Radiation Therapist: Duties, Pay, and How to Become One

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Radiation therapists are critical to treating serious conditions like cancer and thyroid disease. Learn more about this high-paying health care career and what you need to do to join it.

[Featured Image]: A radiation therapist works with equipment while wearing a blue safety vest.

Radiation therapists administer radiation treatment to patients faced with life-threatening conditions like cancer. Pairing medical knowledge with an expert understanding of the equipment used to provide radiation treatment, radiation therapists play a critical role in both treating and supporting patients as they face a diagnosis that will likely be one of the most important events of their lives.

If you’re an empathetic and detail-oriented individual looking to enter a patient-facing health care profession, then you might consider pursuing a career as a radiation therapist.  

In this article, you’ll learn more about what radiation therapists are, what they do, how much they earn, and what you’ll need to do to become one. 

What is a radiation therapist?

Radiation therapists are health care professionals who provide radiation treatment to patients suffering from serious health conditions like cancer and thyroid disease. 

As key members of an oncology team, radiation therapists are tasked with operating special machinery that targets cancer using radiation beams composed of photons, protons, or electrons to reduce or even eradicate cancerous tumors. Due to the high levels of radioactive materials they work with, radiation therapists must operate such machinery remotely in order to administer doses of radiation to patients safely from another room. Health care professionals working with radiation must also wear dosimeter badges to track their radiation exposure and keep it within safe levels. 

What does a radiation therapist do?

While radiation therapists are focused on treating cancer and other diseases, they must also perform many other duties in their day-to-day work. Some of their most common duties include: 

  • Providing and explaining individualized treatment plans to patients and then answering any questions they may have.

  • Identifying tumors and positioning patients correctly to ensure they receive proper treatment.

  • Operating and calibrating special equipment to administer radiation treatment.  

  • Following proper protocol to ensure both patients and medical staff don’t receive improper radiation exposure.

  • Educating patients on treatment side effects and advising them on ways to alleviate their symptoms. 

  • Monitoring patient reaction to treatment and advising alternative treatment plans when necessary. 

  • Maintaining detailed records on patient progress.  

Where do radiation therapists work?

Radiation therapists work in a variety of health care settings. While most are employed in local, state, and private hospitals, many also find work in physicians’ offices and outpatient centers. As a result, radiation therapists may work full-time in large, busy hospitals or part-time in smaller, more slow-paced medical offices. 

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Radiation therapist salary and job outlook 

Radiation therapists make a higher-than-average salary. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for radiation therapists was $82,790 in 2021. This is a much higher salary than the median annual wage for all workers, which the BLS put at $45,760 during the same period [1]. 

Job growth for radiation therapists is expected to be on par with all jobs in the United States over the next decade. According to the US BLS, the number of open positions for radiation therapists is expected to grow by six percent between 2021 and 2031, resulting in approximately 800 new job openings each year throughout the decade. By comparison, the US BLS notes that the average job growth for all jobs in the United States is projected to be five percent during the same period [2]. 

Read more: What Do Health Care Jobs Pay? Salaries, Job List, and More

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Radiation Therapy

How to become a radiation therapist

Radiation therapists are highly-trained medical professionals who administer life-saving treatment to patients suffering from some of the most serious medical conditions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the path to joining the profession is one defined by education, training, and professional development. 

Here’s what you’ll likely need to do to start working as a radiation therapist in the real world: 

1. Gain the right credential. 

To qualify for a position as a radiation therapist, you must possess either an associate or bachelor’s degree in radiation therapy or a related field, such as biology or biochemistry. In some cases, applicants may qualify for a position by completing a relevant certification program with a curriculum in job-relevant skills. Typically, though, employers prefer candidates with bachelor’s degrees over those with less advanced degrees. 

2. Develop your skills. 

Radiation therapists must possess knowledge of human anatomy, health, and the specialized medical equipment they use every day to provide life-saving treatments. 

They must also embody several important workplace skills to ensure they not only provide the best treatment possible to patients but emotionally support them as they face a potentially life-threatening illness. Some common interpersonal skills you’ll need to be a successful radiation therapist include: 

  • Attention to detail. Radiation therapists must be detail-oriented to ensure that patients receive the exact amount of radiation in the precise spot they need it. 

  • Empathy. Radiation therapists must empathize with their patients to ensure they feel supported as they undergo treatment. 

  • Communication. As a radiation therapist, you’ll communicate treatment plans clearly to patients and coordinate with other health care professionals to ensure your patients’ needs are met.

3. Get certified and licensed. 

Most states require radiation therapists to be either licensed or certified, but the exact requirements you’ll have to fulfill will depend on the state where you practice. Nonetheless, many states require that you attend an accredited radiation therapy program and pass a certification exam administered by the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT).

Check your state’s requirements to ensure you do what you need to join the profession.  

Prepare for your future 

As a radiation therapist, you’ll work alongside other health care professionals to ensure that patients with serious medical conditions get the help they need. If this impactful health care job calls out to you, then you might consider taking a cost-effective online course through Coursera to get started. 

In the University of Sydney’s Life, Health and Radiation course, you’ll explore what X-rays are, where they come from, their risks, and their benefits. In the University of Michigan’s Anatomy Specialization, you’ll learn the foundations of human anatomy, including the major organ systems, their functions, and relationships within the body.

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Article sources

1

US BLS. “Occupational Outlook Handbook: Radiation Therapists, Pay, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/radiation-therapists.htm#tab-5.” Accessed December 14, 2022. 

Written by Coursera • Updated on

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