How to Become a Clinical Laboratory Technologist

What is a Clinical Laboratory Technologist?

A clinical laboratory technologist works in a laboratory setting to collect samples of body fluids, human tissue, and other substances for testing purposes. The procedures that a clinical laboratory technologist carries out are often ordered by other professionals, like a surgeon, or by an entity, like the radiology department of a hospital.

Typically, these tests are conducted manually after the clinical laboratory technologist has prepared the specimens for testing. In large laboratories, workers might be highly specialized, such as working only with blood samples, whereas in smaller labs workers likely perform all manner of testing.

What Does a Clinical Laboratory Technologist Do?

Workers in this field have many varied job duties, virtually all of which revolve around the collection and testing of samples like blood, urine, and skin. For example, a clinical laboratory technologist might run tests on a urine sample to determine if the patient has any drugs in their system. Likewise, they might examine a sample of a patient’s blood to determine if any abnormalities exist, like the presence of anemia or another blood disorder.

Another common task for which clinical laboratory technologists are responsible is analyzing blood for the purpose of transfusions. This is a complex process that involves:

  • Identifying the number of cells in the blood
  • Determining the morphology of the cells
  • Identifying the blood type
  • Determining compatibility of the blood with patients that require blood transfusions.

These kinds of tests require clinical laboratory technologists to undertake a wide-range of job duties, many of which revolve around the following:

  • Operating common laboratory equipment, like microscopes or cell counters
  • Operating sophisticated laboratory equipment, like centrifuges
  • Using computers and computer software to control automated testing procedures and to analyze data
  • Logging findings into patient charts

Another critical component of a career in this field is the ability to effectively communicate findings in both written and verbal form. As noted above, technologists must be able to use computers to enter, analyze, and record data. But they must also be able to verbalize their findings and the importance of their findings to medical staff and other stakeholders.

Further, depending upon the size of the lab, some clinical laboratory technologists might have highly specialized duties. For example, specialization might occur in any of the following areas:

  • Immunohematology, or the study of blood
  • Clinical chemistry, or the study of the chemical components of body fluids
  • Cytotechnology, or the process of preparing slides with samples of body cells for examination
  • Immunology, or the study of the human nervous system
  • Microbiology, or the study of bacteria and other organisms.

Job duties can also vary depending upon the level of education and experience a worker has. For example, an experienced technologist might also be responsible for training new hires in laboratory processes.

What Do You Learn in a Clinical Laboratory Technologist Degree Program?

Typical coursework in a clinical laboratory technologist degree program includes studies in:

  • Chemistry – The study of chemical compounds, their properties, and how they interact with one another
  • Biology – The study of living organisms, in particular, the morphology, anatomy, and physiology of humans and other animals
  • Microbiology – The study of microorganisms, like bacteria
  • Hematology – The study of blood as it pertains to healthy living as well as blood-related diseases
  • Urinalysis – The process of analyzing urine’s physical and chemical makeup to determine the presence of disease, disorder or drugs
  • Mathematics – In particular, the study of statistical analysis and reporting such that accurate measurements are made and passed on to medical staff
  • Laboratory Practices – Students learn how to conduct safe testing in a clean and sterile testing environment
  • Use of Laboratory Equipment – Students learn how to use both common and advanced laboratory tools, from needles and test tubes to microscopes and hematology analyzers
  • Computer Technology – Since many testing procedures are automated and data is entered, analyzed and disseminated digitally, students must acquire expansive computer technology skills in order to perform the duties of a clinical laboratory technologist

What are the Requirements to Become a Clinical Laboratory Technologist?

Educational Requirements

To become a clinical laboratory technologist, a student must have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. Most often, this degree is obtained in medical technology, though four-year degrees in biology, chemistry, or another related field might be acceptable.

Bachelor’s degree programs typically include two years of studies in general subjects, like the humanities, math, science, and political science. Following that is a two-year period during which students take part in the clinical portion of their studies. Coursework during this phase is hands-on, with students working in on-campus labs and in real-world environments like hospitals to learn how to put their learning into practice.

The purpose of a clinical laboratory technologist degree program is to help students build the foundation of knowledge as it pertains to medical and laboratory science, as well as building confidence in performing clinical tasks like drawing blood, handling specimens, utilizing equipment like centrifuges, and so forth.

Usually, a bachelor’s degree is all that’s needed to enter this field of work. However, advancement opportunities are available for students that pursue additional education, like a two-year master’s degree program in medical technology or a related life science.

