Medical physicist: career case study

Medical physicist

I am Dr Mary Frances Dempsey, a 29 year old state registered clinical scientist (medical physics) working in the NHS. In this job, I have a range of responsibilities and work with colleagues from other medical and scientific disciplines. 

Just now I am specialising in medical imaging. My work involves ensuring that ionising radiation is used safely in hospitals, processing images to ensure accurate diagnosis, researching new ways of diagnosing/treating illness using radiation…and lots, lots more. 

So how did I get here?

I had always enjoyed maths and science. When it was time to select subjects in third year at secondary school, my guidance teacher had actually advised against selecting physics as it would probably be too hard! Thankfully, I ignored this advice! By fifth year at secondary school, I realised I was keen to follow a health/medical associated career path and as I favoured maths and physics I investigated a few possibilities via the school careers service: radiography/prosthetics and orthotics/health physicist in the nuclear industry.

At this time in my life however, I didn’t have a great understanding of careers and didn’t really understand what each job would entail and really, whether I would enjoy it or not. I was fortunate to have a good physics teacher who had actually worked in industry for several years before becoming a teacher. He knew of a professional career in medical physics (the career services at that time had no knowledge of this) and gave me some information.

To start a career as a medical physicist, I needed a degree in physics. This was a huge relief as I was aware that selecting certain degrees straight from school would dictate my career for life but a degree in physics would be a good base for various careers and I knew by the end of the four-year university degree (when I would be older and wiser) I would be in a better position for choosing a career.

I therefore studied applied physics at the University of Strathclyde. I had a great class and great fun. Females in physics were still a bit of a minority but that just gave us more to prove! Throughout my degree, my sights remained set on a career in medical physics. So I was really pleased to get on the Scottish Grade A training scheme for medical physics.

I was based in Glasgow and spent two years gaining experience in different hospital departments (radiotherapy, nuclear medicine and medical electronics and instrumentation and magnetic resonance imaging) and studying for an MSc in clinical physics at the University of Glasgow. Following these two years, I was pretty clear on how I wanted my career to progress and obtained an advanced training position in nuclear medicine whilst undertaking a part-time PhD in magnetic resonance imaging.

A few years down the line and here I am, a fully qualified medical physicist. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve put in lots of hard work along the way but it has been worth it. My work involves optimising, advising on and reporting of medical images, the results of which directly impact on patient care. I administer radiation therapy and know it has a huge benefit to the patients I treat.

I’m involved in research and development and am in a key position to help translate laboratory breakthroughs to clinical practice. No day is ever the same as the next and the diversity of medical physics offers great opportunities – work will always be interesting and I am so glad I opted for a physics standard grade way back in third year at high school!



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