Help me decide between becoming an RN or a Nuclear Medicine Technologist
January 23, 2014 4:24 PM   Subscribe

Are you, or is someone you know, a Nuclear Medicine Technologist? Can you tell me more about the field, about your day-to-day duties, and your quality of life?

I'm 26 and I have a BA in a social science discipline; I'm not finding that my degree has opened the door to many lucrative careers, so I decided to go back to school in Fall of 2013. I'm currently taking classes at a local college to fulfill the prerequisites for their Registered Nursing program, but the program is highly sought-after and has a long wait list. Many of the courses I'm currently taking also fulfill prerequisites for application to their Nuclear Medicine Technology program, which does NOT have a long wait list, but I know next to nothing about nuclear medicine aside from what I've read on the school's website, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics career profile.

Also, I know many Registered Nurses that I can ask for advice on what to expect from nursing school and from life as a nurse, but I've never met a Nuclear Medicine Technologist, so I'm very curious to hear more about the career; the type of stuff that you wouldn't find on the BLS website or in a college brochure. Are you pleased with your career choice? Was it easy for you to find employment? Have there been any downsides to your training/career that you didn't anticipate?

Thank you very much in advance!
posted by Pizzarina Sbarro to Work & Money (7 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'm neither of those things, but I'm a fourth-year medical student and I worked at a hospital before that so I've met plenty of nurses and techs of all kinds.

If I was transported back in time to post-college and given the choice between the two, knowing what I do now, I'd definitely pick nuclear med tech. I'm surely biased because I've only really been in hospitals- I would NOT want to be a nurse in a hospital- but I assume there are plenty of nurses working in small medical offices who don't have to deal with the crazy shit a floor nurse in a hospital does. But at least in a hospital setting, I think that a tech job is much more chill than a nursing job. I guess it really comes down to inpatient care (people who are staying in the hospital) vs outpatient care (people who come in for an appointment and leave.) Outpatient will almost always be less crazy than inpatient and nuclear med will mostly be outpatient. Nursing could be either but I don't know how hard it is to get either type of job.

Nursing has more opportunities for advancement, higher education leading to more autonomy and direct patient care and therefore a higher salary. If this matters to you, it's worth considering. But I'd also be honest with yourself about your personal qualities- I think nursing is good for energetic, extroverted people who thrive in chaos, whereas radiology-type jobs (nuclear med is a radiology subspecialty) would probably better suit someone introverted who gets stressed out when things get crazy. (That's not a bad thing. I'm an introvert who gets stressed out when things get crazy, and guess what, I want to be a radiologist. It fits me.) I also chose it because I think in general radiology attracts more chill, laid-back types- this is important to you because this is who you'll be working closely with. If you are ANY type of nurse or tech, it's likely that at some point you'll have to deal with shit from the doctors you're working with. And on the whole, I just think radiologists are less likely to flip out or be horrible than many other types of docs. I also think that nuclear medicine is just a cool field in terms of the technology, and definitely less poo and vomit to deal with than if you were a nurse. (Again, not to bash nursing- nurses are great and absolutely essential- I just don't envy them. But again nursing is such a vast and varied field, I'm sure there are tons of cool and not-gross nursing jobs out there. I just don't know what they are.)

There are other cool tech jobs I've noticed in the hospital, too- you could do ultrasound tech. Though honestly, the coolest tech job I've seen is EEG tech- you are the one gluing electrodes all over someone's scalp and watching the monitors of their brain! Then ungluing all the electrodes. And at least when I saw it happening in my hospital, it was VERY laid back- lots of sitting around waiting for patients to show up to the lab. I'm guessing it pays less due to that, but still, if you want a chill job there's nothing wrong with that. I thought it seemed cool. I also frequently recommend surgical tech to people as a job. You need to be okay with the blood and gore of surgery, of course. But the thing about surg tech is that if you're really good at it, surgeons WILL notice. To be a good surgical tech you need to be really focused and not get distracted by the gossiping/ chatting that tends to occur in the OR- if you pay attention to the procedures and the surgeons, you can start to anticipate what comes next and give them what they need before they even ask for it. If you're really good, then all the best surgeons will want you in their cases. I've even seen good techs be poached into a surgeon's practice to be THEIR personal tech for cases which I would assume is a well-paying and stable position to be in.

I don't want to make this post any longer but you're welcome to PM me if you'd like to know more about the field of nuclear medicine in general. I can't speak to the tech experience exactly but I can probably tell you a bit more about the types of patients you'll be seeing, etc.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 5:27 PM on January 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am an RN. I don't say this to diminish ancillary personnel, but they make good money for easy work. Nursing is more work, for more pay.
posted by poopdbq at 5:58 PM on January 23, 2014

Also not a nuc med tech, but have years of experience working in hospitals, and shadowed nuc med techs (along with just about every other role in the hospital).

