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Radiologists are doctors, and most of us know two things about doctors:

  1. They make some reasonable money;
  2. It takes at least 10+ years and tons of dedication to become one.

Both are true for this medical profession, too. The mean radiologist salary is usually between $250,000 (for newly graduates) and $500,000 (for experienced professionals). It also takes 12 (or more) years and constant academic excellence to become a radiologist. But what does a radiologist actually do? Let's try to find it out.

What Is Radiology?

Radiology is a complex science that helps doctors to diagnose diseases and, ultimately, prescribe a correct treatment to cure them. Modern radiology is a massive area. There are techniques that help to diagnose virtually any part of the body. Consider major diagnostic methods that radiologists use:

  • X-ray imaging;
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI);
  • Ultrasound diagnostics;
  • PET scans (or positron emission tomography);
  • Computed tomography (CT).

There is a whole set of special equipment within each method to diagnose different parts of the body. That's why many specialization areas exist within radiology. For instance, typical areas of expertise are mammography in women, nuclear medicine, and many more.

Radiologist Job Description

Radiologists are not physicians in a strict sense. Yet, they play a big role in determining a disease and can work together with a patient's primary physician to prescribe a needed treatment. Radiologists interpret the information produced by the imaging equipment to make a diagnosis. At the same time, they usually don't perform any diagnostic procedures on their own. These tasks are carried out by radiology technicians who work under direct radiologists' supervision.

In the past radiologists performed all imagery procedures and interpreted images produced by them. However, two major factors brought vast changes to the whole area of radiology. These causes shaped up the tasks that modern radiologists perform and triggered the appearance of a new profession - radiology technician (RT).

First, in a last few decades the number of imaging methods increased substantially and the usage of radiology have skyrocketed since then. This resulted in a massive increase of a workload that radiologists started to experience. They were simply not able to deal with the growing demand of diagnostic imaging which led to introduction of RTs.

Second, carrying out advanced diagnostic procedures means dealing with people on a daily basis. Many of these people are very sick, can be in a lot of pain or depressed. These interactions are, therefore, very demanding mentally as well as physically, which led to a big amount of stress radiologists had to deal with.

In a profession where attention to details and accuracy of actions are keys to correct interpretation of findings of the diagnostic imaging, stress is a big risk factor. It can lead to an increasing number of inaccurate diagnoses and low productivity of radiologists.

That's why it was decided to guard radiologists from unwanted stress. Now the imaging procedures are carried out by RTs, while radiologists rarely interact with patients. They are focused on correct execution of their prime tasks - image interpreting and producing a diagnosis based on these interpretations.

In fact, most modern radiologists don't have to communicate directly with the physicians. The diagnosis they make is usually released in a written (or printed) form together with an actual image that was a basis for the verdict. Both are then forwarded to a physician who will designate an appropriate treatment course for the patient.

The only exception is the interventional therapy. Interventional radiologists (IR) have a much broader set of duties and they interact with patients and other doctor's day in day out. Read more on that specialization below.

What Does an Interventional Radiologist Do?

Advanced radiology experts called IRs (interventional radiologists) don't just do common tasks that other radiologists do. They can also perform non-invasive surgeries.

Many of the diseases they treat required open surgeries in the past. The development of technology enabled radiologists to reach different areas of the body without invasive surgeries, and with very little damage to the patient's tissues and health. Many severe health conditions are treated by interventional radiology including several heart diseases (e.g. tumors).

In the past many of the conditions that are now treated in a non-invasive manner were not even possible to diagnose. A complicated open surgery was required to get to the problem area, inspect the problem, and fix it if needed. In other words, surgery began without doctors being 100% certain what exactly they were dealing with.

Modern technology allows using microscopic devices to reach the very remote areas of the body and produce a diagnosis. Invasive radiological technology has gone even beyond that and enabled IRs to treat many of the conditions without calling a surgeon. Let's have a look at how they treat a very common condition - artery tumors.

The tumors block a free passage of blood through the arteries and (if left untreated) they can lead to a heart attack. In the past, a surgeon would cut the chest of a patient to reach an artery and remove a tiny tumor. The rehabilitation after such surgery was usually very long and complicated. Patients were greatly exposed to infections and needed months to fully recover. Even after they did, there was a huge scar on their chest that always reminded them of this surgery.

