Guide to Medical Lab Technology Careers

There is no question that working in the medical field is rewarding, but not everyone is well suited to daily patient interaction. But just because someone is introverted does not mean he or she has to forgo the idea of a career in the medical field. Many lab careers in medical technology allow people to contribute to health and healing with minimal patient interaction. Instead of working in a patient-facing role in a clinic or hospital, consider a career in medical lab technology by helping patients and physicians diagnose and rule out medical conditions.

Medical laboratory technologists act as disease detectives. When a patient visits a medical clinic, physicians often require blood, urine, or other biological samples from a patient to be tested in a laboratory. Using test tubes, fluid samples, and laboratory testing equipment, medical laboratory technologists perform tests requested by physicians to confirm the presence of a medical condition or determine that additional tests are needed to pinpoint the cause.

No two medical lab technology careers are exactly alike, and the occupational outlook is positive. Most medical lab tech positions require a two-year or a four-year degree and certification to be legally eligible for work. With a wide variety of career specialties and a faster than average growth rate predicted in the coming years, investing time and money into a medical lab technology career is a wise choice with multiple options for future career growth.

Read on to learn more about different medical lab technology careers, including educational and professional certification requirements and career resources for each profession.

Become a Histotechnologist

Anyone who’s had surgery or watched a loved one go through an operation has indirectly interacted with a histotechnologist. These trained technicians work behind the scenes at healthcare facilities, pharmaceutical companies, and even veterinary settings to help doctors diagnose problems with all types of tissues. Histotechnologists collect and examine any tissue removed from the body during surgery, whether that is a tumor or just the tonsils. Then, they prepare samples of the tissues for viewing under a microscope and work alongside medical doctors to diagnose patients, thereby directly impacting a patient’s treatment plans and outcomes.

Histotechnologists are in high demand. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows the demand for clinical laboratory technologists and technicians, a similar position title to medical lab technologists, is high with an expected growth rate of 7 percent from 2019 to 2029 (BLS May 2020). The annual median wage for medical technologists working in medical and diagnostic laboratories is $54,180, with the lowest 10 percent earning $31,450 and the highest 10 percent earning approximately $71,910 per year.

There are two main pathways for becoming a histotechnologist. The first pathway involves earning an associate’s degree that focuses on the sciences and then pursuing a specific histotechnology program. Aspiring histotechnologists can also choose to pursue a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution and then take a national certification exam to qualify for work as a histotechnologist.

  • What is Histotechnology?: The National Society for Histotechnology (NSH) provides a thorough overview of the profession and video interviews explaining the importance of this medical technology career.
  • Histotechnology Resources: The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center provides a list of histotechnology resources that may be helpful when further investigating the career path.
  • The Hidden Profession of Histotechnology: This popular 2004 article from Techniques: Connecting Education and Careers covers the shortage of histotechnicians and the importance of outreach to new students.

Become a Cytotechnologist

Anyone who has taken an introductory biology course knows that cells are the building blocks of life. But it is only a tiny fraction of those fascinated biology students who study those cells as a career. Cytotechnologists, or cell detectives, spend their daily lives examining cells for evidence of disease, including cancer.

Physicians or other medical technicians obtain these cells from patients—through natural shedding, scraping, or aspiration—and pass them to these lab-based professionals. Cytotechnologists are responsible for examining, for example, the results of Pap smears but can also detect cancer and precancerous cells in any other part of the body.

The American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) shows that most cytotechnologists are employed in hospitals, private medical laboratories, university medical centers, government facilities, and industry settings. The salary range for cytotechnologists is between $66,208 and $94,476 annually (Salary.com July 2021). The median annual salary is $80,246, higher than the national average for all occupations at $56,310 (BLS May 2020).

As with many lab careers in medical technology, cytotechnologists must attend a specific, accredited cytotechnology program, based either at a university or a hospital. As of July 2021, there are 20 cytotechnology programs accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP). These programs take on average one to two years to complete.