The nuc med techs had a calm environment (in the basement) where patients would come in at scheduled times and receive treatments. They used a big machine, and worked with patients one on one.

Floor nursing, by contrast, is pretty high-energy: lots of running around, keeping up with all the various things that various patients needs. Lots of disruptions, barriers, redirections.

It is definitely the kind of job that you can leave at work - no answering emails every evening or working on a TPS report late into the night.

I recommend reaching out to the school and seeing if they can hook you up with any alumni for a shadowing experience. A nursing school (with their long waiting list) may not be responsive, but the Nuc Med school might be. It is a great opportunity to see what they do, but also to ask questions. People love talking about their jobs, and their upsides and downsides.
posted by jeoc at 6:59 PM on January 23, 2014

Why don't you track down some local nuclear med techs and ask them? The one who works at my hospital is very friendly and has down time to talk while patients are being scanned.

Stress level will vary enormously by what institution you work at. Our tech is very busy, although yes, less busy and crazy than the floor nurses, but we also have a few nursing positions that are fairly chill (postpartum for example). Nurse pay is much higher in union states.

There is some risk associated with nuclear med. Nursing is not the safest job either though. I got a needle stick last week.
posted by latkes at 8:32 PM on January 23, 2014

Something else to take into consideration is job availability. There are not as many techs as RNs, so techs may have a harder time finding a job.

What everyone else has said about being a nurse at a hospital is very true, and true of the clinicals you'll need to pass to get through school but there are many RN jobs that are not hospital nursing.

If you think that you can get through the RN clinicals I'd be inclined to go choose RN over tech. There are many kinds of RNs and only type of tech.

RNs can do everything from working in a super intense Emergency Department to phone triage where they never see a physical patient.
posted by MadMadam at 1:16 AM on January 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm a nurse and my closest friend's husband is a nuclear med tech. Nursing definitely has more flexibility and more opportunity for advancement. While most nurses try to start off in a hospital as a first job, this is less and less important as medicine has transitioned to a largely out-patient experience. Think same-day surgicenters, urgent care centers, and the like.

If you are serious about nursing, I recommend you go straight for a Nurse Practitioner license, which is a master's degree right now, but will be a doctorate in the very near future. This sounds overwhelming, but every nursing school I can think of is set up to transition students into masters or DNP (doctorate of nursing Practice) programs. If you want to start with an RN, the absolute quickest way to a license is via an Associates degree from an accredited Community College, but licensing requirements are changing, and a bachelor in nursing will be the minimum soon. "Magnet" hospitals must be all-BSN or higher nurses, and fewer and fewer hospitals will hire without a BSN. This is very location-centric, though, and your area probably has its own hiring preferences.

Nurse Practitioners have enormous advantages, as they can bill as primary-care practitioners or can work in Academic practices either with in-patients or out-patients. They have collaborative agreements with physicians, but often great latitude. These specifics vary from state to state, and from insurer to insurer. For example, in PA NPs can bill Medicare directly, but not Blue Cross. Every state is different, (and physicians seem in some locations to be actively lobbying to prevent NPs from practicing independently. There's a whole literature on this in the Nurse Anesthetist v. Anesthesiology realm). Still, with Obamacare, there is a political push to make Primary Care, at least, more available with Nurse Practitioners. Also, advanced-practice nurses make easy transitions to Pharma and insurance companies and there is a myriad of opportunities in clinical research that are generally out of reach for RNs.

None of the above is applicable to nuclear medicine techs. You are hired by a hospital, or possibly a free standing radiology facility, and have almost no ability to expand your role, except by becoming a manager. You can take call at other hospitals if you want to increase your income, but then you have to be available for evenings, or weekends, or holidays, or whenever the regular employees want time off. In my friend's case, I was able to point him to a unique position at the academic medical center where I work as a research nuclear med tech, because the researcher I was working with has a large number of protocols involving nuclear med. But this was a one-in-a-million job, and I would not count on finding something similar.
posted by citygirl at 9:38 AM on January 24, 2014

Thank you all for the helpful answers! I think I will stick with my original plan of applying to nursing school. A couple of you brought up good points regarding the opportunity for advancement, and the ability to work in a variety of different settings, both of which are appealing to me. Plus, I'm only 3 credits away from being able to complete my application!

Nuclear Medicine Technologist does sound like a great job, though!
posted by Pizzarina Sbarro at 11:14 AM on January 25, 2014

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