How to Become a Cytotechnologist - Education & Certifications

Anyone who’s ever waited for biopsy results knows the value of a well-qualified cytotechnologist. A cytotechnologist is a medical laboratory professional specializing in examining cells for the presence or absence of cancer.

Classified as allied health professionals, cytotechnologists work with physicians and other healthcare professionals to diagnose and treat diseases. In a laboratory, cytotechnologists prepare and evaluate human cellular samples to detect precancerous changes, cancer, benign tumors, infectious agents, and inflammatory processes. They may also prepare specimens, attend fine needle aspirations, and provide quality assurance services in medical laboratories.

To become a cytotechnologist, one must obtain a bachelor’s degree in biology, chemistry, medical laboratory science, or a related field. Cytotechnology programs are typically four-year programs that prepare students for careers in cell science. Students take biology, chemistry, and mathematics courses during their studies. They also receive training in microscope techniques and cell preparation. After completing a cytotechnology program, graduates must then pass a national certification exam to practice. Some states require unique requirements for licensure.

The American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) offers two certification exams for cytotechnologists. To be eligible, candidates must complete a regionally accredited college or university and a one-year CAAHEP-accredited cytotechnology in the previous five years. Once certified, cytotechnologists can work in hospitals, clinics, laboratories, and research facilities. They may also teach at colleges and universities. Cytotechnologists typically work full-time; however, they may also work part-time or on an as-needed basis, depending on their employer’s needs.

Jobs in cytotechnology and other clinical laboratory technology jobs are predicted to grow steadily, at a rate of 7 percent between 2021 and 2031, which is about as fast as the national average (5 percent). The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 21,800 new positions will be in demand in the coming decade (BLS 2022).

With an early diagnosis from a cytologist, physicians and patients can pursue treatment options faster. Read on for information about becoming a cytotechnologist, including skills, salary and career outlook, accredited programs, and a step-by-step guide to pursuing this career.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Cytotechnologist?

In short, it typically takes one to two years of schooling after completing a bachelor’s degree in medical laboratory science or biology. After completing a four-year degree, aspiring cytotechnologists must complete an accredited one-year program to pursue certification.

More information about certification is included below in the step-by-step section.

Skills Required to Become a Successful Cytotechnologist

To become a successful cytotechnologist, specific skills must be developed and mastered, including:

  • Knowledge of cytology principles: A cytotechnologist should understand cytology principles and laboratory procedures strongly. This knowledge will enable cytotechnologists to interpret cytology specimens and make reliable diagnoses.
  • Technical Skills: The ability to utilize laboratory equipment is an important technical skill for cytotechnologists. They must perform all cytology procedures safely, correctly, and efficiently to produce accurate results.
  • Attention to Detail: Cytotechnologists must have good eye-hand coordination and attention to detail to accurately inspect cytology slides for abnormalities. They must also be able to document results and keep detailed reports of their work properly.
  • Analytical Skills: A cytotechnologist should have strong analytical skills to interpret cytology results and detect abnormalities. They must also have the ability to think analytically when dealing with complex cases or difficult diagnoses.
  • Organization: Organizational skills are essential for cytotechnologists to manage their workload, prioritize tasks and meet deadlines effectively. They also need to be able to store tissue samples properly.

Cytotechnologist Salary and Career Outlook

The BLS classifies cytotechnologists as “clinical laboratory technologists and technicians,” which includes several medical laboratory occupational titles. From 2021 to 2031, the BLS predicts this career will grow 7 percent, adding 21,800 new positions in the same period. This is largely due to a growing number of older patients needing diagnostic services for cancer and other medical conditions.

Salary percentiles for clinical laboratory technologists and technicians are as follows (BLS May 2021):

  • 10th percentile: $30,280
  • 25th percentile: $37,990
  • 50th percentile (median): $57,800
  • 75th percentile: $74,530
  • 90th percentile: $79,340

The BLS (May 2021) shows the top-paying industries for clinical laboratory technologists and technicians are as follows:

  • Wholesale electronic markets and agents and brokers (number of employed unknown): $101,080 average annual salary
  • Merchant wholesalers, nondurable goods (210): $78,290
  • Computer systems design and related services (number of employed unknown): $73,520
  • Navigational, measuring, electromedical, and control instruments manufacturing (60): $72,690
  • Management, scientific, and technical consulting services (420): $68,430

Lastly, the cost of living in a particular area is a major factor influencing pay. When considering salary offers, it’s important to consider the cost of housing, utilities, transportation, groceries, and other goods and services. The Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC 2023) has a cost of living data series that estimates these costs by state.

The BLS shows the top-paying states for clinical laboratory technologists and technicians are as follows:

  • New York (17,030 employed): $72,500 average annual salary
  • Rhode Island (900): $70,580
  • Connecticut (3,210): $70,220
  • Oregon (2,980): $69,330
  • California (25,910): $68,450

It’s important to note that the top-paying five states are also ranked in the top 10 of MERIC’s list of most expensive states to live. By illustration, cytotechnologists seeking employment in Connecticut have the best odds of gaining employment that pays well compared with the other four states.

Steps to Become a Cytotechnologist – Education & Experience

Unlike other career paths, becoming a cytotechnologist is relatively straightforward in its requirements for education, certification, and state licensure. Here is a step-by-step guide to becoming an ASCP-certified cytotechnologist

Step 1: Graduate from High School or Earn a GED (Four Years)

To gain admission into an undergraduate program, aspiring cytotechnologists must first complete high school or obtain a GED. High school students who want to become cytotechnologists should take biology, math, and chemistry classes as much as possible. Internship opportunities that include laboratory skills are also recommended.

