What is a Radiation Therapy Degree?

Radiation therapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses ionizing radiation to kill cancer cells. Radiation therapists are the healthcare professionals who administer this treatment. Degree programs in radiation therapy are comprised of classroom instruction, laboratory sessions, and clinical experiences.

Students learn how to use advanced computer software for treatment planning, imaging technology for producing detailed pictures of internal body structures, and state-of-the art high energy linear accelerator equipment to deliver treatment. They learn that the work of a radiation therapist – treating cancer and providing critical emotional support to patients – blends math, science, and psychology.

Program Options


  • Radiation therapists must be licensed or certified in most states.
  • It is recommended that students choose a radiation therapy training program that is recognized by the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT), the national body which offers professional certification.

Associate Degree in Radiation Therapy – Two Year Duration
A radiation therapy associate program is more likely to combine courses in the major with some liberal arts classes in subjects such as English literature and composition and the social sciences. This undergraduate degree is the minimum requirement for employment in the field.

Bachelor’s Degree in Radiation Therapy – Three to Four Year Duration
The radiation therapy bachelor’s degree is often the credential preferred by employers, as the curriculum at this level provides the most comprehensive training in the field. Bachelor’s programs typically incorporate more numerous and more extensive laboratory and clinical experiences and research projects than associate programs.

Despite the differences described above, radiation therapy courses like the following are at the heart of both of these programs:

