Becoming a Radiation Therapist - Degree Programs, Experience & Education

Radiation therapy is used both in the treatment of cancer and to ease symptoms of the disease. Both internal and external beam radiation therapies are local treatments used to cure, prevent reoccurrence, and stop or slow cancer cell growth by targeting specific areas of the body.

Types of internal radiation therapy include radiopharmaceuticals, brachytherapy, and systemic radiation therapy. Palliative radiation therapy is used to ease the severity of symptoms such as pain, breathing difficulties, and incontinence.

Radiation therapists are responsible for a number of important duties. These medical professionals assist in treating cancer and other diseases by administering radiation treatment and explaining radiation therapy to patients; operating x-ray machines and other related medical equipment to ensure they are working up to certain standards; monitoring the patient throughout the course of the treatment; and recording the results of the treatment once it is finished.

Because radiation therapists are most often working as part of an oncology team, they may interact and report to radiation oncologists, oncology nurses, radiation physicists, and anyone else participating in the process of administering and monitoring radiation treatment.

Ultimately, radiation therapists hold meaningful positions that help improve the quality of life of their patients. Not surprisingly, the National Center for Biotechnology Information found in a study that patients feel most comforted when they are informed and emotionally cared for. The relationship with radiation therapists was cited as one of the ways patients received this vital emotional comfort during treatment.

Read on to learn more about how prospective radiation therapists can take the first steps on the path toward this rewarding new career.

Skills and Traits of a Successful Radiation Therapist

There is no one specific personality most suited to becoming a successful radiation therapist. However, there are certain personality traits and skills that may help an aspiring radiation therapist fulfill their goals. O*NET (2020) lists the following attributes and skills as being potentially useful for someone interested in becoming a radiation therapist:

  • Critical Thinking: Perhaps most importantly, radiation therapists must be able to assess issues they face and craft logical approaches and solutions given the resources at hand.
  • Customer and Personal Service Skills: Because radiation therapists work directly with patients undergoing treatments, they should be adept at monitoring patient comfort and satisfaction at all times.
  • Science, Math, and Medical Knowledge: Radiation therapists must have a solid background in physics, mathematical concepts, and medicine and dentistry, including the types of illnesses treated by radiation therapy.
  • Operation Monitoring: These therapists must also be able to actively monitor radiation treatments to ensure safety and success.
  • English Language Abilities: Radiation therapists must have the English-language skills needed to communicate effectively, both with patients and other medical professionals.

Role Requirements and Responsibilities

Those pursuing a career in radiation therapy should be aware of licensing procedures and key role requirements.

Specifically, in order to work as a radiation therapist in the United States, an individual must first have completed education in the field of radiation therapy or radiography at an accredited institution. This includes completion of the Radiation Therapy Didactic and Clinical Competency Requirements set forth by the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) within an accredited program.

Many four-year universities and colleges offer degrees that fulfill these requirements in the course of study. For that reason, many choose to pursue inclusive bachelor’s degrees. However, a radiation therapist does not necessarily have to possess a bachelor’s degree in radiation therapy or radiography; instead, those pursuing a career in radiation therapy may obtain an associate’s degree from an accredited institution, which may, in fact, be a community or technical college. The Joint Review Committee on Education in Radiologic Technology (JRCERT) is currently the sole agency recognized by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation and the US Department of Education for the accreditation of radiation therapy programs.

Once an individual has obtained either an undergraduate degree in radiation therapy, he or she must then become certified with the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT), the national body tasked with licensing radiation therapists. In order to do so, the aspiring radiation therapist must apply for and take an examination that will test the candidate’s competency in the field. The cost of the exam is $200 for those taking it for the first time, and subsequent examinations cost $175. Reinstatement by examination costs $200 as well. For some students, an online reinstatement fee of $75 can be paid to recertify the ARRT credential.

Before signing up for the examination, however, the ARRT suggests that those interested in becoming radiation therapists familiarize themselves with ARRT’s Equation for Excellence, a three-factor test that individuals can use to determine their eligibility. The three portions of this equation are:

  • Education
  • Examination
  • Ethics

The ARRT goes on to elaborate on each piece of this three-part equation. In regards to education, as mentioned before, an aspiring radiation therapist must obtain a degree from an accredited institution and complete certain requirements involving clinical competency. These requirements often include a number of years of clinical experience. Furthermore, if a current radiation therapist wants to obtain a specialty certification in a certain field, such as mammography, bone densitometry, sonography, or one of the many other sub-sects of radiation therapy, he or she must complete an additional set of clinical experience requirements, as well.

