How to Become a Radiologist | Training, Requirements, Salaries & Career Information

How to Become a Radiologist

Radiologists use specialist machines to diagnose and treat patients in non-invasive ways. Unlike most doctoral professions, they mainly work behind the scenes. Radiologists spend most of their time analyzing results and diagnosing medical conditions. The equipment they use is difficult to operate and often requires an understanding of chemical composition and mathematics.

Radiology training will teach you how to use CT scanners, MRI scanners and x-ray machines to detect irregularities in the body. Due to radiation exposure, which can endanger both the operator and patient, safety training has almost as much emphasis as the operational elements. Radiology is a growing profession; however, like any doctoral field, breaking into the industry requires years of education, training and on-site experience. The study path is long and tough, but it’s a highly rewarding profession with financial benefits to match.

Required Skills and Qualities

How to Become a Radiologist

Competition for radiology residencies is very high. At the very least you must be a top academic performer with good test scores and an active interest in mathematics, chemistry and physics. Although most radiology equipment is electronic, you may have to mix your own chemicals for x-ray machines and various other radioactive treatments.

When working in a hospital environment you must closely follow instructions from doctors and physicians, while operating equipment and ensuring the patient is safe and comfortable. Therefore, the ability to multitask and remain calm under pressure is crucial. Patience is perhaps one of the most important personal qualities in the field. With long days, difficult diagnoses, and flexible working hours, you must be able to compose yourself under pressure and remain level-headed at all times.

Peak physical health is a necessity. While you may not work with patients as much as physicians, you will still spend time in hospitals and could contract illnesses. You must also accept the risk of minor radiation exposure, even with strict safety measures. In addition, since you’ll spend most of your days on your feet and may need to lift heavy machinery, you must maintain a reasonable level of strength and endurance.

Radiology Schooling Prerequisites

Radiologist Educational Requirements How Long it Takes Optional
Bachlors Degree 4 Years  No
Medical School 4 Years  No
Radiology Internship 1 Year  No
Radiology Residency 4 years  No
Subspecialty Fellowship 2 Years Yes

Your journey into the radiology field begins in high school. You will need to acquire proficient grades in chemistry, biology, physics and mathematics in order to undertake a bachelor’s degree in a related field – you can only apply for medical school after completing a degree. Some universities and colleges will allow you to combine your degree with a medical program, which could shorten your length of study when you attend medical college.

Competition to medical school is fierce. Earning academic honors, partaking in volunteer work experience, and achieving high Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) scores will strengthen your application. Many colleges and universities will have pre-med advisers who will help you plan your studies accordingly. You should consider preparing for the medical school examination at least one to two years in advance.

You must attain either a Medical Degree (M.D.) or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree. An M.D. will use common drugs and medical treatments, while a D.O. will focus on holistic treatments and the musculoskeletal system. Regardless of which degree you pursue, during your third and forth years of medical school you will have supervised contact with patients in a hospital environment.

If you’re interested in further sub-specialization, you can opt to complete a fellowship in an even more specialized area – sub-specialties of Radiology include Neuroradiology, Mammography, and Interventional Radiology. These fellowships typically take 2 years.

Schools with the Top Radiology Departments

If you’re intent on pursuing radiology as a specialty in your medical career, here are the top ten radiology departments in 2014 as ranked by the National Institute of Health (source).

  1. Stanford University
  2. University of Pennsylvania
  3. John Hopkins University
  4. University of California, San Francisco
  5. Washington University in St Louis
  6. Yale University
  7. University of Michigan
  8. Vanderbilt University
  9. NYU School of Medicine
  10. University of Washington

Advancing to Radiology

Medical school takes four years: two years of coursework and two years of clinical rotations. Upon completion you must undertake a one year internship. During this year you can apply for a diagnostic radiology residency. Again, this course will take a further four years to complete and will require on-site training. You will average 60 hours per week and will have to spend some nights on call. During your residency you must sit several oral and written exams, which are conducted by the American Board of Radiology. Residencies are paid and offered through teaching hospitals

After completing a residency you can either enter the field as a general radiologist, or you can choose your sub-specialty, such as neuroradiology or interventional radiology. Specializing will require a further one to three years of study. Each specialty is aimed at diagnosing and treating a different disease or area of the body.

Acquiring a Radiology License

When your training is complete you may apply for a license to practice medicine. You may need to undertake further examinations to retrieve this license; however, this depends on your state and chosen sub-specialty. Some states will limit the amount of times you can take a license exam. Other certifications can also be taken if you’d like extra credentials. Most employers require candidates to have at least one additional certification from either the American Osteopathic Board of Radiology (AOBR) or the American Board of Radiology (ABR).

