An Expert’s Guide: What to Know Before Starting a Career in Cytotechnology
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The most rewarding part of being a cytotech is knowing that my job is important in diagnosing certain types of cancer and many non-cancerous medical conditions.
Gabrielle Francois, CT(ASCP)
Cytotechnologists are often referred to as cell detectives as they spend countless hours peering into microscopes looking for the smallest differences in cells. This exciting and often overlooked career is where detail-oriented and curious allied health professionals can excel.
Since many diseases, viruses, and bacteria can only be identified under a microscope, trained cytotechnologists must know how to collect samples, prepare slides, and evaluate cells in order to write reports for pathologists. With their skill and expertise, a quick and accurate diagnosis can be made for many diseases.
Aspiring cytotechnologists must complete a bachelor’s degree in cytotechnology or a related field and complete a post-baccalaureate certificate. Upon completing the required education, cytotechnologists must earn a Cytotechnologist (CT) certification through the American Society for Clinical Pathology.
Despite their lack of visibility to the public, there is a high demand for cytotechnologists. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, cytotechnologist jobs are growing at a higher rate than the national average and pay more than 20 percent above average wages. Considering all that is needed to enter this career is a four-year degree, this can be a lucrative career for curious medical professionals.
The best way to learn more about a career is to get advice from someone in the field. Keep reading to hear certified cytotechnologist Gabrielle Francois’ advice as well as the top ten things to know before starting this career.
Meet The Expert: Gabrielle Francois, CT(ASCP)
Gabrielle Francois is an American Society for Clinical Pathology-certified cytotechnologist. She completed her post-baccalaureate certificate in cytotechnology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is currently pursuing a master’s in health informatics from the University of San Diego.
In March of 2020, Francois took advantage of the flexibility working in cytotechnology can offer and took a position as a traveling cytotechnologist. When not working, she spends time exploring the new cities she gets to live in and writes about it on her blog The Traveling Cytotech. She routinely posts pictures of the cells she analyzes on both Facebook and Instagram. With her years of experience, here is the advice she has for new cytotechnologists.
First and foremost, Francois believes it takes dedication to become a cytotechnologist. “Being disciplined and having a desire to provide excellent patient-centered care is the key to excelling as a cytotech,” she says.
For professionals considering a career in cytotechnology, she has some advice: “Choose a master’s-level cytotech program that includes molecular courses and covers IHC [immunohistochemistry] stains,” she says. She also advises aspiring professionals to join pathology and cytology forums on social media, as these can be a great place to get advice from professionals in the field.
Having goals in mind will also help new cytotechs excel, she shares: “If your goal is to work in a hospital, familiarize yourself with fine needle aspiration procedures. During your clinical rotations, go on as many procedures as you possibly can, so they won’t be a challenge when you begin doing fine needle aspiration procedures.” Francois continues, “If your goal is to become a supervisor or manager and you have good leadership skills, show interest by asking questions about what it takes to be a successful supervisor or manager.”
Francois put a lot of consideration into pursuing her post-baccalaureate certificate. “I researched the field of cytotechnology. I knew I wanted to be in the medical field and I also wanted to attend UNC Chapel Hill. I researched each of the allied health profession programs offered through the UNC Chapel Hill Medical School and the cytotechnology program piqued my interest the most. I looked at all of the program prerequisite requirements and realized that I fulfilled all of the prerequisites for the program.”
Once students are admitted to a program, Francois cautions to be prepared. “Many cytology programs tend to be very rigorous. Pay close attention to everything covered especially if you’re interested in working at a hospital. Also, take the ASCP certification exam sooner rather than later after completing your program,” she advises.
Once a cytotech earns certification, they have the challenge of figuring out where they want to work. Different workplaces work with different samples. “Cytotechs at many private reference labs mainly screen only GYN (gynecology) specimens, while cytotechs at hospital labs typically attend ROSE [Rapid On-site Evaluation] procedures, screen GYN, non-GYN and FNA [fine needle aspiration] specimens. Private reference labs tend to be slower paced while hospital labs tend to be fast-paced,” Francois notes.
It can be easier to obtain work at a lab since the work doesn’t entail as many procedures. Moving from a low volume clinic to a busy hospital can be hard, however. “The transition can come as a shock for some,” Francois says.
Despite the rigorous education and potentially demanding workload, this can be a very fulfilling career. Francois notes that, “The most rewarding part of being a cytotech is knowing that my job is important in diagnosing certain types of cancer and many non-cancerous medical conditions.” Because her job is so critical, she focuses on providing patient-centric high-quality care.
What To Know Before Starting A Career In Cytotechnology
1. The Applications of Cytotechnology
Cytotechnology is the use of a microscope to examine and study cells. Through these examinations, cytotechnologists can detect cancer, viruses, bacteria, and other diseases. The cells collected and examined can be uterine, gastrointestinal, lung, or other parts of the body. Sometimes cytotechnologists help collect the samples through fine needle aspirations or other procedures.