In regards to the examination, as previously mentioned, aspiring therapists must submit an application to take the examination along with an application fee. In order to receive certification, individuals must pass all sections of the examination. The contents of these exams varies from state to state.

Finally, in order to obtain certification, ARRT requires that all radiation therapists uphold a standard of ethics. In general, prospective radiation therapists must commit to behaving in a professional manner and working towards the improvement of the health of their patients. In addition, radiation therapists must not be convicted of any crime or commit any other ethical violations while working in the field.

While an individual who meets these standards is not guaranteed a position as a radiation therapist, fulfilling these requirements is necessary in order to obtain certification.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Radiation Therapist?

The amount of time needed to become a certified radiation therapist varies according to the educational pathway taken. Those completing a bachelor’s degree may need four to five years to complete their studies, gain experience, become certified, and enter the field. Aspiring radiation therapists could be ready to work in less than three years if pursuing an associate degree and certification while working in a support role, which is why many see this as a compelling option.

Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming a Radiation Therapist

In general, the path to becoming a radiation therapist will look fairly similar from person to person, with minor differences at specific points in time depending on the individual. Consider going through the following steps if you are planning to pursue a career in this field:

Step One: Graduate High School or Obtain a GED (Four Years)

To begin, aspiring radiation therapists need to complete high school or obtain a GED. This is a requirement for virtually all two- or four-year colleges or universities. Furthermore, high school students interested in radiation therapy should take classes in biology, physics, chemistry, and mathematics, not only to learn the material but also to become comfortable managing a significant course load. Such students may also consider volunteering in a hospital radiation therapy department as observation hours may be required for admission to undergraduate programs in the field.

Step Two: Earn a Degree (Two to Four Years)

After high school, enroll in an undergraduate degree program in radiation therapy or a closely related major. The minimum requirement to become a certified, registered radiation therapist is an associate degree; however many radiation therapy professionals pursue a four-year undergraduate degree. The ARRT provides a list of ARRT-recognized educational programs from which a student can obtain a relevant and recognized degree necessary for certification in the future.

A candidate’s degree may be in any subject and completed at any time: before, during, or after completion of an accredited radiation therapy educational program. Depending on an applicant’s educational background, prerequisite coursework in subjects such as human development, English composition, technical writing, math, chemistry, anatomy and physiology, physics, and nutrition may be required prior to enrollment.

Step Three: Gain Clinical Experience (Time Varies)

During the course of a radiation therapy program, students will be required to complete certain clinical requirements in order to obtain a diploma. This may include 15 or more credit-hours working with a registered radiation therapist in a clinical setting.

In addition to this, however, students should also make sure to secure employment related to radiation therapy, which will provide a greater knowledge base and opportunities to develop the skill set needed to qualify for employment opportunities down the road.

Step Four: Become ARRT-Certified and/or State Licensed (Time Varies)

The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) offers a credential in radiation therapy: the ARRT (T).

Upon graduation, an individual is then able to register with ARRT to complete an examination, the passing of which is a prerequisite to becoming a certified radiation therapist. The exam only requires a single day; however, students must submit an application and fee and prepare accordingly, a process that could take months. Candidates have three years upon completion of educational requirements to apply for ARRT certification and may attempt the exam three times within three years.

Some states require radiation therapists to earn a state license in place of or in addition to ARRT certification. For specific state requirements, contact your state’s licensing entity.

Step Five: Seek Employment or Advanced Studies (Varies)

Finally, once candidates with at least an associate degree become certified, they are eligible for employment as radiation therapists or with advanced training, as dosimetrists. Settings that employ the services of radiation professionals include hospitals, cancer centers, and educational institutions. Depending on the therapist’s career plans, they may go on to obtain further specialization in a subfield, supporting discipline, or related field in order to pursue opportunities in teaching, technical sales, research, or management.

Step Six: Maintain ARRT Certification and Local Licensure (Every One to Ten Years)

Certified radiation therapists (RTs) need to renew their certification annually by completing continuing education (CE) requirements (every two years) and continuing qualifications (CQR) requirements (every ten years). This may also include renewing certification and registration in a supporting discipline, depending on the RT’s chosen eligibility pathway.

State renewal requirements vary.

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Kenneth Parker
Kenneth Parker Writer

Kenneth Parker is a feature writer, poet, and musician living in the Pacific Northwest. His writing on remote work, education, and technology has been published by BustedCubicle.com, MedicalTechnologySchools.com, and other websites. His poetry, short fiction, and album reviews have appeared in Scifaikuest, Nanoism, and No Clean Singing. His background includes time spent as an associate editor, proofreader, private grammar instructor, freelance content editor, medical claims agent, and SEO consultant. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon, where he studied literature and worked as a composition tutor.