contact in the radiology department! Personally, I enjoy explaining fluoroscopy study results with patients.
6. Radiology Benefits from Technological Advances
We’re experiencing a technological boom in human society and medicine is reaping many of the rewards.
Imaging hardware and software packages are constantly evolving allowing for faster imaging, further improvements in dose reduction, and faster delivery of radiology images. Image quality is still improving and AI is gradually starting to play a helpful role.
When you enter radiology, you can rest assured that the field will rapidly change from your medical school and radiology residency days and you’ll be along for the ride.
Nuclear medicine, for example, has recently found itself on the rise with new specialized PET radiotracers already proving to be game-changers in the treatment of cancers such as prostate cancer and neuroendocrine tumors such as carcinoid.
7. Educational Opportunities Galore!
Like to teach? Me too! In fact, I love it.
Education and research are both cornerstones of academic radiology and play an instrumental role in radiology training.
Academics is the best way to engage in teaching residents and medical students. We all understand the importance of medical education and most of us have been or will be fortunate enough to have incredible teachers and mentors along the way. And the best way to thank those individuals? Pay it forward.
Academics will give you access to both teaching and research opportunities as well as allow you to follow any interest you may have within and even outside of your subspecialty.
Most private practice groups have relationships with hospitals and many are involved in resident education with residents from other specialties, medical students, and even nurse practitioner and physician assistant students.
Whether in the private or academic sector, you will likely participate in multidisciplinary conferences such as tumor boards and work with colleagues in most other specialties to further hone your skills with radiology, pathology, and surgical correlation for interesting cases. You’ll be amazed how much you can learn from and teach other clinicians at these conferences.
8. Leadership Opportunities
Want to be a hospital medical director, department chair, or Chief Medical Officer? Well good news: all are within reach regardless of your medical specialty.
Private groups also have plenty of leadership opportunities ranging from section head to Board of Directors member to President if you’re so inclined. Reach for the stars and you’re bound to find one!
Radiology is demanding on the mind but spares the rest of the body (minus the occasional repetitive stress injury or a work environment lacking in proper ergonomics), making it easy for a radiologist to work into their old age if they so choose.
Reasons Why Shouldn’t You Choose Radiology
Choosing a medical specialty for your career is a big decision – one of the biggest decisions you’ll face. There are many factors to consider before making your final choice.
While radiology is great, it isn’t for everyone. Here are reasons that may make you reconsider choosing radiology as your future career.
1. Radiology can be Demanding and Stressful
A radiologist, like an MRI scanner, has to be on and operate at 100% throughout the duration of their shifts.
Speaking for myself and my colleagues, we work nonstop aside from the occasional break to grab coffee (and a later break after we’ve processed it). We eat at our desks in our reading rooms while reading cases. There are days when we frequently get interrupted to protocol a range of exams (all imaging modalities – ultrasound, CT, MRI, nuclear medicine) within our specialty, review cases with other physicians or clinicians, and act as consultants for various radiology-related questions (contrast safety, radiation safety, MRI safety, imaging in pregnancy, etc.).
A radiologist must be able to understand complex medical conditions, their appearance on various imaging modalities, the impact that a given diagnosis may have on a patient, and be able to communicate the findings in a meaningful way to other members of the medical team.
A radiologist also must be able to work well under pressure. True emergencies exist (an aortic rupture, coronary artery perforation, bowel perforation, acute stroke, brain bleed, etc.) and must be diagnosed and acted on immediately.
Radiologists have to interpret complex exams and what they find may send patients to surgery, change their chemotherapy, or result in patient anxiety.
2. Radiology is Competitive
Radiology is a competitive field.
As such, matching into radiology, particularly a top radiology program, requires doing very well in medical school – a high score on the United States Medical Licensing Examination® (USMLE) Step 2 Exam, acing your clinical rotations, finishing generally in at least the top half of your medical school class, and having plenty of extracurricular activities on your resume (from volunteering to publishing research articles).
It is a long and difficult path, but it is achievable.
3. Another Field May be a Better Fit for You
While radiology may be intriguing, other fields of medicine may be a better fit for you, depending on your interests, personality, and skillset. And that’s okay. We need excellent doctors in all areas of medicine.
Radiology may not have sufficient patient contact for your liking. You may want a job that’s a little less sedentary (you can buy a standing desk!), a little less isolating, or a little less demanding. Or maybe you just aren’t comfortable alone in a dark room. Maybe you want patients to appreciate the care you provide (in radiology, most patients won’t know you exist).
Explore as many medical specialties as you can and enter all of them with an open mind. Not only will you get more out of the clinical rotation, but you may find your future career!
What About Artificial Intelligence?
What about it? Just kidding.
AI is going to have a major impact on radiology, but it’s going to help us long before it replaces us. Here are some of my future predictions.
AI will help radiologists work more efficiently and accurately, prioritize higher acuity exams (for example, head bleeds and aortic dissections will move to the top of our worklist), and help optimize radiology outside of just reading studies. It will increase scheduling efficiency, shorten scan times, improve follow-up for clinically-relevant incidental findings, automatically track lung cancer screening exam findings, and more.
AI will allow radiologists to focus more on the practice of radiology, on diagnosis, and on providing excellent patient care.
How to Gain Exposure to Radiology as a Medical Student
Choose a radiology rotation as an elective. Look at the images and reports on your patients. Review images from an ultrasound or various x-rays and correlate them with the radiology report.
If your attending has a question about a radiology report on rounds, volunteer to go talk with a radiologist and get the answer! That will also show initiative and look good when it comes to evaluation time.
Reach out to radiology training programs at your institution or your institution of choice for research opportunities or away rotations.
Radiology is an excellent field for those who are looking for an intellectually stimulating career with good work-life balance, competitive salary, ability to make a difference in the lives of countless patients, work with high-end technology and have educational, research, and leadership opportunities.
Regardless of what career you choose, be sure to do your research and follow your heart, not just dollar signs. Be honest with yourself and make a decision that best fits you, your personality, and your family life.
Honestly, the best specialty you can choose is the one that will bring you happiness and hopefully a sense of purpose. If that’s internal medicine, general surgery, OB/GYN, or family medicine, that’s awesome. Just be true to yourself and make the right decision. No pressure 😉
I am grateful that I chose radiology and couldn’t see myself in any other field!