Medical Lab Technician (MLT) vs. Medical Lab Scientist (MLS)

Many people are confused by the terms ‘medical lab technician’ and ‘medical lab scientist’ and often think these titles refer to the same career. While individuals employed in either of these occupations can work in the same settings and have similar responsibilities, the positions are distinguished mainly by levels of education and management responsibilities.

First, medical lab technicians (MLT) positions require a two-year degree. MLT programs offer courses leading to an associate’s degree in medical laboratory technology. Upon completing the program and earning certification, MLTs are ready for entry-level work in laboratories in the private and public sectors.

By comparison, medical lab scientists (MLS), also known as medical technologists (MT) or clinical lab scientists (CLS), have more education and more job responsibilities. A four-year degree and previous work experience in a laboratory are standard requirements to become an entry-level MLS. The medical lab scientist (MLS) designation is used extensively in academia and often includes specialized knowledge in areas such as clinical serology and microbiology.

Different certification exams are used for the MLT and MLS occupations to distinguish the differences in skill set. For example, one certifying agency, the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP), features various certifying exams for medical laboratory occupations with specialization areas. While an associate degree or another type of postsecondary education is typically needed for the technician exam, the four-year degree is generally required to be eligible to sit for technology/scientist certification exams. The difference in advanced education may be why MLSs are often given oversight and responsibility for the MLTs in laboratory settings.

Read on to learn more about in-demand careers in medical laboratory science.

MLT vs. MLS – Side-by-Side Comparison

For those interested in a medical laboratory-based career, the pathways to pursuing training as a medical lab technician (MLT) versus a medical lab scientist (MLS) are detailed below. In addition, the following table outlines similarities and differences between the occupations, including the potential outcome in terms of pay, job demand, certifications available, and job responsibilities for each occupation.

In addition to the factors mentioned above, there are other essential considerations in making a career choice. These include how much time is required to complete an educational program, personal career goals, and immediate earning potential.

It’s important to note that the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) classifies these two occupations together and refers to these two positions as clinical laboratory technologists and technicians. For most positions, the word ‘technician’ refers to positions for people with two-year degrees, while ‘technologists’ describes positions requiring a four-year degree. We have also included career outlook and salary data on ‘medical scientists’—a more advanced professional category—as a basis of comparison under the MLS column.

Below are detailed comparisons between the medical lab technician (MLT) versus medical lab scientist (MLS) careers.



Medical Laboratory Technician (MLT) Medical Laboratory Scientist (MLS)
Number practicing in the U.S. 335,500 as of Sept. 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Please note that this data is for ‘clinical laboratory technicians and technologists.’ 133,900 as of Sept. 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Please note that this data is for ‘medical scientists.’

According to the BLS, the mean annual wage, as of May 2020, was $55,990.

On a more granular level, PayScale (Jan. 2022) reports the average annual salary for medical laboratory technicians is $43,093 based on 1,315 self-reported profiles.

The mean wage for medical lab technologists, as of May 2020, was $101,800 (BLS).

According to PayScale (Jan. 2022), medical scientists earn an average of $82,191 per year based on 54 salary profiles.

Expected job growth

11 percent from 2020 to 2030, much faster than average for all occupations, according to the BLS.

17 percent from 2020 to 2030, much faster than average (BLS).

Number of new positions expected to be available by 2030 36,500 22,600
Degree requirements

MLTs need to have a postsecondary certificate or an associate degree, reports the BLS.

According to the BLS (2021), a doctoral or professional degree is typically needed to become a ‘medical scientist,’ although ‘medical lab scientists’ generally have at least a bachelor’s degree.

Degrees available

MLT programs are typically called ‘medical lab technician’ degrees and often are available in two-year formats through an associate degree. ‘Medical lab technologist’ degrees, by contrast, typically comprise four years.

Some postsecondary certificate programs are also available, but the National Accrediting Agency may not accredit all programs for clinical lab techs.

Be sure to check before enrolling, as accreditation can be crucial to certification.

Accredited programs at community colleges offer several online two-year MLT degree programs.

Graduates from these programs are prepared for entry-level MLT positions.

Many MLS programs are referred to as ‘medical laboratory scientist’ degrees, and are four-year, bachelor’s level programs.

Be sure to clarify with the school what type of certification exams are accessible with a two-year and a four-year degree.

Post-baccalaureate certificates are available for bachelor’s degree holders to become certified medical laboratory scientists and access leadership roles or specialized laboratory experience.

Many online four-year MLS degree programs are available through reputable colleges and universities.

