A career as a lab tech is like working as a medical detective, because clinical laboratory technologists and technicians use a variety of tests to analyze body fluids, tissue, and other substances. The results often play crucial roles in detecting, diagnosing, and treating many diseases and injuries. There is a difference between jobs performed by lab technicians and lab technologists. Learn more about those differences, as well as information about specialties, work conditions, certification, and supportive organizations through this list of 22 elemental facts that every medical lab tech should know.
- There are differences between jobs performed by clinical lab technicians and clinical lab technologists. Clinical laboratory technologists usually perform more complex chemical, biological, hematological, immunologic, microscopic, and bacteriological tests. Clinical laboratory technicians usually work under the supervision of medical and clinical laboratory technologists or laboratory managers.
- The difference between lab technicians and technologists also can be seen in educational requirements. Clinical laboratory technologists generally require a bachelor’s degree in medical technology or in one of the life sciences; clinical laboratory technicians usually need an associate degree or a certificate.
- Further education can mean a world of difference in salaries. The average annual salary for medical and clinical laboratory technologists was $53,500 in 2008. The highest paying state for this profession is California, and the top paying metropolitan areas for this occupation include San Jose, Sunnyvale, and Santa Clara — all located in California.
- The average annual salary for medical and clinical laboratory technicians was $35,380 in 2008. Currently, Rhode Island is the top paying state for this occupation; however, the top paying metropolitan areas for this profession include Vallejo and Fairfield, both located in California.
- Technicians can advance and become technologists through additional education and experience. Technologists may advance to supervisory positions in laboratory work or may become chief medical or clinical laboratory technologists or laboratory managers. Technologists also can achieve more education and experience in a specialty, such as clinical biochemistry or toxicology.
- A doctoral degree usually is required to become a laboratory director [PDF]. Federal regulation requires directors of moderately complex laboratories to have either a master’s degree or a bachelor’s degree, combined with the appropriate amount of training and experience.
Lab Tech Licensure
- Some states require laboratory personnel to be licensed or registered. Licensure of technologists often requires a bachelor’s degree and the passing of an exam, but requirements vary by state and specialty. Information on licensure is available from state departments of health or boards of occupational licensing. You can find a list of state and local health departments at the American Public Health Association (APHA). Many employers prefer applicants who are certified by a recognized professional association, listed below. These agencies have different requirements for certification and different organizational sponsors.
- The American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) Board of Certification is the oldest and largest certification agency for laboratory professionals. ASCP’s 2010 Wage Survey of U.S. Clinical Laboratories found that certified laboratory professionals earn up to 14 percent more than their non-certified counterparts.
- The American Medical Technologists (AMT) certification offers multiple but related certifications. Individuals can become certified in more than one specialty, making them more valuable and marketable in the industry. AMT is accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), a recognition only given to organizations meeting rigorous NCCA standards.
- The National Credentialing Agency for Laboratory Personnel(NCA) and the American Society for Clinical Pathology Board of Registry (ASCP-BOR) have merged to form a unified credentialing agency, ratified by the ASCP, the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science (ASCLS), and the Association of Genetic Technologists (AGT). Use the ASCP link to complete that certification process.
- The Board of Registry of the American Association of Bioanalysts (BOR-AAB) focuses on clinical laboratory directors, owners, supervisors, managers, medical technologists, medical laboratory technicians, physician office laboratory technicians and phlebotomists. Applicants are required to hold an HHS (formerly HEW) clinical laboratory technologist (CLT) card.
- Phlebotomists collect blood samples from people or from animals. Most states require a high school diploma or equivalent, followed by a six-day phlebotomy certification class.
- Histotechnicians and histotechnologists [PDF] cut and stain tissue specimens for microscopic examination by pathologists. Like the difference between lab technicians and technologists, the histogechnologist performs more complex tasks. A histotechnician who earns a baccalaureate degree and either has one year of experience or attends a NAACLS-accredited histotechnology program can become a histotechnologist.
- Cytotechnologists detect cancer and other abnormalities through the microscopic interpretation of cells collected from various body cavities or organs. In the U.S., cytotechnologists can earn certification by completing an undergraduate degree and attending a cytotechnology program for one year. An alternative is to attend a four-year program that focuses on cytotechnology. The ASCP offers certification, and the American Society for Cytotechnology (ASCT) sets standards for training and education.
- Medical technologists [PDF] are allied health professionals who perform technical and scientific functions in medical laboratories. In most four-year medical laboratory programs, the student attends classroom courses for three years and clinical rotations are completed in their final year of study. Specialties within this profession include clinical biochemistry, toxicology, virology, mycology, cytogenetics, electron microscopy, and IVF labs.
- Pathologist’s assistants [PDF] examine samples of skin or organ tissue to diagnose a disease and work under a pathologist (usually an MD or DD). In most cases, you’ll need to earn a bachelor’s degree to qualify for admission to a training program for pathologists’ assistants. Most training programs are graduate-level programs that lead to a master’s degree.
Lab Tech Work
- Clinical and medical lab techs can work in a variety of settings, such as hospitals, for-profit laboratories, clinical, nursing homes, public health facilities, private laboratories, doctors’ offices, research, sales and commercial laboratories. Settings often change considering specialization or level of experience and location.
- Research has shown that at least 70 percent of all medical decisions rely on some sort of laboratory data. As a laboratory professional, you play a huge role in the processing and analysis of laboratory samples. As a result, you also influence the reliability and credibility of laboratory data as well as the accuracy of patient diagnoses and the quality of care that patients receive.
- Protective masks, gloves, and goggles often are necessary to ensure the safety of laboratory personnel, because exposure to disease or infection is constant as well as exposure to hazardous conditions.
- The average contract time for a lab technician is about 2 years and techs generally stay in the field for 2-4 years before moving on to other lines of work.
- Networking with peers is a great way to build a career, even as a student. For example, the American Society of Cytopathology (ASC) offers free membership to students enrolled in an accredited cytotechnology program. Other groups include the ASCT and the ASCP as well as several state, regional and international associations.
- You make the choices in a career as a lab tech. Once you complete your education and the certification exam, your opportunities are limited only by your imagination. Whichever career you pursue as a laboratory professional [PDF], you can do many different things with your training. And, you can further your training while you work to expand your opportunities.