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 their 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 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.

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.

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.

Skills and Traits of the Successful Medical Laboratory Scientist

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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.

These are only a handful of the useful skills possessed by effective medical laboratory scientists. Many others may be important throughout the course of work.

Role Requirements

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.

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, which certifies an individual as a medical laboratory scientist who either:

  • Has a bachelor’s degree from a medical laboratory scientist program accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS);
  • 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;
  • Is certified as a clinical laboratory assistant, has a bachelor’s degree, and has four years of work experience in a relevant field; or
  • Has a bachelor’s degree and five years of related work experience.

As of 2018, 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. 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

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. 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, and other life sciences.
  • 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.
  • Step Three: Gain clinical experience (timeline varies). During the 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: Become certified. 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 in order to become certified as a medical laboratory scientist.
  • 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.
  • Total time: 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 it for many that choose to pursue the career.