Program details

Students take courses in blood banking, clinical chemistry, hematology, and microbiology.

Students may also learn about equipment and technology, safety standards, and diagnostic testing.

Many schools have laboratories for students to practice skills and become skilled in lab work.

Some programs build from the ground up, while others accept MLT students interested in completing a four-year degree.

Nevertheless, a bachelor’s program covers many of the same courses as an associate degree but includes additional anatomy, biochemistry, chemistry, immunology, and math courses.

In-person laboratory experiences are often required in the senior year of a bachelor’s program. Usually, these experiences are done under the mentorship of an MLS in a lab setting.

School accreditation

The National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Scientists (NAACLS) accredits medical laboratory technicians programs.

The National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Scientists (NAACLS) also accredits medical laboratory technology programs.

Number of programs

There are 237 NAACLS-accredited MLT programs in the US as of Jan. 2022.

Similarly, NAACLS accredits 242 MLS programs as of Jan. 2022.

Locating accredited schools

Click here to search for NAACLS-accredited MLT schools.

Click here to search for NAACLS-accredited MLS programs.

Certifying exams

MLTs take an exam to seek general MLT certification or certification in an area of specialty.

Certification is earned through organizations such as the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP), American Medical Technologists (AMT), or the American Association of Bioanalysts (AAB).

Some of the specialized medical lab technician certifications available through the ASCP include:

  • Phlebotomy technician
  • Histotechnician
  • Medical lab technician
  • Donor phlebotomy technicians

The ASCP, AMT, and AAB offer general MLT certification.

There are many routes to eligibility for certification depending on education and work experience.

An MLS also can seek certification through the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) or the American Medical Technologists (AMT).

Some of the certifications available at the technologist level include:

  • Blood bank
  • Chemistry
  • Cytogenetics
  • Cytotechnology
  • Hematology
  • Histotechnologist
  • Medical biology
  • Microbiology
  • Medical lab scientist

The ASCP and the AMT offer general MLS certification.

There are several pathways to eligibility for certification, including graduating from an accredited four-year program or equivalent professional experience.


State licensing requirements vary, but passing a certification exam may be part of the licensing process. Not all states require licensing.

Not all states require licensing to become an MLS, but in states that do, some of these requirements can include:

  • Completion of a bachelor’s degree
  • Graduation from an accredited school
  • Passing a certification exam
Licensing Agency

Students can find links to state licensure agencies for MLTs here.

Similarly, students can find links for state licensing requirements for MLSs here.

Re-certification and re-licensing

Recertification and relicensing requirements vary by state, so applicants should contact their state’s certification board or state licensing agency for the most up-to-date information.

MLTs certified through the ASCP are required to take specific steps to maintain their certification every three years.

Because recertification and relicensing can vary per state, applicants should contact the initial certification board or state licensing agency for more details.

MLS who hold certification through the ASCP must keep track of continuing education through the credential maintenance program (CMP) and renew every three years to maintain their certification active.

Responsibilities on the job

Some of the things a technician might do on the job include:

  • Analyze bodily fluids, such as tissues samples, blood, and urine
  • Examine blood samples for use in transfusions to look at blood type and compatibility
  • Calibrate and sterilize medical lab equipment
  • Enter information about a patient’s results into their medical history

On the job, medical lab scientists might:

  • Analyze findings and verify lab results
  • Examine biological samples for chemical content
  • Provide information about results to others in the medical profession, including physicians and researchers
  • Oversee medical lab technicians
  • Train newly-hired MLTs and MLSs


Tools and equipment that they use

MLTs can use a variety of tools on the job, including:

  • Automated platelet analyzers
  • Chemistry analyzers
  • Coagulation analyzers
  • Phlebotomy trays
  • Medical software

Medical lab technologists use many of the same tools as technicians and may also use:

  • Laboratory diluters
  • Photometers
  • Urinalysis analyzers
  • Vacuum blood collection tubes
Opportunities for specialization/advancement

MLTs can advance to a medical lab scientist career with more training and education.

Areas of specialization at the MLT level can include: phlebotomy, histotechnician, and donor phlebotomy.

Certification is often preferred by employers when hiring, and having it can help an applicant gain a competitive advantage.

Medical lab scientists can advance to managerial or training positions and specialize in a broad number of areas, including clinical chemistry, immunology or histotechnology.

There are also a number of master’s degrees available in clinical laboratory science or medical laboratory science. These programs are available to MLSs interested in learning unique specializations in a particular field of medical laboratory science.

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: @racheldrummondyoga).