Christina Freeman, professional officer at the Society of Radiographers, believes that while 95 per cent of the population has met and been treated by a radiography professional in a hospital X-ray department, most of us are unaware of how this highly safety-conscious profession works.

"People tend to know what physiotherapists do, because they see them run on to football pitches with wet flannels, but the world of X-rays is a bit more mysterious and certainly a lot more frightening to the average person with a broken toe or arm," she says.

The country's 20,000 or so registered radiographers encompass two distinct groups, and decisions about which area to specialise in are crucial. Ninety per cent of the profession are diagnostic radiographers working mainly in the radiology or imaging departments of private or NHS hospitals, but can also be found in surgeries or clinics.

Using the latest technology such as computed tomography (CT), ultrasound, X-ray or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), their key role is to produce detailed images that can be used to diagnose injury or disease.

While new radiographers become expert at many different techniques as they gain experience, they may later specialise in a particular area of investigation such as sonography/ultrasonography, bone density scanning or "nuclear medicine", which uses radioactive isotopes to diagnose disease.

Breast cancer screening or obstetrics are among the other possible choices.

The other 10 per cent of the profession are therapeutic or radiotherapy radiographers specialising solely in treating cancer. The three- or four-dimensional images produced by the radiography department allow a cancer care team to decide whether to treat a tumour with drugs, surgery, controlled doses of radiation or with a combination of the above.

The job of either sort of radiographer includes being able to communicate with and provide support for frightened patients, as well as to provide doctors with the tools they need to make accurate diagnoses. In essence, says Freeman, the work of the radiographer underpins modern health care.

Although the number of self-employed radiographers is still small, the advent of smaller ultrasound equipment, for example, has made it far more possible to set up in private practice. Long-term career development options for radiographers include management or specialist roles in accident and emergency or perhaps film reporting. Consultant radiographer posts are also highly prized.

A typical three-year BSc course in radiography includes anatomy, pathology, physiology, science and instrumentation, radiation physics, X-ray production and patient care. All fees are paid by the NHS and a significant part of the time is spent in hospital radiography departments.

The chance to use state-of-the-art, increasingly digital, medical equipment is attractive to many students. But while it is important to have an empathy with IT, "nerdy types who love the equipment but who can't talk to our patients probably needn't apply," says Freeman.

Jennifer Edie, deputy dean of the School of Community and Health Sciences at City University, says good communication is a vital part of the job. "You will need to work with a whole range of different health professionals every day, and it is of course important you can keep yourself, the patient and colleagues safe from radiation. In addition, though, you must be able to communicate well with others as regards diagnosis and treatment options, however junior or senior they happen to be."

"IT nerds" may not always be great at talking to patients, but technological literacy is an essential component. "Some of the machinery we use is very complex and it's important not to be too frightened by it, even when it's being constantly updated and changed," says Edie. "Your real skills, though, will always come at the interface between the machine and the patient, who may well be terrified at the prospect of being scanned and may need to be reassured."

The City University radiography course, like many others, is 46 weeks long – half of which is academic and half placement – but getting a degree under your belt is a prerequisite for registering as a radiographer.

Starting salaries are around £21,000 plus weekend or night-duty payments, but a typical specialist in CT or ultrasound can earn up to £40,000 or aim for an £80,000-plus consultant post.

"The pay isn't too bad and, in terms of current job security, it is far preferable to become a radiographer than be an IT specialist in the City ," says Edie.

Freeman say attitudes to radiographers have also changed in recent years: "Doctors and nurses respect us far more than they used to. Radiographers enjoy working with patients and other professionals, and, when it comes to using X-rays or scanners to identify the precise nature of an injury or disease, we are now the acknowledged experts in the field."

'I was very impressed with the scope and variety of the job'

Gemma Richardson, 28, qualified as a radiographer after completing her BSc at Salford University in 2007. She now works in the radiography department at Tameside Hospital, primarily with A&E patients. Before her degree, she worked as a court clerk at the county court in Manchester.

"I didn't make it to university when I was 18 and rather fell into the legal field, but having one day had a hospital scan and seen a recruitment poster for radiography, I sent away for details and was very impressed with the scope and variety of the job. As a mature student at Salford, I did all three sciences in the one course, which was a bit of a shock to the system.

It was a real challenge, particularly given that my placement took up 50 per cent of my time; but, having worked for a living already, I found the outside practice a lot less frightening than the actual studying part.

As a court clerk, I was on about £13,000 and that has now risen to £21,000 which is fantastic. The long hours are a hurdle sometimes – we all carry diaries, so we can swap shifts and factor in some social life occasionally – but, unlike working in a court, the work is really stimulating, varied and fast-paced.

Although I have no regrets about giving up legal work, I've found some similarities between the two worlds. The NHS is still very hierarchical with all its different layers of medical and consultant posts, and is rather like the court system with its district judges, ushers and solicitors. The other similarity is that both patients and plaintiffs tend to be very nervous when you first meet them.

In the future, I may specialise in ultrasound, MRI or mammography or I may go into radiotherapy management; but for now, I'm enjoying learning about all the possibilities and knowing I have time to make up my mind."