Licensure Requirements

Licensure requirements for clinical laboratory technologists vary, meaning, licensure requirements in one state might be completely different from licensure requirements in the next. That makes it difficult to plan for workers that begin their employment in one state and move to another state to look for a similar career. The American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science (ASCLS) is the professional organization for clinical laboratory scientists, and they’ve compiled a list of resources for licensure.

Certification Requirements

As with licensure, certification requirements also vary for clinical laboratory technologists depending on the state in which they practice. The oldest credentialing body for laboratory workers, the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP), offers certification for technologists as well as technicians and specialists. To obtain certification from ASCP, one must apply for and pass the certification exam with an acceptable score.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Clinical Laboratory Technologist?

The length of time it takes to become a clinical laboratory technologist depends very heavily on a number of factors.

One factor is a student’s existing level of education. In some cases, if a student already has an associate’s degree or a fair number of college credits, a two-year program in medical technology could provide a means for entering this field of work.

Likewise, if a student already has an associate’s degree bachelor’s degree in a closely related field like biology or chemistry, the clinical portion of a clinical laboratory technologist degree program could be completed in as little as one to two years.

However, if a student is fresh out of high school, it will likely take four years to obtain a bachelor’s degree in medical technology, assuming that the student attends school full-time and does not take any breaks in their studies for that four-year period.

What are the Advancement Opportunities for Clinical Laboratory Technologists?

Advancement opportunities for clinical laboratory technologists abound, especially as one’s level of education increases. As noted earlier, there are many subs-pecialties in this field, and getting additional education or training in one of those fields might allow workers to find better work opportunities.

For example, after obtaining a bachelor’s degree in medical technology or a closely related field, a student can then specialize in clinical chemistry, immunology, or another area to gain the specific skills needed to fulfill the duties of a career in such specialized areas.

Another means of advancing one’s career in this line of work is to become certified or licensed. As outlined in the previous section, certification and licensure are not always mandatory, but technologists that want to advance their career may benefit from pursuing either licensure or certification or both, as many specialized jobs and jobs that pay better usually require additional education and training such as this.

Of course, advancement opportunities are available for workers the more experience they acquire in the field. That is, years of experience can lead to promotions down the road and open opportunities for better job options with other employers as well.

How Much Does a Clinical Laboratory Technologist Make?

The salary earned by clinical laboratory technologists varies quite widely. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2016, the median annual salary for medical and clinical laboratory technicians is $38,950. The lowest 10 percent of earners in this field make scarcely more than $26,000 per year. The highest 10 percent of earners can make in excess of $60,000 per year.

According to Payscale, when examined on an hourly basis, workers in this field earn an average wage of $24.66 per hour, though, again, the pay range is quite wide. On the low end, workers might earn just $17.00 per hour while on the high end, wages are in the $33.00 per hour range.

What is the Job Outlook for Clinical Laboratory Technologists?

The job outlook for clinical laboratory technologists and related careers is projected to be quite strong in the coming years. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that job growth in this sector will be at around 12 percent for the next eight to ten years.

Unfortunately, the need for additional clinical laboratory technologists is due to the increased need to test for common diseases, like cancer and diabetes, that impact increasing numbers of people. Additionally, with the population skewing towards being older, more people are entering old age, and with that comes the need for more medical attention and testing.

What Careers are Similar to Clinical Laboratory Technologist?

There are many careers that offer a similar work experience as clinical laboratory technology. Some of the most closely related jobs are:

  • Clinical Laboratory Scientist – Someone employed as a clinical laboratory scientist works in a lab to conduct medical tests, the results of which are used by doctors and other medical personnel to diagnose and treat people with diseases, disorders, and other medical conditions.
  • Medical Laboratory Technician – Typically, medical laboratory technicians assist clinical laboratory technologists in preparing samples for testing and analyzing samples using clinical procedures. For example, a medical lab tech might prepare a blood sample on a slide so a clinical lab tech can analyze the sample for abnormalities.
  • Biological Technician – Biological technicians are usually responsible for tasks related to setting up the lab environment and ensuring that the space and the tools and instruments therein are clean, organized, and safe. They often collect samples for testing, conduct basic lab tests, and analyze and interpret data from testing as well.
  • Materials Scientist – Workers in the field of materials science often have a background in chemistry and conduct testing on substances at the molecular and even the atomic level. Specifically, their findings regarding the structure of chemical substances and the manner in which they react to one another is used to develop new materials and improve existing materials.

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