  • Anatomy and Physiology 1 – human anatomy and physiology relevant to the study and clinical practice of radiation therapy; the skeletal system, the musculoskeletal system, the nervous system, and the endocrine system
  • Communication for Radiation Therapy 1 – concepts and skills for communicating effectively with supervisors, colleagues, and patients
  • Critical Reading and Writing – development of skills in critical analysis and interpretation; development of research and writing skills
  • Physics for Radiation Therapy 1 – introduction to the fundamental physics and mathematical concepts important to the therapeutic use of ionizing radiation; topics include radioactivity, production of x-rays, and applications of physics theory to radiation therapy treatment
  • Clinical Orientation – introduction to treatment and planning procedures in the radiation therapy department; observation of procedures in planning and treatment unit; interaction with patients
  • Radiation Therapy – definition and application of medical terminology in the discipline of oncology; discussion of the public’s perception of cancer through personal misconceptions and the media’s portrayal of cancer, its causes, and treatment; examination of the distinguishing biological characteristics of benign and malignant neoplasms; the natural history of malignancies including tumor progression; overview of universal classification systems used in the staging and grading of cancer; public education through cancer prevention and cancer screening programs
  • Treatment Planning 1 – introductory examination of the concepts and principles of radiation therapy treatment planning; roles and responsibilities of the different members of the treatment planning team; workplace safety procedures; image quality in medical radiography; treatment planning terminology, patient positioning and immobilization, verification of treatment fields; CT (computed tomography) simulator technology
  • Applied Social Science 1 – development of communication and coping skills required of a healthcare professional; cultural and other diversity in the workplace, conflict resolution, harassment and discrimination, abuse and ethics
  • Anatomy and Physiology 2 – comprehensive study of the cardiovascular system, the lymphatic system, the respiratory system, the digestive system, the urinary system, the female reproductive system, and the male reproductive system
  • Pathology – examination of the principles of pathology and fundamental disease processes at the cellular, local, and systemic levels; topics include cellular injury and death, tissue necrosis, tissue injury and healing, genetic disorders, immunologic suppression, and viral causes of disease
  • Management Skills and Applications – examination of the evolution of management and organizational culture; decision making, planning, organizing, leading and controlling, change management, motivational techniques, effective communication
  • Health Sciences Interprofessional Patient Care – basic healthcare procedures, use of equipment commonly used in various healthcare settings, health and safety measures; managing patients in clinical settings
  • Statistics and Research Methodology for Radiation Therapy – statistical data treatment and decision making with illustrative cancer therapy applications; applications include descriptive presentations, survival rates, and experimental design
  • Pharmacology for Oncology Patients – pharmacology commonly used for oncology patients; the physiologic processes involved in drug absorption, distribution, metabolism, and excretion; identification of adverse drug reactions
  • Radiation Therapy and Safety – legal-ethical issues of informed consent to medical procedures; relates the history of malignancy to the application of different treatments; the role of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy as primary and as secondary therapies; examination of radiation therapy for both the general public and for individuals exposed in occupational settings
  • Treatment Planning 2 – the guiding principles and implementation of a quality assurance program in the radiation therapy department
  • Physics for Radiation Therapy 2 – principles and concepts of the measurement, calculation, and assessment of dosimetry (the ionizing radiation dose); the physical applications and concepts relevant to external radiotherapy (teletherapy) and internal radiotherapy (brachytherapy) equipment, photon and electron interactions, and beam data collection
  • Clinical Simulation Lab – application of theoretical knowledge to practise and perform basic radiation therapy techniques
  • Clinical Experience 1 – development and practice of patient care and technical skills under the supervision of radiation therapists
  • Applied Social Science 2 – further exploration of the psychological and sociological issues that may influence a cancer patient’s ability to cope and recover from treatment; communication and interaction skills; managing stress and negative emotions in clients as well as self-depression, burnout, anxiety, and claustrophobia; psychological aspects of pain and its treatment; psychological aspects of cancer diagnosis and treatment; needs of family members; making appropriate referrals; dealing with clients who have disabilities; life threatening illness; death and dealing with dying patients; medico-legal implications of practice
  • Treatment Planning 3 – the clinical application of dosimetry; development of practical dosimetry skills through completion of mathematical problem sets for teletherapy and brachytherapy techniques
  • Radiobiology – an in-depth examination of the effects of ionizing radiation on living cells at low doses and at therapeutic levels
  • Radiation Oncology Practice 1 – the diagnosis, staging, and treatment of malignancies of the head and neck, central nervous system, thorax including breast, lung, thymus, esophagus, as well as skin; issues surrounding palliative and supportive care
  • Radiation Oncology Practice 2 – the diagnosis, staging, and treatment of malignancies of the abdomen including gastrointestinal structures and organs, pelvis including male and female reproductive systems, and urinary system; issues and treatment of pediatric patients, sarcomas and benign tumors and conditions often treated with radiation therapy
  • Clinical Experience 2 – students are scheduled to a variety of treatment and planning units in the radiation therapy department; students practise and perform multi-field and brachytherapy techniques; they provide all required information to new patients and explain possible reactions and care of reactions
  • Communication for Radiation Therapy 2 – theory and practice for communicating scientific research; students write a research article and prepare an oral presentation; students practise general oral communication and job application and interview skills
  • Health Ethics – introduction to contemporary issues in health ethics; moral dilemmas at the clinical, professional, and organizational levels
  • Imaging Technology – the fundamental physical principles of computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology and their application within radiation therapy; limitations of radiographic imaging; the history and basic physics of CT, including discussion of data acquisition, image reconstruction, instrumentation, image quality, and radiation; MRI basic physics and instrumentation, image production, biological effects, and safety considerations
  • Treatment Planning 4 – lab experiences to develop competency in clinical treatment planning
  • Care of Oncology Patient – examination of a holistic model of care for the cancer patient; students develop care plans for patients based on the acute and long term effects of radiation therapy treatment while considering the patient’s physical, cultural, and emotional needs; patient education; post-treatment quality of life; care in the community; palliative and hospice care
  • Clinical Experience 3 – students complete their clinical education by competently performing all required techniques and procedures; as an effective team member in the radiation therapy department they provide patients with optimal treatment and care

Advanced Certificate in Radiation Therapy – Varying Durations
Several schools offer various advanced certificates for current registered radiation therapists.
Here are some examples:

  • Medical Dosimetry Certificate – the medical dosimetrist is the expert in designing and generating dose distributions and calculations for a prescribed course of radiation therapy
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Certificate
  • Computed Tomography (CT) Certificate

Degrees Similar to Radiation Therapy

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Cardiovascular Technology
Degree programs in cardiovascular technology prepare students to work as cardiovascular technologists (CVTs). These technicians assist doctors with the diagnosis and treatment of diseases and conditions of the heart (cardio) and blood vessels (vascular). The curriculum is threefold in nature. Students learn (1) the structure, function, and pathology of the heart and blood vessels, (2) the diagnostic tools and procedures used to test them, and (3) the care of cardiovascular patients.