Step 2: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree (four years)

To be eligible for certification through the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP), applicants must have a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited college or university. This degree can be in any field, although aspiring cytotechnologists can look for cytotechnology, life science, or medical laboratory science degree programs.

For example, Thomas Jefferson University offers a bachelor of science degree in cytotechnology & cell sciences. This program offers a degree completion program that enables students to complete a bachelor’s degree in one or two years or earn a dual degree or a combined bachelor’s and master’s degree program. This program is offered on-campus through the College of Health Professions, and the teaching and administrative faculty are ASCP-certified.

  • Location: Philadelphia, PA
  • Duration: One to four years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
  • Tuition: $1,355 per credit

Please see the Accredited Cytotechnology Programs section for more featured bachelor’s and post-bachelor’s certificate programs in cytotechnology.

Step 3: Complete a CAAHEP-Accredited Cytotechnology Program (One or Two Years)

The second and final eligibility requirement to be eligible to take an ASCP exam is completing a cytotechnologist program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP).

For example, the University of Wisconsin-Madison offers a 50-week cytotechnology program. Graduates from this program have an 85 percent completion rate. This program is offered in partnership with the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene.

  • Location: Madison, WI
  • Duration: 50 weeks
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
  • Tuition: $498 per credit (residents); $1,690 per credit (non-residents)

Most cytotechnology programs are one year but some can be completed in two years at a part-time rate.

Step 4: Earn ASCP Certification (Timeline Varies)

The American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) offers two certification credentials for cytotechnologists:

  • Cytotechnologist, CT(ASCP)
  • Specialist in Cytology, SCT(ASCP)

These two certifications are recognized in the United States and abroad. The application fee for the US-based credential is $240.

In some cases, having ASCP certification meets state-level requirements for cytotechnologists. For example, eight states and Puerto Rico accept ASCP certification as part of their state-level requirements for cytotechnologists to work legally.

Step 5: Renew ASCP Certification (Every Three Years)

ASCP credentials are valid for three years. Certified cytotechnologists must complete continuing education to maintain certification and can keep track of earned credits through the ASCP’s Board of Certification (BOC) interface. Please see the BOC page for detailed information about the requirements for ASCP certification renewal.

CAAHEP-Accredited Cytotechnologist Programs

In February 2023, the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) accredited 19 cytotechnology programs. Here are four CAAHEP-accredited bachelor’s and post-baccalaureate certificate programs.

Mayo Clinic – Training program in cytotechnology

The cytotechnology program at Mayo Clinic School of Health Sciences is designed to give students the skills and experience they need to be successful in the field. In just 12 months, students will get more than 750 hours of hands-on training with cutting-edge technologies. The program has a 96 percent job placement rate, making it one of the most successful in the region.

Applications for the cytotechnology program are accepted between November 15th and March 1st each year, and the program begins in July. Cytotechnologists who graduate from this program will be prepared to enter the workforce and make an immediate impact in several types of healthcare environments.

  • Location: Rochester, MN
  • Duration: 12 months
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
  • Tuition: $538 per credit

UCLA Health – Post-baccalaureate in cytotechnology

UCLA Health’s cytotechnology program offers a comprehensive course of study in cytology, leading to a Certificate of Completion. Students enrolled in the cytotechnology program at UCLA Health’s School of Cytology are eligible to receive college credit through the California State University, Dominguez Hills Clinical Science-Cytotechnology option certificate program.

Upon successfully completing the cytotechnology program at UCLA Health, students are eligible to sit for the American Society for Clinical Pathology certification examination.

  • Location: Los Angeles, CA
  • Duration: One year
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
  • Tuition: $8,379-$12,380 per year (depending on residency)

University of Arkansas – BS in cytotechnology

The cytotechnology program at the University of Arkansas is a degree completion program that can be completed in three semesters. Graduates of the cytotechnology program are eligible to apply for the certification examination in cytotechnology given by the American Society of Clinical Pathology Board of Certification.

Applicants to the program must have completed 80 credits of courses in English, mathematics, fine arts & humanities, and social sciences to be eligible for the program. All accepted applicants must consent to a criminal background check and drug screen before matriculation. Most clinical sites require background checks and drug screens during the didactic and clinical phase of the program.

  • Location: Little Rock, AR
  • Duration: 12 months
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
  • Tuition: $7,666 per year (residents); $25,420 per year (non-residents)

Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis – BS in cytotechnology

The cytotechnology program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis is designed to prepare students for a career in clinical cytology. The program provides students with a comprehensive understanding of the field, enabling them to function as competent cytotechnologists.

Upon completion of the program, students will be eligible for certification by the ASCP’s Board of Certification. Graduates of the program should be prepared for management, supervisory, and educational responsibilities and should seek ways to contribute to the growing knowledge in clinical cytotechnology.

  • Location: Indianapolis, IN
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
  • Tuition: $10,144 per year
Rachel Drummond, MEd
Rachel Drummond, MEd Writer

Rachel Drummond has contributed insightful articles to since 2019, where she offers valuable advice and guidance for those pursuing careers in the healthcare field, combining her passion for education with her understanding of the critical role that healthcare professionals play in promoting physical and mental well-being.

Rachel is a writer, educator, and coach from Oregon. She has a master’s degree in education (MEd) and has over 15 years of experience teaching English, public speaking, and mindfulness to international audiences in the United States, Japan, and Spain. She writes about the mind-body benefits of contemplative movement practices like yoga on her blog, inviting people to prioritize their unique version of well-being and empowering everyone to live healthier and more balanced lives.