Oncologist Education Requirements and Program Overviews

Oct 10, 2019

After earning a bachelor's degree, aspiring oncologists must complete medical school to fulfill oncology training, which includes fellowships in oncology and surgical oncology, and residencies in radiation oncology.

Essential Information

Oncology focuses on the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer. After completing medical school, training in oncology can include fellowships or residencies. Oncology fellowships usually combine the study of hematology and oncology. Students participate in conferences and seminars, and they also see patients in clinical settings. Fellowships in surgical oncology are also available. Oncology treatment requires knowledge of many facets of cancer though, so physicians gain experience in radiation oncology and medical oncology. Residency programs in radiation oncology train physicians to use radiation to treat cancer.

Prospective oncology fellows need to have completed medical school near the top of their class and hold a medical license. Surgical oncology fellows must have been top performers in both medical school and a surgical residency prior to submitting an application. Radiation oncology residents need to have completed medical school near the top of their class and one year of medical training. A high score on the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) may also be required.

Fellowship in Oncology

Most fellowship programs in oncology are joint programs in hematology and oncology in which fellows may choose to certify in hematology, oncology, or both. The oncology portion of a program is divided into clinical sub-disciplines such as surgical oncology, chemotherapy, radiation oncology, and palliative care. Sections on stem cell transplantation and molecular oncology may also be present. Some programs provide in-depth focus in cancer research or clinical care. Oncology fellowships typically last 2-3 years; however, this may be extended by one year for those that certify in both specialties.

Rather than classes, formal instruction in fellowship programs is based on seminars or conferences. Students gain hands-on experience through supervised clinical rotations. Potential conference topics include:

  • Prostate cancer
  • Bladder cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL)
  • Multiple myeloma
  • High and low grade lymphoma

Fellowship in Surgical Oncology

A fellowship in surgical oncology prepares physicians to treat cancer through the surgical removal of tumors. However, because of the multidisciplinary nature of cancer treatment many surgical cancer programs include clinical rotations acquainting fellows with medical oncology and radiation oncology. Surgical rotations explore thoracic and cranial surgery, abdominal surgery, and reconstructive surgery. Fellows also participate in basic lab and clinical research. Surgical oncology fellowship programs typically last 2-3 years.

The curriculum includes rotations in pathology, medical oncology, and radiation oncology. Conferences are the primary means of academic instruction. Topics covered may include:

  • Liver cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Gastro-intestinal cancer
  • Endocrine cancer

Residency in Radiation Oncology

A residency program in radiation oncology prepares physicians to treat cancer patients with a range of radiotherapy techniques. Though residencies cover both cancer research and clinical practice, some programs provide more emphasis in one area or the other. Development of sound medical judgment and a broad base of knowledge about cancer treatment methods and outcomes are also objectives of the program. Residents are expected to demonstrate an ongoing commitment to staying abreast of new developments in the field.

Monthly conferences provide the academic component of oncology residency programs. Conferences address cancer types and related topics such as:

  • Lung cancer
  • Sarcoma
  • Head and neck cancer
  • Gynecologic cancer
  • Radiobiology

Popular Career Options

Surgeons who complete a surgical oncology fellowship can choose to specialize in single areas of the body. The following are possible surgical specialties:

  • Breast surgeon
  • Urologist
  • Endocrine surgeon

Although it's a sub-specialty, there is wide demand across the U.S. health care system for the skills of radiology oncologists. A career track could lead to employment as a:

  • Clinical radiology oncologist
  • Federal health researcher
  • Professor of oncology

Employment Outlook and Salary Info

Completing an oncology fellowship qualifies physicians to specialize in cancer treatment or cancer research. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in May 2018 around 37,820 physicians were general internists, including those specializing in oncology. The BLS projected that from 2018-2028, employment of all physicians and surgeons would increase 7%. Prospects for specialists who treat diseases such as cancer that afflict the aging should be especially favorable. PayScale.com reported that most oncologists earned a median salary of $257,605 as of September 2019.

Continuing Education Information

To gain certification, physicians who complete a fellowship in oncology must pass an exam from the American Board of Internal Medicine. Certified oncologists may further specialize in radiation oncology or surgical oncology.

No single entity provides board certification for surgical oncologists. Surgeons trained in tumor removal, tumor staging, and biopsy are tested and certified by the American Board of Surgery.

Radiation oncologists may obtain certification by passing the certification exam offered through the American Board of Radiology (ABR). ABR certification must be renewed every 10 years.

Students have several options when choosing a program in oncology including a fellowship in oncology, a fellowship in surgical oncology, and a residency in radiation oncology. Graduates can later gain certification that may open career options in oncology.

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