By Mike Barrigan
Medical imaging equipment such as CT, MRI and ultrasound devices have evolved rapidly since the X-ray was discovered in the late 1800s. But one thing remains unchanged: These expensive, complicated machines are crucial to caring for patients. That’s why imaging engineers – those in charge of keeping imaging equipment humming and at the ready – are so important.
Imaging engineers are behind-the-scenes heroes at any hospital, clinic or private practice that uses these kinds of medical diagnostic and treatment devices. These professionals get to know complex machinery inside and out, so they can keep it running smoothly – and act quickly when to get it working again if something goes wrong.
In a worst-case scenario, if an imaging device goes out of service, potentially life-saving care can be put at risk, with a side impact on health system’s bottom line. No wonder imaging engineers are in such high demand: Experts predict there will be nearly 17,000 imaging engineer job openings every year through 2031.
Are you interested in working with state-of-the-art medical equipment and impacting patients’ lives in a very real way? Imaging engineering might be the career path for you.
What is an imaging engineer?
An imaging engineer installs, maintains, repairs and calibrates imaging equipment for healthcare providers, with accountability for meeting regulatory requirements.
Some think imaging engineers and biomedical engineers are interchangeable. While some biomeds do transition into imaging engineers during their careers, the two professions are quite different. Biomedical engineering teams might work with imaging equipment at a base level, but imaging engineers are more specialized. They’re who you call when advanced radiological machinery needs top-notch care; they must learn imaging equipment inside and out.
Becoming an expert imaging engineer takes years of hands-on experience – but first, you need the right training.
What are the requirements to become an imaging engineer?
Several different paths can take you to become an imaging engineer; no one degree or certificate is required.
Imaging engineers typically hold associate’s or bachelor’s degrees in engineering or another technical or electronics-heavy field. Alternately, they might have a few years of military training with electronics or other machinery. Those lacking such credentials can also receive training specific to imaging engineering from technical schools or organizations like the Radiological Service Training Institute (RSTI).
Your level of formal training might affect how quickly you advance in an imaging engineering career. For instance, you’re more likely to get promoted sooner than later if you have a four-year degree. And if you’re currently a biomed who’s worked with some imaging equipment before, that certainly doesn’t hurt.
However, as in many other careers, there’s no substitute for experience and hard work on the job. The more you learn the different kinds of equipment, ask questions, up your skills and put in your best effort, the more quickly you’ll climb the ranks.
What are the levels of imaging engineer?
There are three hierarchical levels of imaging engineer: IE I, IE II and IE III.
Entry-level imaging engineers, or IE Is, are usually fresh out of school or have limited experience with imaging equipment. As an IE I, you’ll be doing a lot of basic tasks – and, frankly, even a bit of grunt work. This might include pulling up informational data, finding and submitting error codes, and cleaning machinery. It’s not the sexiest work, but it’s the best way to become familiar with the equipment you’ll be dealing with throughout your career.
IE IIs generally have more responsibilities than IE Is. When you’ve graduated to this level, you’ll complete more complicated installations, inspections, calibrations, troubleshoots and repairs. More advanced modalities like CT and MRI will be more familiar to you, but you’ll probably still need some supervision when working with higher-level equipment.
The highest-level imaging engineers, IE IIIs, have been in the game long enough to know their way around all kinds of imaging equipment and modalities. As an IE III, you’ll likely be an advisor to the medical and clinical staff who use the equipment you’re in charge of. You won’t just know how best to care for radiological machinery, but you’ll know how to teach others to handle it properly, too.
How quickly will you advance from IE I all the way up to IE III? That depends on how many years you’ve been at it, how apt you are with the equipment and what opportunities you’ve had.
How can you thrive as an imaging engineer?
That leads me to a few basic pieces of advice for anyone who wants to make the most out of a career as an imaging engineer.
First, look for the right opportunities. Especially starting out, you probably won’t find a job that lets you do the big-time engineering work you’re not ready for. Instead, find a job with responsibilities that’ll play to – and add to – your current skillset. You’ll have to take some hard knocks and make plenty of mistakes before you get good enough to move up the ladder.
Second, always be willing to learn. Like I said, there’s no substitute for experience in this field. No matter your degree or years on the job, you’re not going to get anywhere as an imaging engineer if you don’t commit to learning the equipment as well as you possibly can. Sometimes that means swallowing your pride and admitting what you don’t know, or asking your boss for opportunities to earn more advanced certifications.
And finally, play well with others. Imaging engineers frequently interact with people outside their own department, including doctors, nurses, clinicians and others who use imaging equipment. Some of them might not know the equipment as well as you do – especially if they’re new to their job – so be patient and receptive when explaining how to use and care for it. Your employers will notice whether you have good people skills, which could help create growth opportunities.
Ready to get started?
Imaging engineers are essential to keeping almost any healthcare practice afloat, from major hospitals to dentist’s offices, so they’re always in demand. If you’re a lifelong learner who’s eager to work with top-of-the-line machinery and make a difference for patients and healthcare providers alike, a career as an imaging engineer should definitely be on your radar.
Check out our job openings for opportunities to be an imaging engineer.