How to become an Oncologist: A Comprehensive Guide

Updated on January 20, 2024

Becoming an oncologist takes many years of education and training, but it’s a rewarding career path for those dedicated to caring for cancer patients. First and foremost, aspiring oncologists must obtain an undergraduate degree, typically in a scientific field such as biology or chemistry. Following this, they must complete four years of medical school to earn their MD or DO. Afterward, they enter a residency program in internal medicine lasting three years where they gain hands-on experience treating patients. Subsequently, they complete two to three years of fellowship training specifically focused on oncology and treating cancer. Ultimately, after this lengthy but necessary education and training, they must pass exams and become board certified to practice oncology. With hard work and commitment, a career in oncology can be very fulfilling by making a difference in the lives of cancer patients.

What is an Oncologist?

An oncologist is a medical doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Oncologists have extensive training in the various types of cancer, how to develop treatment plans, and providing care throughout all stages of the disease.

Oncologists complete four years of medical school and then go through 3-4 years of additional specialized training in oncology through a residency and/or fellowship program. This intensive education equips them with cutting-edge knowledge on the complex nature of cancer and emerging treatment options.

The core responsibilities of an oncologist include:

Oncologists often sub-specialize in certain types of cancer treatment based on the organs or tissues affected, such as breast, lung, pediatric, gynecologic, or hematologic cancers. Their deep expertise in their subspecialty helps them provide tailored care plans for each patient.

What Do Oncologists Do?

Oncologists are doctors who diagnose and treat cancer. As an oncologist, your main responsibilities typically include:

• Diagnosing cancer – Oncologists order and analyze tests like biopsies, blood tests, imaging scans (CT, MRI, PET), and genetic tests to determine if a patient has cancer and identify the type and stage.

• Developing treatment plans – Once a cancer diagnosis is made, oncologists devise a customized treatment plan which may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, or targeted therapy. Treatment plans are based on the type and stage of cancer and the patient’s overall health.

• Providing cancer treatment – Oncologists directly provide systemic therapies like chemotherapy and immunotherapy to patients. They also work with surgeons and radiation oncologists to coordinate surgical and radiation treatments when needed.

• Monitoring patient progress – Oncologists closely track patients during and after treatment to monitor effectiveness and watch for recurrence, adjusting plans as needed. Follow-up care continues for years after treatment.

• Providing patient education – Oncologists explain complex diagnostic and test results to patients and educate them on treatment options so they can make informed decisions. Communication and counseling are key.

Educational Requirements for Becoming an Oncologist

Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

The first step toward becoming an oncologist is earning a bachelor’s degree at an accredited 4-year university. While any major is acceptable, aspiring oncologists typically major in biology, chemistry, or pre-med. Coursework emphasizes life sciences, physics, mathematics, and writing skills. A strong GPA (over 3.5) and high MCAT scores are vital for gaining admission to medical school. Some helpful undergraduate courses include:

Complete Medical School

The next step is 4 years of medical school to earn either an MD (Doctor of Medicine) or DO (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine) degree. The first 2 years focus on classroom instruction in anatomy, biochemistry, pathology, pharmacology, physiology, and disease prevention. The final 2 years provide clinical experience through hospital rotations in surgery, internal medicine, obstetrics/gynecology, pediatrics, psychiatry, and family medicine. It’s also vital to take electives related to oncology and research opportunities in cancer treatment.

Finish a Residency Program

After medical school, aspiring oncologists must complete 3-4 years of residency training in either internal medicine or radiation oncology. This provides intense hands-on training under the supervision of experienced oncologists in diagnosing and treating cancer patients. Residencies involve long shifts (up to 80 hours per week) assessing patients, reviewing treatment plans, assisting in the operating room, managing side effects of therapies, and honing bedside manner.

Skills and Qualities of a Successful Oncologist

Becoming an oncologist requires developing a specific set of skills and personal qualities that allow you to provide compassionate, quality care to patients with cancer. Key skills and qualities include:

Communication Skills Excellent communication skills enable oncologists to clearly explain complex diagnoses and treatment options to patients and families in an empathetic way. Oncologists must master skills like active listening and be able to adjust their communication approach to match different personalities and situations. They collaborate closely with other cancer specialists, so the ability to communicate effectively across disciplines is also important.

Analytical Thinking Oncologists must analyze complex medical histories, diagnostic reports like bloodwork and medical imaging, and the latest cancer research to determine the best treatment protocols for each patient. Strong critical thinking and problem-solving abilities are essential. Oncologists also rely heavily on up-to-date technical skills to provide state-of-the-art care.

Compassion Treating patients undergoing challenging and frightening health battles requires great compassion. Excellent oncologists are able to empathize with their patients and provide both clinical expertise as well as emotional support. Compassion helps build trust between doctor and patient, leading to better care partnership.

Resilience Oncology can be an emotionally and mentally taxing field due to the life-threatening nature of cancer and the loss of patient lives. Oncologists require resilience and self-care practices to handle stress and avoid burnout. The ability to compartmentalize and focus is also hugely beneficial.

Oncologist Salary

Oncologist Salary Oncologists are among the highest paid physicians. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for oncologists was $294,740 as of May 2020. However, salaries can vary widely based on experience, location, and subspecialty.