Luckily, with revolutionary IR methods these risky complicated surgeries became obsolete. Here's how it's done:

  1. An IR cuts a tiny entry point for the microscopic equipment under the skin of a patient;
  2. A tiny camera is inserted and pushed all the way to the problematic area;
  3. The camera helps IR to inspect the artery and locate any tumors if they are present;
  4. If the tumor is located, an IR removes it without the help of heart surgeons;
  5. Through the same entry point, angioplasties are delivered inside the artery to widen it up;
  6. Stints are applied to angioplasties to keep them attached to the artery and finalize the operation. The stints are delivered through a catheter.

This is called guided imagery. It greatly reduced the risks of complications and recovery times needed after the surgery. Such a therapy is also far less stressful and is appropriate for patients with very dismal overall health, e.g. elderly people or patients with major diseases (HIV/AIDS, diabetes, etc).

Given the nature of this profession, interventional radiologists are a very rare breed. Their education period is greater than for all other radiology specializations. This is due to the larger period of residency they need to complete in order to become IRs (6-7 years compared to 4 years for other radiologists). Mean interventional radiologist salary is oftentimes higher than the mean salary of all other radiology professionals.

If you want to know more on how long it takes to become a radiologist, the last part of this article has a short overview of all the educational stages.

How to Become a Radiologist

In order to become a doctor of medicine in radiology one needs at least 12 years of studying and extensive training. Radiologist education is divided into 4 separate blocks:

Block 1 - Bachelor's degree (4 years)

To get into a radiologist school you need a Bachelor's degree first. There are no Bachelor's degrees available in radiology, so a candidate can choose any other major to his or her liking. Yet, most freshmen at the medical schools studied chemistry, biology, or math in college.

A Bachelor's degree in radiologic technology is another option. Radiology technician is not the same as radiologist, but they both deal with the same equipment and their jobs have several significant similarities. That's why such a degree can be a good way to become acquainted with traits of this medical field.

Block 2 - Medical School (4 years)

There are several famous medical schools that offer degrees in radiology, including Harvard and Stanford. A number of celebrated programs are available at public universities as well. In order to get to a medical school you need a high GPA and good CMAT score.

At a medical school, enrolled students study a broad range of subjects, including:

  • Anatomy;
  • Biochemistry;
  • Ethics;
  • Pharmacology;
  • Physiology;
  • Social sciences, etc.

Radiologists are not radiographers or RTs. During their classroom and lab sessions they don't just learn to operate radiation and other diagnostic equipment. They need to be able to examine the patients, interpret the results of the tests, make a diagnosis, and prescribe correct treatment if needed.

The nature of this profession calls for extensive practical training of the future doctors. That's why radiology students spend the last 2 years of medical school in clinical rotations. These rotations are designed to introduce students to different areas of radiology and let them choose a specialization path they desire.

The number of specializations is really big. Just a few examples are presented below:

  • Interventional radiology;
  • Pediatric radiology;
  • Mammography;
  • Nuclear medicine;
  • Emergency radiology and many more.

Block 3 - Residency (4 years)

After graduation the vast majority of radiological doctors move to the next stage of their career - a residency program. The residency is designed in the same way as the last 2 years of medical school. Rotations make up a big part of work carried out at this stage.

Block 4 - Licensing and Additional Certificates

All doctors of medicine in the US are required to seek for licensure after the residency. The licensing is a major examination that tests all-round abilities of the newly grads. Here are some critical skills that are tested during an examination:

  • Problem solving skills;
  • Critical thinking;
  • Scientific knowledge;
  • Knowledge of clinical practices.

After the licensure radiologists can also gain board certification. It may take additional years of residency or private practice in order to be eligible to apply for the board certification.


Modern workplace is changing, which allows greater degree of flexibility within different professions. Radiology is not an exception. Today a lot of doctors can spend half (or more) of their working hours at home.

They receive all needed scans, ray images, etc. via the Internet. These images are sent by a radiology technician from the diagnostic facility of the hospital where the diagnostic equipment is located. A radiologist then inspects the images, sets a diagnosis, and forwards the images together with his findings to a primary physician.

Like other doctors of medicine, radiologists require years of education and additional training, but no other doctors have that flexibility at work. This fact makes radiologists exceptional in a way. Not only do they help people and get a high payment for their job; they can do so without leaving the comforts of their home. Such a combination is a luxury even within the healthcare industry.