Considering Radiation Therapy Technologist as a Career?

This fall I’ll be starting grad school, pursuing a Master’s Degree in Occupational Therapy. This road began a few years ago when my dad, after seeing a newspaper article about the field of Radiation Therapy, suggested I consider it as a new career. The article said that the work was steady and the money good. As part of my road toward becoming a Radiation Therapy Tech, I volunteered in a hospital and figured out very quickly that Radiation Therapy is not for me! Maybe it’s for you. Read on and decide for yourself.

Let me tell you a story.

RTT (Radiation Therapy Technology) isn’t for me, but probably not for the reason you think. Most people think that the danger of the X-rays, or dealing with sick people is difficult. First, the X-rays aren’t an issue: the beam is so incredibly lethal that there are many interlocks to make sure you never get near it. And it’s not dealing with sick people, heck all the people you see are healthy enough to make it into an 8 week course of treatment shooting death rays at their head and stuff. Read on.

I spent a day volunteering in the Radiation Therapy department of a local hospital. I was in the middle of a 6 month volunteership in the Radiology department of the hospital (but that is a different story). In Radiation Therapy, I got to watch the tech and the nurse do their thing for about 5 hours. I saw them work with patients, operate giant death ray, and chat between one another.

The control room in the hospital’s basement is quiet except for the incessant “bip.. bip.. bip.. bip.. bip.. bip..” of the machine telling you the beam is on. You see, although everything is pretty straightforward, the solemnity and responsibility of firing a huge death ray straight into people’s vital organs (and hopefully missing the healthy bits) requires quite a bit of focus. One mistake could spell a gruesome death for a patient. The room looks like one of those 1950’s science fiction movies where people in white coats operate Big Science machines, which is fascinating and all except that all those movie scenes lasted waaaay too long. This is no exception.

I’ll be frank, I found the job mind numbingly boring, non-interactive, and sad. What they did was quite simple:

  1. bring the patient into the treatment room
  2. strap them down
  3. leave the room
  4. watch the patient on a TV monitor while administering the treatment, finger hovering over the “stop death ray!” button
  5. turn the dial every couple minutes to start a different treatment (a treatment which has been chosen by the prescribing doctor down the hall)
  6. unstrap them
  7. walk them out
  8. repeat every 15 minutes for 30 years

The worst is what happened when I asked two folks that worked there about their work.

I chatted with the nurse and got her in a good mood. Then I asked if she liked working in Radiation Therapy and she said… well, here’s how the conversation went:
Lee: Do you love your job?
Nurse: [hesitation and then ] Well……
Lee: Do you like your job?
Nurse: [her shoulders fell a little]
Lee: Do you not hate your job? (I’m thinking “Oh my god, what if she doesn’t answer this third question, where the hell do we go from there?!”)
Nurse: Well… [she paused and then spoke slowly and with a bit of sadness] it’s sad when you see patients continue to come in and keep getting worse. And it’s especially bad when a patient stops coming in mid-way through treatment because… well, you know.

And that’s all she had to say about her job . . . . to a new volunteer! Yipe. :-(

I chatted up one of the Technologists and asked..
Lee: Do you like your job?
Tech: [pausing to give a thoughtful answer. Then he spoke clearly and slowly, looking me straight in the eye] It’s monotonous. It’s not enjoyable. It pays ok but… [and his voice trailed off. It was time to change the subject]

And that’s pretty much how the tech left it. Yow! This is not job satisfaction.

Your mileage may vary but this does not look like the career for me!

10 Comments

  1. Sassy says:

    I have been a Radiation Therapist for the past 4 years. I won’t say the job is as exciting as other careers might be, but I find it to be very fulfilling. I enjoy interacting with my patients. The machines I have worked on have been a lot of fun and new technology comes out all the time that we are able to learn. Granted facilities don’t always upgrade ASAP when a new machine emerges, but if you work for a decent company, sooner or later it comes in and it is like a new car with buttons to play with! The field of Radiation Therapy is definitely not the field for everyone, yet neither is being a teacher. The unsatisfying gesture you get from the nurse or front office staff or even therapists is in my opinion just human nature. I think you will find people like that in any career you go in to. I respect you for trying the field out and acknowledging it. By you doing so, you have done the field justice. Patients need therapists, doctors, and nurses who are happy to be there, doing their job everyday. After all, they are going through a life threatening treatment where some can’t make it the full 4-8wks and are very ill, and the last thing they need is negativity around them. :)

  2. Wow says:

    I know someone who graduated and got a job as an RT not too long ago. He used to be so cheerful, but now he just seems so miserable. Honestly, I’ve never seen a more unhappy person in my life. I’ve met homeless people who seemed less troubled. His job seems to be pretty tiring. After learning about the tough job market, I’d be unhappy too. You spend so much money to work in a field where the jobs aren’t plentiful… thus if you work in a bad place, you can’t easily find work somewhere else.