2. Educational Requirements for Cytotechnologists
In order to work as a cytotechnologist, aspiring professionals must complete either a bachelor’s degree in cytotechnology or complete a bachelor’s in a related field and then complete a post-baccalaureate certificate.
A bachelor’s degree takes four years to complete, while a certificate can be completed in as little as a year. Students will spend extensive time behind a microscope during their training. Top programs have students clock in over 750 hours at the microscope in just one year.
3. Cytotechnologist Certification
While certification is not mandatory for cytotechnologists, it is highly recommended. Many employers require certification, and it demonstrates competency in the field. The most common certification earned is the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) Cytotechnology (CT) certification.
To be eligible for this certification, candidates must have completed a bachelor’s degree and a Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) accredited cytotechnology program. The ASCP also offers the more advanced certificate of Specialist in Cytotechnology (SCT) for professionals who have three years of work experience as cytotechnologists or who have three years of experience as cytotechnology educators.
4. Job Outlook for Cytotechnologists
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) classifies cytotechnologists as “clinical laboratory technologists and technicians” and estimates this field to grow 7 percent, nearly twice the national average for all jobs, between 2019 and 2029. This gain in jobs is primarily due to an aging population with increased incidents of cancer, diabetes, and other illnesses.
According to Salary.com, cytotechnologists earn $79,110 per year on average. The top 90 percent of earners can make up to $93,137 or more, while the bottom 10 percent earns $65,271 per year or less. Wages vary based on place of employment, level of certification obtained, education completed, and job description. Also, location can impact wages as cytotechnologists in urban areas tend to earn higher salaries than those located in more rural areas.
5. Helpful Skills for Cytotechnologists
In addition to completing a degree or certificate in cytotechnology, there are a number of skills that can be helpful in this field. First, cytotechnologists must be detail-oriented. It can be tedious to compare slide after slide of cells, but that is exactly what cytotechnologists do—and they have to do it well. Catching the small abnormalities that signal cancer or other diseases is critical and cytotechnologists are relied on to not miss a single detail.
Secondly, cytotechnologists must be able to use various pieces of technology. They will need to have excellent skills using microscopes, computers, and other lab equipment. Learning new technology quickly is a critical skill as well since labs and procedures are always evolving.
Lastly, cytotechnologists must have a lot of stamina. Hospital labs can get very busy and often results are urgent. Many cytotechnologists must work long hours sitting or standing at a lab bench or microscope in order to complete the necessary studies.
6. Where Cytotechnologists Work
Cytotechnologists work primarily at either hospitals or laboratories. The workload at each workplace varies and is typically more routine in a lab and more varied at a hospital. Some cytotechnologists may be employed at universities and work in research departments.
7. What a Day of Work as a Cytotechnologist Entails
Day-to-day duties of a cytotechnologist vary based on their place of employment. Typical responsibilities include:
- Preparing slides with cell samples
- Using a microscope to examine cells
- Identifying abnormal cells on the slides
- Writing reports about the cells examined
- Advising pathologist about a possible diagnosis of abnormal cells
- Comparing cells sample to determine changes over time
- Performing fine needle aspirations
- Completing rapid tests for cases that need urgent results
8. Career Advancement Opportunities for Cytotechnologists
Entry-level work for cytotechnologists is available at labs and hospitals across the country. Cytotechnologists who are interested in advancing their careers can pursue the more advanced SCT certification through the ASCP. This certification demonstrates a higher level of competency in the field and can help cytotechnologists be eligible for senior or management positions.
Other advancement opportunities can include teaching positions at cytotechnology schools. Professionals in this field can also use cytotechnology as a jumping-off point for a more advanced healthcare job, such as health information management or health care management. While these roles can require further education, working as a cytotechnologist will give them an edge in their education and when applying for future work.
9. Professional Networks and Associations for Cytotechnologists
Professional networks and associations can be helpful for new cytotechnologists. They are a wealth of information about the field, certification requirements, and often have job boards. Many also provide educational resources for continuing education requirements or for cytotechnologists looking to keep up with an ever-changing field.
The top networks and associations for cytotechnologists are:
- American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP)
- American Society of Cytopathology (ASC)
- American Society for Cytotechnology (ASCT)
- International Academy of Cytology
10. Scholarships Available for Cytotechnologists
Paying for a cytotechnology program can be a daunting proposition for aspiring professionals in this field. Most programs’ rigors don’t allow much time for students to work, so many students have to find other ways to fund their education. While loans may seem like the easiest answer, there are many grants and scholarships available to aspiring cytotechnologists.
One place to start is the ASPC. They have a foundation scholarship fund for a variety of degrees and courses of study, including cytotechnology. Also, most schools and certificate programs have scholarships available that students can apply for. Selection criteria for scholarships include educational achievements, leadership skills, letters of recommendation, community involvement, minority status, and application essays.