How to Become a Medical Laboratory Scientist (MLS)
The healthcare industry is ripe with expanding job opportunities, and medical laboratory scientists are in high demand. Although most of their work is not highly visible, medical laboratory scientists play an integral role in the medical field, assisting patients and their physicians by providing accurate and timely test results. For example, medical laboratory scientists (sometimes called clinical laboratory scientists or medical technologists) conduct tests on patient samples to detect the absence or presence of diseases.
When a patient comes in for a routine exam or specific health concern, doctors examine symptoms and order a single test or a battery of tests to rule out or confirm the presence of infection or disease. Tissue samples include bodily fluids, feces, and cells. Once collected from a patient in a medical office by a physician or nurse, they are labeled and preserved by a medical assistant and sent away to a medical laboratory. Upon the conclusion of the testing, the medical laboratory scientist will report back to the ordering physician and consult with them about the results. Some medical laboratory scientists may even be responsible for developing and evaluating new testing methods, depending on their experience and position rank.
Healthcare is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the United States, and careers are projected to be abundant – with 1.9 million new positions in demand. For example, the BLS estimates that between 2021 and 2031, clinical laboratory technologist and technician careers will grow at a rate of 13 percent, faster than the national average of 5 percent (BLS 2022). This equates to 21,800 fresh openings in the same period – and nearly 50 percent of those positions will be in hospitals.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) classifies medical laboratory scientists as clinical laboratory technologists and provides details for this career alongside a similarly-related job: clinical laboratory technicians. Since both careers are science-based and performed in a laboratory, many people wonder: what’s the difference between a medical laboratory technologist and a technician? The simple answer is education.
Medical laboratory technicians require a two-year degree in clinical laboratory science, while positions in medical laboratory science featured in this article require a four-year degree. Certification information for medical laboratory science careers is detailed below.
Those who work as medical laboratory scientists perform work that assists physicians in determining the correct course of action when treating patients; as such, these scientists have significant responsibilities and duties within the healthcare field. However, unlike physicians or other advanced healthcare professionals, medical laboratory scientists must complete a four-year degree to practice in their area.
Ultimately, a medical laboratory scientist’s career can be rewarding for several reasons. First, as is the case with most medical jobs, education programs for medical laboratory science include a blend of classroom and hands-on learning to fully prepare professionals with theoretical and practical career skills.
Read on to learn more about how to become a medical laboratory scientist and state licensure information.
Skills and Traits of the Successful Medical Laboratory Scientist
A medical laboratory scientist should possess specific vital attributes to succeed in the field. The Mayo Clinic notes the following as critical personal qualities that an aspiring medical laboratory scientist should possess:
- Aptitude for basic sciences, laboratory instrumentation, and computers: A medical laboratory scientist will use various instruments and computer technology and must utilize their knowledge of the sciences to perform tests correctly.
- Ability to perform tasks carefully and quickly: Tasks must be completed efficiently and correctly within specific time frames.
- Ability to be thorough, precise, and self-sufficient: Medical laboratory scientists must often work with little supervision and be detailed and accurate in their tasks to provide accurate results.
- Emotional stability: Even though medical laboratory scientists deal with patients’ personal information, they must remain emotionally stable while conducting their work.
- Ability to think critically and problem-solve: Answers to pressing questions may not always be readily apparent; a medical laboratory scientist should be able to analyze the problem and come up with a fact-based solution.
- Ability to write well and communicate orally: Medical laboratory scientists may be required to write reports on their results and often deliver information orally to physicians. Because of this, they should have excellent communication skills, both written and oral.
These are only a handful of valuable skills effective medical laboratory scientists possess. Many others may be important throughout the course of work.
Role Requirements Medical Laboratory Scientists
To work as a medical laboratory scientist, an individual must complete a four-year bachelor’s degree at an accredited institution. Ideally, the degree should be in a relevant field, such as clinical or medical laboratory science, biomedical science, or a life science program such as biology or biochemistry.
Before an individual can begin work as a medical laboratory scientist, they may choose to obtain certification from the American Society of Clinical Pathology (ASCP), which certifies an individual as a medical laboratory scientist. As of June 2023, the ASCP offers six routes of eligibility:
- Route 1: Applicant has a bachelor’s degree from a medical laboratory scientist program accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS).
- Route 2: Applicant is certified as a medical laboratory technician, has a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution, and has two years of full-time acceptable clinical laboratory experience in a relevant field.
- Route 3: Applicant is certified as a clinical laboratory assistant, has a bachelor’s degree, and has four years of work experience in a relevant field.
- Route 4: Applicant has a bachelor’s degree and five years of related work experience.
- Route 5: Applicant holds current medical technician (MT)/medical laboratory science (MLS) certification through the ASCP, a bachelor’s degree from a regionally-accredited college or university, and five years of full-time clinical experience.
- Route 6: Applicant has completed a 50-week US military medical laboratory training course in the past ten years, holds a bachelor’s degree from a regionally-accredited college or university, and has one year of full-time clinical experience.
The American Society of Clinical Pathology certification application fee is $250.
At present, in 2023, there are 11 US states and territories that require state-level or facility-granted certification for medical laboratory scientists. In addition, some but not all of the states accept national-level certification from ASCP. Because of this, aspiring medical laboratory scientists must obtain all information necessary from their state or territory of residence regarding licensure requirements. More detailed information about state licensure is provided below.
