Clinical Laboratory Science (CLS) vs. Clinical Research

While they may operate in similar settings, clinical laboratory science and clinical research are two vastly different fields of medicine.

Clinical laboratory scientists, sometimes referred to as medical laboratory scientists, specialize in laboratory information and services that inform the diagnosis, treatment, and monitoring of medical conditions. They may perform tests, interpret results, or develop entirely new laboratory tests and processes.

Prospective clinical laboratory scientists often pursue undergraduate degrees in clinical laboratory science (or a related field) at institutions accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS), and then sit for a certification exam through the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP).

Clinical researchers, on the other hand, use scientific investigation methods to study human health and illness, and answer specific questions about medicine and behavior. They may design or administer studies that investigate a particular disease or evaluate a new drug’s effectiveness and impact.

Clinical researchers often attain graduate-level education through doctoral degrees in medicine or philosophy (MD or PhD), and according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), many pursue both due to the increased job opportunities and higher starting salaries that go with it. Further certification through a professional society such as the Association for Clinical Research Professionals (ACRP) can distinguish a clinical researcher further in a field that is expected to grow almost twice as fast as the average for all occupations, according to the BLS.

Clinical laboratory science and clinical research both take a scientific and investigative approach to answering medical questions, but each involves a different set of methodological approaches, institutional certifications, work responsibilities, and educational requirements. When choosing between the two fields of study, it is important to dig into the details to find out exactly what separates them.

Clinical Lab Science Clinical Research

Clinical laboratory science uses laboratory information and services to help diagnose, monitor, and treat disease.

Clinical research uses scientific investigation to study the health and illness of people and answer questions about medicine and behavior.

Requirements to Join Career

Clinical laboratory scientists typically complete a four-year degree bachelor’s degree in clinical laboratory science, medical technology, biomedical science, or medical laboratory science—ideally from an institution accredited by the NAACLS. Clinical laboratory scientists may also complete their undergraduate degree in a general life science but may then be required to obtain additional certification or training.

In addition to coursework, prospective clinical laboratory scientists will usually perform clinical rotations to gain a hands-on understanding of the profession. National certification as well as state licensure is often a prerequisite for a career in the field.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in a life science field, clinical researchers generally complete a graduate-level education as an MD or PhD—and some researchers pursue both so that they can have more job opportunities and higher starting salaries.

Graduate level study often includes coursework, clinical rotations, laboratory experience, and independent research studies. Professionals who administer medical services or perform medical procedures on human patients must be licensed as physicians and adhere to individual state licensure requirements.

Typical Responsibilities
  • Performing laboratory tests that aid in the diagnosis, treatment, and monitoring of patients
  • Assuring the quality of blood for transfusions
  • Providing physicians with information on the validity and significance of laboratory test results
  • Supervising other laboratory personnel
  • Evaluating new test procedures
  • Designing and conducting studies to investigate disease and methods of treatment
  • Standardizing drug potency, doses, and methods for mass manufacturing
  • Developing new studies that can improve health outcomes
  • Writing research grant proposals and applying for funding from public and private sector sources
Work Environments
  • Hospitals
  • Clinics
  • Commercial and government laboratories
  • Academic medical centers
  • Hospitals
  • Clinics
  • Pharmaceutical laboratories
  • Research institutes
  • Academic medical centers
Licensing & Certification

After obtaining a degree in clinical laboratory science, graduates may be eligible to take a national certification examination through the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP). This medical laboratory science (MLS) credential is almost always a prerequisite for a position in the field and may provide improved job opportunities and higher starting salaries.

In addition to national certification, several states require a further state-specific license to practice.

Clinical researchers may take exams through the Association for Clinical Research Professionals (ACRP) that lead to certification as a project manager, clinical research associate, clinical research coordinator, principal investigator, or a standardized certified professional.

Those who are transitioning into the clinical research field may enroll in a certificate program offered by an academic institution. These programs are often eight to 12 units in length. All researchers who provide medical services to human subjects in the course of a study researchers must be licensed as physicians.

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The Bottom Line

Clinical laboratory scientists are healthcare detectives. Though they often work in laboratory settings, their work is directly related to specific patients and their health outcomes—it is estimated that up to 70 percent of all medical decisions made by physicians are based on the information provided by clinical lab scientists. Clinical laboratory scientists are presented with medical puzzles on a daily basis, and they use a wide array of tools and knowledge to solve them.

While other areas of the medical profession can require more than ten years of schooling, most clinical laboratory scientists may begin working shortly after completing undergraduate work.

Clinical researchers are the explorers of the medical world. They tackle questions that have not been addressed yet, and do so in a rigorous and scientific manner. This is a profession for the curious and the patient.

Clinical research often involves a long and careful process that can take years to complete, but to those who have the dedication and stamina, clinical research offers the opportunity to not only save human lives, but also chart the unknown and change the limits of what is medically possible.