Whichever sub-specialty you choose, your training will never stop. Constant advancements in the medical field require constant study. Throughout your career you will inevitably have to undertake short courses and additional testing to secure your license and certifications.

Radiologist Salaries and Advancement Opportunities

radiologist salaries and career opportunities

When you’re qualified you can either stick with your chosen sub-specialty or undertake further studies to specialize in multiple disciplines. Since studying to become a radiologist is such a long and grueling process, even for the medical field, it’s not uncommon for specialists to be the only experts working in their hospital or region. If you choose a discipline that’s in high demand, you will be able to secure a higher income. Other options include leaving the clinical setting altogether to pursue research or teaching positions.

Radiology is a growing profession due to aging and population increase. Job prospects for the future remain strong and are expected to rise between 15 and 21 percent by the year 2022 (calculated from 2012). Even with the increasing number of new radiologists, job growth should remain stable and secure. However, while jobs are plentiful, you may need to relocate.

Radiologists make a very comfortable salary. While earnings can vary depending on the location and sub-specialty, the mean average for a working practitioner is $250,000, with an average starting salary of $128,000. Experienced professionals with a history in the field often earn upwards of $379,000.

Radiology Subspecialties

There are a few further opportunities for specialization that you might want to know about if you’re looking to become a radiologist.

Interventional radiology (sometimes also known as surgical radiology), is a sub-specialty of radiology that uses image-guided techniques to diagnose potential illnesses and to treat diseases. The philosophy behind interventional radiology is the minimization of the use of invasive techniques. Typical surgery involves (for the lack of better words) cutting a person open. Interventional radiology takes a different approach – using a mix modern imaging techniques and interventional instruments like needles and catheters, surgical radiologists attempt to treat patients while at the same time minmizing the trauma to the body. The use of interventional radiology can reduce recovery time as well as the chance of infection.

Neuroradiology is another sub-specialization of radiology that focuses on diagnosing issues related to the human nervous system using various medical imaging techniques including MRI scans and CT scans. Ocasionally, other imaging techniques like regular X-rays or ultrasounds are also used , though these are less common. The main areas of focus are the head (and brain), neck, and spine. Neuroradiology is a growing field because the imaging techniques and analysis used in this field play an essential role towards a better understanding of the brain, which is one of the ongoing areas of advancement in the medical profession.

Mammography is an specialization of radiology that primarily focuses on using medical imaging techniques, mainly x-rays, on the breasts as a method of detecting early signs of cancer. The philosophy behind mammography is one of preventive medicine. Catching cancer or cancer-like signs before the patient experiences any symptoms drastically improves the the range of medical options available and greatly increases the chances of successful treatment.

Other Diagnostic Medical Imaging Technique Jobs

Becoming a radiologist is actually not the only way to work in the field. For those of you who aren’t interested in becoming doctors, but do want to work in the broader area of medical imaging technologies, there are definitely a number of career paths that might make sense.

Being able to operate an X-ray, MRI, or ultrasound machine is unsurprisingly and uncommon skillset, and so machine technicians and specialists in the area are always in demand. Potential positions in this area might include:

  • X-ray Technician
  • MRI Technician
  • Diagnostic Medical Sonographer
  • Medical Imaging Technologist
  • Radiologic Technologist

So, even if you’re not really interested in becoming a doctor – if medical imaging is a field that sounds interesting to you, there are plenty of opportunities outside of strict radiology. Machine technicians in the healthcare sector actually get compensated pretty well, and because the skill-set is pretty specialized, it’s not all that difficult to find jobs.

Radiologist Positions in the Armed Forces

If helping out the troops is something that interests you, there are typically many open positions for medical staff in the Armed Services. This is also an opportunity that you can explore if you’re not interested in becoming a doctor, but you do want to work in the field of medical imaging – the Armed Services will typically train you and provide you with an apprenticeship if you enter this program.


When applying for residencies – grades aside – your primary goal is to convince the program director that you have a long-term interest in radiology. The earlier you get started, the better. If you get into medical college, join a radiology-based student interest group. Ask questions, read threads and find out first hand what it’s like to work in the profession. Interest groups are not only an invaluable source of information, but are also a citable hobby that you can use on residency applications.

Shadow working radiologists as much as you can. Shadowing allows you to investigate the field and observe the general day-to-day operations. Although it can be difficult to find the time when you’re studying, you can always ask program directors if they’re willing to work around your schedule – most will be more than happy to help. During your residency or work experience position, keep a diary of your experiences to use as a reflection resource when you’re career planning in the future.

Radiology is an intellectually stimulating career path. Due to rapid advancements in medical technology, there is always something new to learn. As a radiologist, you will be among the first to engage with cutting edge tools that can improve medical science and help others achieve a better quality of life.


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