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. There are many lab careers in medical technology that allow you to contribute to health and healing with minimal patient interaction, instead working with test tubes, fluid samples, and laboratory technology.

Histotechnologist

Whether you have had surgery yourself or watched a loved one go through an operation, you have indirectly interacted with a histotechnologist. These trained technicians work behind the scenes at healthcare facilities, pharmaceutical companies, and even in veterinary settings to help doctors diagnose problems with all types of tissues. Histotechnologists have contact with any tissue that is removed from the body during surgery, whether that is a tumor or just the tonsils. They prepare samples of the tissues for viewing under a microscope and work alongside medical doctors to diagnose patients, thereby having a direct impact on patient treatment plans and outcomes.

The demand for histotechnologists is significant and growing through the U.S. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not track histotechnologist statistics separately from all medical and clinical laboratory technologists, the demand for that general category is quite high, with an expected growth rate of 22% through the year 2022 (BLS, 2012). The annual mean wage for medical technologists working in medical and diagnostic laboratories is $60,910 annually, with higher wages expected for those who work in pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing ($71,910 annually).

There are two main pathways for becoming a histotechnologist that most people follow. The first pathway, for those that are not ready or able to invest in a four year university, involves obtaining an Associate’s degree that focuses on the sciences, and then pursuing a specific histotechnology program. Aspiring students can also choose to pursue a Bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution and then take a national certification exam in order to qualify for work as a histotechnologist.

  • What is Histotechnology?: The National Society for Histotechnology (NSH) provides a thorough overview of the profession as well as 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.
  • Histotechnologist Job Description: Colorado Health Careers provides a succinct job description of the histotechnologist role including average salaries, work environment, and what to study in high school to pursue the career.
  • The Hidden Profession of Histotechnology: This popular 2004 article from Techniques: Connecting Education and Careers covers the shortage of histotechnicians and importance of outreach to new students.

Cytotechnologist

Anyone who has taken an introductory biology course knows that cells are the building blocks of life. But it is only a small fraction of those fascinated biology students that go on to study those cells as a career. Cytotechnologists 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.

Although we have already noted that overall growth is expected in the medical and clinical laboratory technologist field, the expected rate of growth for cytotechnologists in particular is not necessarily as hopeful. Due to changes in cancer screenings, particularly Pap tests, as well as increased automation in the field, demand for cytotechnologists did decrease between 2005 and 2009 (American Society for Clinical Pathology, 2010). Still, the potential salary for cytotechnologists make it an interesting career path for those willing to work for it, with an average annual salary ranging from $64,416 to $82,556 according to the American Society for Clinical Pathology.

As with many lab careers in medical technology, cytotechnologists must attend a specific, accredited cytotechnology program, based either at a university or a hospital. These programs take on average one to two years to complete. Prior to employment, aspiring cytotechnologists must have earned a baccalaureate degree, either concurrent with or prior to completing their cytotechnology program. Upon graduation from their program, students are eligible to site for the ASCP Board of Certification exam, and in the future may choose to pursue a the ASCP certification of Specialist in Cytotechnology. Some states, such as California and New York, also require separate state licensure prior to beginning work.

  • Cytotechnology: The Mayo Clinic gives an overview of 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.
  • Plotting the Future of Cytotechnology: This overview of the ASC’s 2006 task force report on the future of the profession also includes links to download the full text of the study, which is quite illuminating for anyone purusing the career.
  • Cytotechnology as a Career: An article from Advance Magazine covers the reality of the career and includes interviews with working cytotechnologists.

Medical Laboratory Technician

For those 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 generally employed under the supervision of a lab manager or medical technologist. Medical laboratory technicians can also choose to specialize within the career, working specifically in microbiology, hematology, or immunology. With proper training, MLTs can also go on to specialize in cytotechnology or histotechnology, where their MLT background will certainly serve them well.

The demand for medical laboratory technicians is high. They fall well within the medical and clinical laboratory technologist career that is tracked by the BLS and are likely to find employment in a hospital, diagnostic laboratory, or physician’s office.

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. That degree, coupled with requisite laboratory experience, will make you eligible for the American Medical Technologist MLT certification and employment as an MLT.

Pathologist Assistant

The final lab career in medical technology we will profile here is that of a pathologists’ assistant. A pathologist is a medical doctor that works to study cell and tissue samples to diagnose illnesses in patients. The assistants that work with them are also highly trained and 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 assist in performing autopsies on deceased patients.

The demand and salary for pathologist assistants is quite strong. According to the American Association of Pathologists’ Assistants, freshly graduated PA’s can expect to earn between $70,000 and $90,000 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 pathologist assistant is not specifically required, but again can further the opportunities for an individual.It is interesting to note that many people who choose to pursue this career are former medical lab technicians, histotechnologists, or cryotechnologists.

  • 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.
  • Pathologist 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.
Barry Franklin
Barry Franklin Editor

Barry is the Editor-in-Chief of MedicalTechnologySchools.com, operated by educational web publisher Sechel Ventures Partners LLC, which he co-founded. Previously, Barry served as a VP at a Silicon Valley software company. In addition to running editorial operations at Sechel, Barry also serves on the Board of Trustees at a local K-8 school, and graduated from Carnegie Mellon University, where he also met his wife.