Medical Technologist (MT) vs Clinical Laboratory Scientist (CLS)

What’s the difference between a medical technologist (MT) and a clinical laboratory scientist (CLS)? Nothing. Are they different from a medical laboratory scientist (MLS)? Not at all. Yet you’ll still find plenty of employers and employees using these different titles to describe the same thing. It’s really not meant to be as confusing as it is. In fact, the numerous titles are a result of trying to make things less confusing.

Over 10 billion laboratory tests are conducted in the U.S. every year and “medical technologist” is one of the oldest terms used to describe the people performing them. But for a long time, there wasn’t much of a standardized definition of what it meant beyond that. What type of tests were they performing? What level of education was necessary?

In an effort to clarify, the National Credentialing Agency for Laboratory Personnel (NCA) began providing a standardized certification for this role as a clinical laboratory scientist (CLS), while the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) Board of Registry offered certification for medical technologists (MT). In 2009, the two agencies sought to eliminate the redundancy and merged as the ASCP Board of Certification, providing a singular certification under a new title: medical laboratory scientist (MLS).

An MLS, MT, and CLS are all the same thing and in time, the titles will unify. Please note that there is a difference between these titles and that of a medical technician. While they all perform many of the same general tasks, a medical technician generally conducts less complex tests and has less education than their MLS, CLS, and MT counterparts. The similar-sounding labels of “medical technician” and “medical technologist,” as well as the overlap between their acronyms, was yet another reason for the migration to the more descriptive title of medical laboratory scientist (MLS).

MT / MLS / CLS Requirements and Responsibilities

Whether you’re interested in calling yourself a medical technologist, a clinical laboratory scientist, or a medical laboratory scientist, check out the chart below.

Medical Technologist (MT) or Clinical Laboratory Scientist (CLS)
Number of Professionals in the U.S. According to the BLS, there are 171,400 medical technologists and clinical laboratory scientists practicing in the US.
Pay The BLS still merges salary data between technicians and technologists and puts their combined average pay at $53,230 per year. Since technologists generally earn more than technicians, an MT or CLS will land on the higher end of this salary spectrum. The top 10 percent of the combined technician and technologist category earns at least $79,530 per year.
Expected Job Growth Job openings in the U.S. for medical technologists and clinical laboratory scientists are expected to grow 14 percent between 2016 and 2026, a rate double the national average for all occupations. The BLS projects some 19,800 jobs will be added for medical technologists and clinical laboratory scientists by 2026.
Degree Requirements Unlike technician positions, a bachelor’s degree is typically required to become an MT or CLS.
Degrees Available While it’s possible to get started in this career with a bachelor’s degree in biology or life sciences, specific four-year programs in medical laboratory science are the most direct path. (Those who do have a bachelor’s degree in biology or another life science may choose to get a post-baccalaureate degree in medical laboratory science).

While some schools may offer two-year programs or certificate options, a solid bachelor’s degree in medical laboratory science is a stronger option for this career and its rapid growth.
Program Details Four-year medical laboratory science programs cover a mix of core subjects, such as biology, chemistry, anatomy, and math, before adding in complex laboratory courses that go over hematology, immunology, parasitology, and more.

The BS in medical laboratory science at the University of Utah, for example, offers a 2+2 program where two years are spent on foundational science classes, and the last two years are spent on complex laboratory training and clinical rotations.

An important consideration for a degree program is how it prepares its graduates to begin work as an MT or CLS. The University of Vermont, for example, offers a BS in medical laboratory science, and its graduates boast a 93 percent first-time pass rate on the ASCP’s certification exam, as well as a 100 percent employment rate.
School Accreditation Schools ideally are accredited through the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Scientists (NAACLS).
Number of Programs The NAACLS has accredited 236 degree programs for medical laboratory scientists as of February 2019.
Locating Accredited Schools If you want to find out whether a school is accredited or not, you can check the NAACLS website, and search for “medical laboratory scientist” as the program type.
Licensing & Certification Not all states require certification, but it does help clear up the confusion around the job title and validate your credentials to practice.

The ASCP’s medical laboratory scientist (MLS) certification is the modern gold standard. Requirements are flexible, based on an applicant’s educational and work experience, but if you’ve earned a bachelor’s degree and graduated from a NAACLS-accredited program in the last five years, you’re eligible to take the ASCP’s certification exam.

In addition to the MLS certification, it’s possible to add further certifications in areas like blood banking, chemistry, cytogenetics, cytotechnology, hematology, histotechnology, microbiology, and molecular biology.
Re-certification and re-licensing ASCP credentials must be recertified every three years by completing a set number of credits through its credential maintenance program (CMP).

For the MLS certification, one needs to complete 36 points within each three-year period. Of those 36 points, one point must be in laboratory or patient safety, and two points each must be devoted to blood banking, chemistry, hematology, and microbiology. The rest can be in an area of specialty.

For other, more specialized credentials at the ASCP, recertification requirements are similar but should be double-checked on the ASCP’s CMP matrix (pg. 24), as they can vary.
Job Responsibilities Typical responsibilities for an MT or CLS include:
  • Performing complex tests on biological specimens
  • Analyzing test results and making inferences based upon statistical data and contextual references
  • Relaying test results to physicians or researchers and coordinating to determine what further tests are needed, if any
  • Supervising or training technicians
Tools & Equipment While it will vary from lab to lab, some common tools and equipment for an MT or CLS will include:
  • Centrifuges
  • Coagulation analyzers
  • Phlebotomy trays
  • Medical software
  • Photometers
  • Urinalysis analyzers
  • Automated platelet analyzers
Opportunities for Specialization & Advancement One solid way to advance to specialized, managerial, or training positions is to earn a master’s degree in medical laboratory science. Both the University of Vermont and the University of Utah have such programs that link with their undergraduate offerings.

The University of Massachusetts, Lowell has a master’s degree in clinical laboratory sciences that focuses on research design, pathophysiology, analytical method evaluation, and scientific literature assessment. The school offers a bachelor’s-to-master’s program that can help students save time and money in pursuing an advanced degree.

The MS in medical laboratory science at the University of North Dakota includes classes on advanced subjects like laboratory financial management, advanced molecular diagnostics, and current trends for laboratory professionals. Of this program’s graduates, 78 percent have either attained or expect a promotion as a result of earning their master’s.

Check out the main medical and clinical laboratory scientist programs page to learn more about bachelor’s and master’s programs in MLS.

As a final note, some master’s programs and laboratory jobs can be steered towards a specific area of specialization such as blood banking, chemistry, cytogenetics, cytotechnology, hematology, histotechnology, microbiology, and molecular biology. For those who wish to validate their specialized expertise, certifications are available through the ASCP.