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ORISE Report Shows Number of Health Physics Degrees Granted Continues to Rise

May 21, 2009

OAK RIDGE, Tenn.—The current number of B.S. degrees in health physics granted in 2008 was approximately 25 percent below the number of B.S. degrees reported in the mid-1990s, but continued the trend of 70 to 80 degrees granted per year since 2005. Those data are contained in a recently released report from the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE).

Twenty-six U.S. academic programs in health physics were included in the survey that was used to gather information for the ORISE report titled, Health Physics Enrollments and Degrees Survey, 2008 Data. The report provides data by degree level. The following are examples.

  • The number of master’s degrees granted in 2008 was 18 percent higher than in 2007, and the highest reported since 1999.
  • The number of doctorates degrees granted was the lowest reported since the survey began more than 40 years ago.
  • Although down 10 percent from 2007, the number of 2008 enrollments in health physics undergraduate programs was still double the level of enrollments reported at the turn of the century.
  • Graduate enrollments in 2008 decreased four percent from 2007, but the decrease followed five years of increases in graduate student enrollments.
  • Recent increases in graduate enrollments mean that the number of M.S. degrees should continue to rise by 10 to 20 percent for the next two or three years, and the number of doctoral degrees should continue to rise during the next couple of years.
  • Continued study in the health physics field is the largest post-degree activity for the B.S.- and M.S.-level graduates, and medical facilities continue to be a large employment source for M.S. graduates.
  • For the first time since the 1990s, several B.S. degree recipients found employment in nuclear utilities and other nuclear-related businesses, the report data show.

Also contained in the ORISE report are breakdowns of the numbers of health physics degrees—by degree type, granted from 1999 to 2008; employment or other post-graduation plans; and health physics degrees by academic institution.

Dr. Phillip Patton, chair of the Health Physics Society (HPS) Academic Education Committee, said that because many of the graduates from the health physics programs are actually going into the field of medical physics rather than health physics, the overall upward trend in enrollments in health physics programs has had less of an impact on the looming shortage of health physics personnel.

“I think the biggest problem currently is that we are behind the curve as far as meeting the needs in health physics and thus companies/organizations are mainly seeking experienced personnel,” said Dr. Patton. “New graduates are not employed and trained at the level I think they could be to meet these shortages. Every position advertised that I see [requests] 5, 10, 20 years of experience.”

Dr. Patton said he understands why employers in the industry may feel the need to fill the position of a retiring senior employee with someone who has senior-level experience. He added, however, that he believes more on-the-job training should be offered to junior-level health physicists to help them progress to senior level.

“Today’s junior health physicist is leaving school with greater potential to reach a senior performance level more quickly than in the past,” said Dr. Dick Toohey, director of the Dose Reconstruction Programs at Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU) and president of HPS. “Graduates of health physics programs are ready to hit the ground running with nowhere near the amount of catch-up and self-teaching that I and many of my colleagues experienced. Many of the health physicists of my generation entered the field from a different academic discipline, such as nuclear physics in my case.”

Another expert on the health physics industry believes the sheer number of graduates is simply not enough to meet demand. Dr. Kevin Nelson, who chaired a HPS task force that studied the human capital concerns, said, “The projected need for radiation protection professionals still overshadows the projected number of graduates, at least in the near-term.”

Reports similar to the 2008 one but from previous years are also available on the ORISE Web site.

The Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) is a U.S. Department of Energy institute focusing on scientific initiatives to research health risks from occupational hazards, assess environmental cleanup, respond to radiation medical emergencies, support national security and emergency preparedness, and educate the next generation of scientists. ORISE is managed by Oak Ridge Associated Universities.

ORAU provides innovative scientific and technical solutions to advance national priorities in science, education, security and health. Through specialized teams of experts, unique laboratory capabilities and access to a consortium of more than 100 major Ph.D.-granting institutions, ORAU works with federal, state, local and commercial customers to advance national priorities and serve the public interest. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation and federal contractor, ORAU manages the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

Ben Estes

Health Physics: The Next Generation

Ben Estes

Estes worked internships during summer 2005 and 2006 with ORAU in the Environmental Assessments and Health Physics department and then started his full-time professional career at ORAU.


  • Bachelor’s degree in health physics from Bloomsberg University of Pennsylvania—2006
  • Master’s degree in health physics from Idaho State University—2008


With a strong background in electronics, Estes is responsible for most of the instrument repair and calibration in the Environmental Assessments and Health Physics department at ORAU. He also helps the department stay up to date with new technologies and devise streamlined instrument setups to eliminate cables, since personnel carry instruments to the work sites themselves.

Why did you choose to pursue a degree in health physics?
I wanted to have some degree in the sciences. I was originally in computer science and physics. Then I moved to health physics because the undergraduate program had a really neat lab, and some really interesting stuff was going on. So I wanted to be a part of that.

How would you describe your experience after you graduated?
I absolutely wanted to go back to work in Oak Ridge in the same department. They had a job opening, and I hired right in.

What are your plans for the future?
I’d like to make a career out of the job that I’m in now.

Do you have suggestions for someone who wants to begin a health physics career?
An internship, especially if you can get one at the place you’d like to work. Any experience is very highly regarded. It is rated equally with book learning.

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