Several factors impact an oncologist’s salary potential:

Experience Level

More experienced oncologists tend to earn higher salaries. According to Doximity’s 2020 Physician Compensation Report, the average salary by years of experience is:

Years of ExperienceAverage Salary
Less than 1 year$224,000
1-4 years$261,000
5-9 years$300,000
10+ years$336,000

As shown, the average oncologist salary ranges from $224,000 for less than one year of experience up to $336,000 for those with over 10 years of experience. The significant jump after 5 years highlights the value of experience in oncology.


An oncologist’s earning potential also differs substantially depending on geographic location. Those practicing in more competitive and higher cost-of-living urban areas tend to earn the top salaries based on supply and demand.

According to Doximity, the top-paying states for oncologists are:

  1. South Dakota – $483,000 average salary
  2. Nebraska – $461,000
  3. Utah – $453,000

The competitive salaries aim to attract oncologists to more rural areas facing shortages compared to saturated coastal markets.


There are salary differences between subspecialties within oncology. For example, the average salaries for some common oncology subspecialties are:

Surgical oncologists earn the highest pay, which compensates for the additional training and demands of the specialty. Meanwhile, medical oncology and radiation oncology also offer strong career prospects for aspiring oncologists.

Career Opportunities and Advancement

Career Opportunities and Advancement Oncology is a rapidly growing field with strong career prospects. As cancer rates rise with an aging population, the demand for qualified oncologists is expected to increase dramatically over the next decade. This growth presents wide-ranging opportunities for career advancement.

After completing medical training and a 3-4 year oncology fellowship, many oncologists choose to work in private practice, cancer treatment centers, or hospital oncology departments. There, they diagnose and develop treatment plans for cancer patients. With experience, oncologists may advance to serve as department chiefs or directors of oncology centers. Additionally, some oncologists pursue careers in academic medicine and medical research. They may start as instructors or assistant professors before taking on senior faculty roles. Academic oncologists advance by publishing research, obtaining research grants, taking on leadership positions, and mentoring future oncologists.

Oncologists looking to specialize can become certified in subspecialties like radiation, surgical, pediatric, or hematological oncology through additional 1-2 year fellowships. These subspecialists are highly sought after and can rise to direct relevant departments in major cancer treatment facilities.

Beyond clinical practice and academics, some oncologists leverage their expertise in roles like medical affairs for pharmaceutical companies, advisors for cancer nonprofit organizations, or health policy experts. These alternative careers allow for career development focused on research, advocacy, administration, and leadership.

With a growing cancer burden and aging population, oncologists have promising opportunities to advance in diverse clinical and non-clinical careers for years to come. The compassionate patient care and life-saving work make oncology a fulfilling vocation as well.


In conclusion, becoming an oncologist requires many years of education and training, but can be a rewarding career helping cancer patients. First, complete a bachelor’s degree, then attend four years of medical school to earn an MD or DO. Next, complete a 3-5 year residency in internal medicine, followed by 2-3 years of an oncology fellowship. Throughout this long educational journey, maintain your passion for caring for cancer patients. With hard work and dedication, you can achieve the goal of becoming a licensed, board-certified oncologist. Consider joining professional associations like the American Society of Clinical Oncology to stay up-to-date on the latest advancements in the rapidly evolving field of cancer care. The road is long, but making a difference in the lives of those impacted by cancer makes it worthwhile.


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

How long does it take to become an Oncologist?

The journey to becoming an oncologist can be long. It starts with a 4-year undergraduate degree, followed by 4 years of medical school. After medical school, a 3 to 4 year residency in internal medicine or radiation oncology is required. Finally, a 2 to 3 year fellowship specializing in oncology is completed. In total, this process can take up to 15 years.

Do Oncologists only treat cancer?

While the primary role of an oncologist is to diagnose and treat cancers, they are also involved in prevention, follow-up care, patient education, and research. They often work with a team of healthcare professionals to provide a comprehensive approach to cancer care.

What are the different types of Oncology?

There are several subspecialties within oncology, including medical oncology, surgical oncology, radiation oncology, pediatric oncology, gynecologic oncology, and hematologic oncology. Each focuses on a different aspect or type of cancer treatment.

What does an Oncologist do during a typical workday?

An oncologist’s day can involve a variety of tasks, including meeting with patients, diagnosing cancer, developing and overseeing treatment plans, reviewing lab results, and coordinating care with other specialists. They also spend time staying updated on the latest research and advancements in cancer care.

What is the average salary for an Oncologist?

As of May 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the average annual salary for oncologists was $294,740. However, salaries can vary widely based on factors such as experience, location, and subspecialty.

What are some of the key skills and qualities needed to be an Oncologist?

Key skills and qualities include excellent communication, analytical thinking, compassion, and resilience. Oncologists must be able to explain complex medical information to patients, make critical decisions about patient care, and provide emotional support to patients and families.

Can an Oncologist specialize in more than one type of cancer?

Yes, some oncologists choose to specialize in more than one type of cancer. However, this may require additional training and certification.

What are the benefits of becoming an Oncologist?

Becoming an oncologist is a rewarding career for those dedicated to caring for cancer patients. It allows for the opportunity to make a significant impact on patients’ lives and contribute to advancements in cancer research and care.

What are some challenges Oncologists face?

Oncology can be a challenging field due to the complex nature of cancer and the emotional toll of working with seriously ill patients. However, oncologists also find their work incredibly rewarding and meaningful.

What professional organizations exist for Oncologists?

There are several professional organizations for oncologists, including the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM), the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), and the American Medical Association (AMA).