When Ian Lake saw what it took to become a certified health physicist (CHP), he felt what most feel upon first glance: overwhelmed.
“I was intimidated,” said Lake, an associate medical physicist at Beaumont Heath in Royal Oak, Michigan. “The academic requirements, the years of required work experience, a two-part exam, a written report, the references—it’s a lot.”
But Lake also knew what becoming a CHP could mean for his career trajectory and lifetime earnings. Statistics show that CHPs have better job opportunities and promotions, better pay (in some cases, by the tens of thousands of dollars) and more industry clout.
“You stand out when you’re a CHP,” says Lake. “It was the best career move.”
And the work required, he adds, is easily manageable with the right mindset and a definitive game plan.
“If you’re goal-oriented and take it one step at a time, you’ll see that the work to become a CHP is easily surmountable,” he says.
Here are five steps you’ll need to take to transform your professional life and become a CHP:
Earn Your Science Degree
First, “the obvious,” Lake says: You must have at least a bachelor’s degree in physical sciences, engineering or biological science with a minimum of 20 semester hours in physical science.
“So, basically, you need to have a science degree,” Lake says. “That’s because this is an accreditation program that was developed to qualify you to be a radiation safety officer, and those positions are primarily at medical institutions.”
This academic requirement is all that’s required to take the first part of the CHP exam.
“By finishing your degree and then taking the first part of the exam, it helps break up the process for becoming a CHP into smaller, more digestible parts,” says Lake.
But time is still a factor: You must fulfill the following requirements and pass a much-longer part two of the exam within seven years of acing the first part.
Get Work Experience
CHP applicants need more than a “science degree,” Lake says. They need to get out there and gain real-world experience.
Most commonly, applicants must have at least six years of professional experience in health physics to take the second part of the exam, with three years in applied health physics.
“Document your experience, where it is and what you did,” Lake says. “You’ll need it not only to take the second part of the exam but to complete other aspects of the CHP approval process.”
The board of the American Board of Health Physics (ABHP) may grant exceptions to those with advanced degrees in health physics or a closely related field of study. For instance, a master’s degree may be substituted for one year and a doctoral degree for two years. If granted, those with these degrees may only have to work five and four years, respectively, to take the second half of the CHP exam.
“However many years you work, ensure it’s in a position that would qualify you for certification,” Lake adds.
That, according to the ABHP, does not include technician-level experience. Instead, it must be in a job that “demonstrated” how a candidate “exercised judgment” related to radiation. Examples include:
- Establishing or evaluating a radiation protection program.
- Designing or evaluating the radiation protection aspects of a facility.
- Implementing a radiation protection training program.
- Analyzing and solving problems or questions about radiation protection.
- Preparing, interpreting and employing recommendations and regulations for radiation protection.
Line Up Your References
Aspiring CHPs require at least two reference statements when applying to take part two of the CHP exam.
According to the ABHP, both references must be from “professionally qualified” experts who have evaluated your ability in health physics, and at least one of your references must be a current CHP.
“I was lucky enough to have somebody in my organization who was a CHP write a letter of reference for me,” says Lake. “It helped me a lot. And because I had my master’s, I became a CHP at a comparatively younger age, which allowed me to write a letter of reference for other candidates.”
Writing references, he adds, is an under-the-radar advantage of becoming a CHP; it helps you extend your influence throughout the industry. “My references became my mentors. Now, I’m becoming a mentor for those I reference,” he says.
Get Started on Your Written Report
Candidates must also submit a written narrative reflecting their “professional health physics effort” to take the second half of the CHP exam.
This “effort,” the ABHP says, can discuss many subjects, including:
- A substantive facility evaluation.
- A protection guidance initiative.
- A major monitoring program.
The report may also detail “another complex or comprehensive effort,” the ABHP says.
“This is where all those years of professional experience come in,” Lake says. “This is where you reflect on what you have done, how you did it and where. You have the necessary work experience, academic requirements and references. Put them together.”
What do you have?
Whatever it is, “it’s worth writing about,” Lake says.
To make sure you’re checking off all the required boxes, consider the following must-haves from the ABHP for the written exam:
- Discuss a topic for which the ABHP tests and certifies expertise.
- Detail elements of professional judgment or application of non-regulatory protection guidance.
- Make sure the report is written solely or principally by you.
“Everybody has their own pathway into this career,” says Lake. “Use yours as inspiration for your written report.”
Ace the CHP Exam
Finally, there’s only one thing left for you to do—take the long-awaited second part of the exam.
While the first part of the exam determines the applicant’s competence in “fundamental aspects of health physics,” the second verifies their “proficiency in applied health physics topics” via a six-hour assessment of word and calculational questions, the ABHP says.
And that, Lake says, means lots of studying ahead of time.
“I spent months working with practice questions on CDs, online prep courses, all kinds of platforms,” recalls Lake. “I studied before work, after work and late at night. I even went back to work to review prep questions on a few Saturdays."
That’s not the norm, he emphasizes, but it was his plan, which is what you need to make it to the CHP finish line.
“Make a plan and stick to it,” he says. “You’re in this field for a good reason. You like science. You like technical challenges.”
What’s one more?
You got this.