Nuclear Medicine Technology
Nuclear medicine technology uses radioactive drugs or radiopharmaceuticals to help diagnose and treat illnesses. Programs in the field include courses in anatomy and physiology, physics, medical microbiology and immunology, radiobiology, and pathophysiology.

This degree program is designed to give students the knowledge and experience for safe, compassionate, evidence-based, competent, and ethical nursing practice.

Physician Assistant
This program prepares students to work as a physician assistant or PA. Under the supervision of a physician, PAs take medical histories, conduct physical exams, diagnose and treat illnesses, order and interpret tests, and provide preventative healthcare. They may also assist in surgery and conduct research.

There is no distinct pre-medicine degree. ‘Pre-medicine’ or ‘pre-med’ is merely a term that students planning to go to medical school use to describe their undergraduate studies. In fact, aspiring doctors enter med school having earned many different bachelor’s degrees. A science program such as biology or chemistry is certainly a common choice, but it is not mandatory. In other words, a pre-med student can be a psychology major, a statistics major, or a Spanish major. The key for students is to incorporate into their studies the classes needed to apply to medical school.

Radiological Science and Technologies
Degree programs in radiological science and technologies prepare students for careers as radiologic technologists. These professionals, also known as radiographers, use medical diagnostic equipment, tools, and instruments to capture images of the organs, bones, and tissues inside the body. They also analyze and interpret these images in consultation with doctors and other medical team members.

In addition to learning imaging procedures and image interpretation, students take foundational courses in anatomy and physiology, physics, and pathology. They also learn how to maintain imaging equipment, prepare patients for imaging procedures, and protect patients from harmful radiation.

Respiratory Care
Respiratory care programs prepare students for careers as respiratory therapists. The curriculum focuses on how to diagnose and manage cardio-pulmonary disorders. Training includes performing CPR, using ventilators, and providing oxygen therapy.

Surgical Technology
Surgical technology certificate and degree programs teach students how to be effective members of operating room teams. Students learn how to equip operating rooms for specific procedures, how to prepare patients for surgery, how to sterilize surgical instruments, and how to assist doctors, nurses, and patients. Coursework includes anatomy and physiology, surgical patient care, and health law and ethics.

Skills You’ll Learn

Attention to Detail
It is imperative that radiation be delivered to exactly the same spot each time. Patients’ lives are at stake.

A significant part of the radiation therapist role is communicating with and educating patients.

Empathy and Compassion
Radiation therapists need to be sensitive and responsive to the anxiety and emotional stress that their patients may be experiencing.

Physical Stamina
Radiation therapists spend much of their time on their feet.

Safety Consciousness
Radiation therapists must be conscientious of both their own and their patients’ safety since radiation can be dangerous if the proper protocols are not followed.

Stress Management
Working with cancer patients can be stressful.

Teamwork and Collaboration
Radiation therapists are part of a team of medical professionals, who share information and work together for the well-being of the patient.

What Can You Do with a Radiation Therapy Degree?

Radiation therapy is very specialized work. Therefore, most graduates are employed directly in the field. More than two thirds of radiation therapists in the United States are employed by state, local, and private hospitals. Physicians’ offices and outpatient care centers employ the remainder of practising radiation therapists in the country.

The radiation therapist is the hands-on member of the radiation therapy team. These are other roles in the field that a radiation therapy graduate might consider, with the appropriate further education and training:

  • Medical Dosimetrist – designs, generates, and measures radiation dose distributions and dose calculations
  • Radiation Oncologist – is a medical doctor who understands cancer as a disease, its biology, and patterns of spread; determines how radiation fits into the scheme of treatment and treats any radiation side effects patients have
  • Radiation / Oncology Physicist – is in charge of the radiation therapy equipment; applies the principles of physics to ensure that the machine used to beam the radiation is working properly and dispensing the appropriate amount of radiation; typically holds a master’s or doctoral degree in medical physics, which deals with the interaction of ionizing radiation with biological tissues, distribution of ionizing energy within tissues, and the resulting radiobiological and clinical effects


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