Before employment, aspiring cytotechnologists must have earned a baccalaureate degree, either concurrent with or before completing their cytotechnology program. Upon graduation from their program, students are eligible to sit for the ASCP Board of Certification exam. In the future, they may choose to pursue the ASCP certification of Specialist in Cytotechnology. Some states, such as California and New York, also require separate state licensure before beginning work.

  • Cytotechnology: The Mayo Clinic overviews what cytotechnology is and what career opportunities exist for these skilled professionals.
  • American Society for Cytotechnology: This national organization provides aspiring cytotechnologists with resources about the career and offers valuable networking and educational opportunities to working cytotechnologists.
  • CytoPathPod: A podcast hosted by the American Society of Cytopathology to support career growth, education, advocacy, and research in cytopathology.
  • Cytotechnology as a Career: An article from Advance Magazine covers the reality of the career and includes interviews with working cytotechnologists.

Become a Medical Laboratory Technician

For science and detail-minded individuals who want to start working sooner rather than later, a career as a medical laboratory technician (MLT) can be a great option. These technicians require only an associate’s degree to start working in a lab running diagnostic tests for such instances as AIDS, cancer, diabetes, and infectious diseases. Medical lab technicians generally do not work as closely with physicians as histotechnologists or cytotechnologists. Instead, MLTs are typically employed under the supervision of a lab manager or medical technologist.

Medical laboratory technicians can also specialize in the career, working specifically in microbiology, hematology, or immunology. With proper training, MLTs can also specialize in cytotechnology or histotechnology, where their MLT background will qualify them for these careers.

The demand for medical laboratory technicians is faster than average (7 percent) compared to the national average for all occupations (4 percent). The BLS predicts that 24,700 new clinical laboratory technologists and technician positions will be needed (BLS May 2020). According to PayScale.com, in July 2021, the average annual salary for medical laboratory technicians is $42,903, with the lowest 10 percent earning $32,000 and the highest 10 percent earning $61,000 per year.

In order to start down the path to becoming an MLT, students should pursue an associate’s degree in medical laboratory technology from an institution with accreditation from a regional or national agency such as the US Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education. An accredited degree and requisite laboratory experience are required for certification eligibility through American Medical Technologists. In addition, the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) offers six eligibility routes for MLT certification.

Become a Pathologists’ Assistant

The final lab career in medical technology we will profile here is a pathologists’ assistant. A pathologist is a medical doctor that works to study cell and tissue samples to diagnose illnesses in patients. In addition, the assistants that work with them are highly trained in managing surgical teams and processes.

According to the American Association of Pathologists’ Assistants (AAPA), pathologists’ assistants spend time in the lab preparing those samples, taking diagnostic photographs and images, and working with new pathologists, including pathology residents, to train them in proper diagnostic procedures. Pathologist assistants may also be specially trained in performing autopsies on deceased patients.

The demand and salary for pathologists’ assistants are pretty strong. In June 2021, PayScale.com showed the average annual salary for certified pathologists’ assistants is $85,872 annually, with more experienced PA’s commanding even higher pay.

In order to become a pathologist assistant with the best career prospects, students usually need to obtain at minimum a certificate from an accredited program, although many jobs now require a master’s degree as well. Certification from the American Society of Clinical Pathology as a pathologists’ assistant is not explicitly required, but again can further the opportunities for an individual. Interestingly, many people who pursue this career are former medical lab technicians, histotechnologists, or cytotechnologists.

  • American Association of Pathologists’ Assistants: The AAPA is a professional organization designed to advocate for the profession of pathologist assistants and provide resources and education for working PAs.
  • Pathologists’ Assistant Definition: The pathology department of the Duke University School of Medicine provides a thorough job description as well as an explanation as to why these professionals are so critical in pathology.
  • Pathologists’ Assistant Program: The University of Maryland is one of many accredited institutions that offer programs specifically targeting pathologist assistants. This page outlines the requirements for admission to this prestigious university.
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).