Medical Technologist (MT) vs. Clinical Laboratory Scientist (CLS)
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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. The numerous titles result from trying to make things less confusing.
Over 7 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. What type of tests were they performing? What level of education was necessary?
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 a medical technician’s. 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).
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 were 335,500 medical technologists and clinical laboratory scientists practicing in the US in May 2020.|
|Pay||The BLS (May 2021) still merges salary data between technicians and technologists and puts their combined average pay at $56,910 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 $79,340 per year.|
|Expected Job Growth||Job openings in the U.S. for medical technologists and clinical laboratory scientists are expected to grow 11 percent between 2020 and 2030, a rate that is faster than the national average for all occupations (8 percent). The BLS projects some 36,500 jobs that will be added for medical technologists and clinical laboratory scientists by 2030.|
|Degree Requirements||Unlike technician positions, a bachelor’s degree is typically required to become an MT or CLS.|
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.
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.
University of Utah
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.
Made up of 97 to 102 credits, the program includes courses such as fundamental principles of biology; principles of cell biology; anatomy and physiology; basic techniques in clinical laboratory science; clinical hematology; diagnostic microbiology; and clinical chemistry.
Graduates of this program are qualified to take a certification examination administered by the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) Board of Certification (BOC). This MLS program from the University of Utah has a three-year average ASCP Board of Certification pass rate of 97 percent when the exam was taken within one year of graduation.
University of Vermont
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 an 87 percent first-time pass rate on the ASCP’s certification exam and a 100 percent employment rate.
Students in this program develop technical and critical thinking skills by working closely with university faculty and engaging in hands-on learning in the laboratory, classroom, and clinical environment.
This MLS major offers two concentration options: public health laboratory science concentration and clinical laboratory science concentration. The curriculum includes courses such as medical terminology; human cell biology; microbiology & infectious disease; fundamentals of biochemistry; advanced medical microbiology; immunology; clinical microbiology; and immunohematology. The program consists of 121 to 123 credit-hours.
|School Accreditation||Schools ideally are accredited through the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Scientists (NAACLS).|
|Number of Programs||The NAACLS has accredited 238 degree programs for medical laboratory scientists as of April 2022.|
|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 the 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, as they can vary.
Typical responsibilities for an MT or CLS include:
|Tools & Equipment||
While it will vary from lab to lab, some common tools and equipment for an MT or CLS will include:
|Opportunities for Specialization & Advancement||
One solid way to advance to specialized, managerial, or training positions is by earning 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 includes courses such as clinical pathophysiology; foundations of biomedical research; emerging topics in clinical chemistry; clinical toxicology; infectious diseases; and biomarker discovery & applications. The school offers a bachelor’s-to-master program that can help students save time and money in pursuing an advanced degree.
The online 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. This 33-credit program can be completed entirely online and does not require any campus visits.
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.
Medical Technologist (MT) and Clinical Laboratory Scientist (CLS) Salary
As already mentioned in the table, the BLS (May 2021) still merges salary data between technicians and technologists and puts their combined average pay. It found an average annual salary of $55,990 among the 326,220 clinical laboratory technologists and technicians employed nationwide.
|Number of Clinical Laboratory Technologists and Technicians Employed||318,780|
|Annual mean wage||$56,910|
|50th Percentile (Median)||$57,800|
It’s important to note that these figures also varied based on the source of data. By illustration, Indeed (April 2022) found an average annual salary of $98,739 among United States medical technologists and $23,403 (much lower than MTs) among United States clinical laboratory scientists.
Payscale (April 2022), found the following percentiles nationally for medical technologists:
- 10th percentile: $45,000
- 50th percentile (median): $59,489
- 90th percentile: $81,000
While clinical laboratory scientists had the following percentiles nationally:
- 10th percentile: $48,000
- 50th percentile (median): $69,273
- 90th percentile: $104,000