How to Become a Medical Laboratory Scientist (MLS)

Although most of their work is performed outside of the vision of their patients, medical laboratory scientists play an integral role in the medical field, one that assists both patients and physicians. Medical laboratory scientists (sometimes referred to as clinical laboratory scientists, or medical technologists) are responsible for conducting a variety of tests on patient samples in an attempt to detect the absence or presence of a number of diseases.

These medical professionals may examine a host of different types of samples, including various body fluids, feces, cells, and tissues. Upon the conclusion of the testing, the medical laboratory scientist will report back to the ordering physician and consult with him or her about the results. Some of these professionals may even be responsible for developing and evaluating new methods of testing, depending on their experience and position.

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 career: 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 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 only complete a four-year degree in order to practice in their field.

Healthcare is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the United States and careers are projected to be in abundance The BLS estimates that between 2019 and 2029 that clinical laboratory technologist and technician careers will grow at a rate of 7 percent, which is much faster than the national average at 4 percent (BLS 2020). This equates to 24,700 fresh openings in the same time period. Nearly 70 percent of those positions will be in hospitals and laboratories (BLS 2020).

Ultimately, a career as a medical laboratory scientist can be rewarding for a number of reasons. Anyone interested in pursuing this path should read further to become familiar with what to expect throughout the process.

Read on to learn more about how to pursue a career in medical laboratory science as well as state licensure information.

Skills and Traits of the Successful Medical Laboratory Scientist

A medical laboratory scientist should possess certain key attributes in order to succeed in the field. The Mayo Clinic notes the following as important personal qualities that an aspiring medical laboratory scientist should possess:

  • Aptitude for basic sciences, laboratory instrumentation, and computers: A medical laboratory scientist will use a variety of different instruments and computer technology, and must utilize his or her knowledge of the sciences to perform tests correctly.
  • Ability to perform tasks carefully and quickly: Tasks must be completed in an efficient and correct manner within specific time frames.
  • Ability to be thorough, precise, and self-sufficient: Medical laboratory scientists must often work with little supervision, and be thorough and precise in their tasks in order 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; as such, 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.

This is only a handful of the useful skills possessed by effective medical laboratory scientists. Many others may be important depending on the aim of the laboratory and the scope of position responsibilities.

Role Requirements Medical Laboratory Scientists

Typically, in order 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. Some MLS positions require applicants to have professional certification which is detailed below.

Before an individual can begin work as a medical laboratory scientist, he or she may choose to obtain certification as such from the American Society of Clinical Pathology (ASCP), which certifies an individual as a medical laboratory scientist. As of December 2020, 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 certification application fee for the American Society of Clinical Pathology is $240.

Along with certification from this organization, 12 states (California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Tennessee, West Virginia, and New York) also require additional certification with a local board as of December 2020. Because of this, it is important that aspiring medical laboratory scientists obtain all information necessary from their state of residence regarding licensure requirements.

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 in order to become a certified medical laboratory scientist. However, in general, certain steps will be the same for those interested in working in this field. The following is the most common path towards 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 admissions into virtually all four-year colleges or universities and therefore are necessary for certification as a medical laboratory scientist. Furthermore, while not required explicitly, students in this period should aim to excel in courses such as chemistry, biology, mathematics, English, and foreign language to gain admission into a reputable college or university.

If possible, it’s recommended for students to pursue internships or summer employment in a healthcare clinic to gain an understanding of the work environment.

Step Two: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years)

Once a student has completed high school, he or she should enroll in a four-year accredited college or university and pursue a bachelor’s degree. For those students who are unable to 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, it is advised to ask if there are practical learning opportunities to round out classroom- and laboratory-based instruction.

Step Three: Gain Clinical Experience (Timeline Varies)

During a four-year degree program, students should perform additional hands-on training, which may include 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 and will help the student to develop important professional connections in the medical field, which can be invaluable when it comes time to find a job.

Step Four: Earn ASCP Certification (Timeline Varies)

Once the student graduates and has obtained the necessary work experience, he or she should begin the application process with the American Society of Clinical Pathology (ASCP) in order to become certified as a medical laboratory scientist. The ASCP Board of Certification (BOC) provides an online eligibility assistant tool to help applicants determine which certification they are seeking and what documents are required to apply. One of the most commonly applied for certifications is MLS (medical laboratory scientist) which has six unique eligibility pathways including earning a bachelor’s degree in natural sciences, having valid MLT(ASCP) certification, and completing a 50-week military training course in medical laboratory science. The MLS application fee is $240.

Step Five: Find Entry-Level Work

Finally, once the individual obtains certification as a medical laboratory scientist, he or she should begin searching for relevant employment in a clinical laboratory. After obtaining a certain amount of additional work experience, the medical laboratory scientist may apply for positions that require additional specialties, including in blood banking, clinical biochemistry, microbiology, toxicology, or a multitude of other areas.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Medical Laboratory Scientist?

Anyone who is interested in becoming a medical laboratory scientist should have an adequate expectation of how long it takes to pursue this goal. While precise time periods will vary depending on the individual, the following provides a basic breakdown of the necessary steps required 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. Students may complete a bachelor’s degree through the United States military, although this will still take the same amount of time and will require service in the armed forces.
  • Work experience: In order 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 in order to become certified to work as a medical laboratory scientist. The exam itself 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 includes 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 an extremely rewarding field and are tasked with a number of additional responsibilities, making the time commitment work for many that choose to pursue the career.

State Licensure for Medical Laboratory Scientists (MLS)

As previously mentioned, the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science (ASCLS 2020) states there are 12 US states and territories that require a state-specific or facility-granted license. Some, but not all of these states and territories will accept national certification from ASCP in lieu of state licensure requirements:

  • California
  • Georgia
  • Hawaii
  • Louisiana
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • New York
  • North Dakota
  • Puerto Rico
  • Tennessee
  • West Virginia

Because each state and territory has its own unique licensure requirements, it is important that aspiring medical laboratory scientists carefully research the personnel licensure rules for the locations where they plan to work.

Rachel Drummond
Rachel Drummond Writer

Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. A dedicated Ashtanga yoga practitioner, Rachel is interested in exploring the nuanced philosophical aspects of contemplative physical practices and how they apply in daily life. She writes about this topic among others on her blog (Instagram: @oregon_yogini).