  3. lee says:

    Sassy and Wow and everyone,

    Thanks for your comments. I want to recognize that this is an essential medical profession. I don’t think I did that in my original post. I have great respect for people who do things that I cannot do. That includes police, trash collectors, doctors, physicists, and Radiation Therapy Techs. Also, I am sure that this field suits some people very well. I’m just glad I found out it wasn’t for me.

  4. Debbie says:

    Oh brother. I have been a Radiation Therapist for more than 40 years. I make an excellent salary, have job security, and good benefits. I have worked in both hospital and free-standing private facilities. I don’t actually know any of us who would refer to “death rays” and what ever other nonsense this guy who spent ONE day observing has to say. Yes, it can be very sad when a patient dies, but it is very rewarding when people do well and are cured. After all these years I still enjoy my work. It is a good field, with a lot of challenges getting a position, or into a training program. I also have a diagnostic Radiation license. That came first, then formal Therapy training. At LAC/ USC Medical Center in Los Angeles.

  5. Joe says:

    Death Ray is a bit much!! Its great you have the field all figured out after 1 day of observation.

  6. lee says:

    “Death ray” is exactly the right term. the whole idea of radiation therapy is to point a very dangerous radiation beam at a target. The beam is fired from many directions so one point gets a lethal dose, everything else a less-than-lethal dose. Hence: death ray.

    Compounding this idea is that when x-rays are used to take pictures, something like a 50 thousand volt beam is used. The therapy beam is around 10 MILLION volts: 500 times more powerful! Also, the reason the Radiation Therapy happens in basements with 3 foot thick special high density concrete walls is because it is very difficult to stop these… dare I say… death rays! And I mentioned that therapists are NEVER in the room during therapy because the rays are crazy DANGEROUS.

    On the matter of deciding in one day: I hear sarcasm in your tone. I spent a semester taking an intro class that covered both X-ray Tech and Radiation Therapy. I volunteered a hundred hours in the X-ray Tech Department of this hospital and spoke to as many people I could about all the related fields. If my characterization of Radiation Therapy is incorrect, I beg you to please leave a comment and tell me how. I am not trying to malign the field, I am saying this field is not for me.

    As a final note, it is super cool that we have learned how to harness the power of the death ray to help people!

  7. joe says:

    If your going to spout your knowledge lets get the terms straight. X-ray is kilovoltage and Radiation Therapy uses megavoltage. Therapists could be in the room for a few treatments but not 8 hours a day. My department is not in a basement. Yes its not for u. I have no problem with that but a semester intro class doesnt even break the surface of Radiation therapy.

  8. lee says:

    >If your going to spout your knowledge…
    Joe, you sound bitter about something.

    >lets get the terms straight. X-ray is kilovoltage and Radiation Therapy uses megavoltage.
    Thanks. I corrected my previous comment. I had written “electron-volts”. It is actually “volts”

    >Therapists could be in the room for a few treatments but not 8 hours a day.
    All I can say is what I saw at the hospital. The posted schedule had the therapist and nurse working… I forget now, it’s been a while… something like 6-8 hour shifts. Are you saying that is an anomaly?

    >My department is not in a basement.
    Excellent. In my experience, I’ve seen 3 RT departments in basements [update 3/20/15: 4 RT departments in basements] and 1 in a “first floor built into a hill”. IE: if you walk to the other side of the building, there are windows. I bemoaned the lack of windows in this potential career choice.

    >Yes its not for u.
    I suppose not!

    >I have no problem with that but a semester intro class doesn’t even break the surface of Radiation therapy.
    If 50 hours of accredited class time in an introductory class (and observing in a hospital) doesn’t introduce the subject, what does? There are many potential RTs reading this post wondering how they can get the right experience to find out if RT is for them. This is exactly why I made this blog post, to tell part of the story from my perspective. What else do you think potential RTs should know?

  9. Todd says:

    Thanks for the input. I am in the process of getting into a radiation therapy program and have been doing a lot of research to see if it is for me. I can understand how it is not for some people, but for me I think it is a good fit. I am curious though, what did you decide to study? If RT wasn’t for you, what did you find that fit your personality a little better?

    On a side note about the attitude of those employees: I get it. They work in a hospital dealing with sick people. Heck, I bet a lot of other medical employees are going to feel like that sometimes. It takes a toll on you. But I think people stay in it because of the satisfaction you get when you see someone recover. I think that makes it worth it.

  10. lee says:

    Hey Todd, I went with Occupational Therapy. Follow my blog on the subject: http://www.lee.org/blog/?s=occupational%20therapy and
    https://www.lee.org/blog/category/occupational-therapy/

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