Steps to Becoming a Medical Laboratory Scientist
As the multiple eligibility pathway routes listed above show, there is no one set path that all individuals must follow to become certified medical laboratory scientists. However, certain steps will generally be the same for those interested in working in this field. The following is the most common path toward the MLS career.
Step One: Earn a High School Diploma (Four Years)
To begin, students should obtain a high school diploma or a GED. One of these is a requirement for admission into virtually all four-year colleges or universities and therefore is necessary for certification as a medical laboratory scientist. Furthermore, while not explicitly required, high school students should aim to excel in chemistry, biology, mathematics, English, and foreign language courses to gain admission into a reputable college or university.
If possible, it’s recommended that students to pursue internships or summer employment in a healthcare clinic to understand the work environment.
Step Two: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years)
Once students have completed high school, they should enroll in a four-year accredited college or university and pursue a bachelor’s degree. For those students who cannot attend a four-year college for financial reasons, the military may be an acceptable alternate route since some military programs provide medical laboratory scientist training for those who commit to service. When selecting a degree program, asking if there are practical learning opportunities to round out classroom- and laboratory-based instruction is advised.
An example program is the bachelor of science in medical laboratory science offered by the University of Cincinnati Online. This allied health program is designed for associate’s degree holders in clinical laboratory technology (CLT) or medical laboratory technology (MLT). The coursework prepares graduates for the competencies, ethics, and professionalism required for the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science certification. This fully online program includes practical clinical experiences and accepts transfer credits from programs accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS).
- Location: Cincinnati, OH
- Duration: Two years
- Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
- Tuition: $571 per credit (residents); $586 per credit (non-residents)
Step Three: Gain Clinical Experience (Timeline Varies)
During a four-year degree program, students should perform additional hands-on training, including internships with other medical laboratory scientists or volunteer programs at local labs or hospitals. Training of this kind will provide a wealth of practical knowledge. In addition, it will help the student develop meaningful professional connections in the medical field, which can be invaluable when it comes time to find a job.
The Mayo Clinic, a non-profit healthcare organization committed to providing clinical practice, education, and research, offers a prestigious medical laboratory science program at its Jacksonville, Florida, and Rochester, Minnesota campuses. This hybrid program includes online and in-person learning experiences and does not require participants to relocate. Only 24 students are accepted annually, and applicants can apply from September 1 through December 15th each year. Graduates are prepared to work for the Mayo Clinic or other certified medical laboratory science roles.
- Location: Jacksonville, FL, and Rochester, MN
- Duration: 10.5 months
- Accreditation: National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Scientists (NAACLS)
- Tuition: $11,529 total
Step Four: Become Certified (Timeline Varies)
Once the student graduates and has obtained the necessary work experience, they should begin applying with the American Society of Clinical Pathology (ASCP)’s Board of Certification (BOC) to become certified as a medical laboratory scientist. Upon applying for the certification exam and submitting an application fee and required documentation, the ASCP will notify an applicant via email if their application has been accepted or not to take the certification exam. The MLT certification exam fee is $250.
Step Five: Find Entry-Level Work
Finally, once the individual obtains certification as a medical laboratory scientist, they should seek relevant employment in a clinical laboratory. After getting some additional work experience, the medical laboratory scientist may apply for positions requiring additional specialties, including blood banking, clinical biochemistry, microbiology, toxicology, or many other areas.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Medical Laboratory Scientist?
Anyone interested in becoming a medical laboratory scientist should adequately expect how long it takes to pursue this goal. While precise periods will vary depending on the individual, the following provides a basic breakdown of the necessary steps to work in this field.
- High school diploma: While this generally takes four years to complete, some may finish faster; others may alternatively pursue a GED in less time.
- Bachelor’s degree: Many bachelor’s degrees take four years to complete, although some ambitious students may finish faster. In addition, students may complete a bachelor’s degree through the United States military, although this will still take the same amount of time and require service in the armed forces.
- Work experience: To be eligible for certification, the individual must either complete a NAACLS-accredited MLS bachelor’s degree program (in which case the work experience requirement is waived) or have adequate work experience. The latter could take up to five years in some cases, as outlined above.
- Certification: Individuals must pass an examination to become certified to work as a medical laboratory scientist. The exam takes only one day. However, preparation, including application approval and scheduling, could take months to complete.
Not including the time it takes to finish a high school degree, an individual could begin working as a medical laboratory scientist in less than five years, which provides time to complete a bachelor’s degree, obtain relevant work experience (if necessary), and schedule and pass the examination required for certification.
While this may be longer than required for some technician jobs, medical laboratory scientists work in a gratifying field and are tasked with several additional responsibilities. The time commitment is well worth it for nearly 600,000 individuals certified through the ASCP.
State Licensure for Medical Laboratory Scientists (MLS)
As previously mentioned, in 2023, the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science states that 11 US states and territories require a state-specific or facility-granted license. Some, but not all of these states and territories will accept national certification from ASCP instead of state licensure requirements:
- New York
- North Dakota
- Puerto Rico
- West Virginia
Because each state and territory has its unique licensure requirements, it is crucial that aspiring medical laboratory scientists carefully research the personnel licensure rules for the locations where they plan to work.