Becoming an MRI Technologist - Education, Certification & Experience

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is the next generation of medical imaging technology. Where potentially hazardous x-rays were once the only way for us to see inside human bodies – short of surgery – we are now able to take clear, useful photos of every part of the human anatomy using an MRI. These sophisticated and expensive machines are only entrusted to those that learn how to use them: MRI technologists.

An MRI technologist (MRI tech) is responsible for situating patients whose doctors have deemed it necessary that they get an MRI. It may be something a simple as a bad sprain or as life threatening as numerous internal injuries. MRI techs explain the MRI process to the patients and prepare them for the machine. Then, they position the patient in a way that allows them to take useful images of their injuries. Once the images are made, MRI techs use their experience to help physicians to interpret these images and diagnose injuries and illness that are living under the surface of the skin.

MRI technologists are essential to the hospital setting as they allow greater insight into human issues that doctors could ever get on their own. MRIs are non-invasive and extremely effective, meaning MRI techs are in high demand around the country.

Read on to learn more about how to become an MRI tech.

Skills & Traits of the Successful

As with any career that requires a good deal of patient interaction, an MRI tech should be good at talking – and listening – to people. People who have never had an MRI before may need a lot of reassurance and patience in order to be comfortable. Other patients may be in extreme discomfort already and will need a good deal of compassion. This is also a useful skill when working with children, and in life overall.

The physical aspects of the job are not as demanding as some other medical technology careers, but MRI techs should still be comfortable standing for long periods and working around heavy machinery. MRI techs need to be able to interpret images from the MRI machine, meaning that attention to detail is also an important skill for them to have. This is, of course, in addition to being able to both learn and recall the intricacies of human anatomy that will be essential in these interpretations.

Role Requirements

As with many medical professionals that are less regulated than those of a physician or nurse, there are no minimum requirements on a federal level for how to become an MRI tech. That is, anyone who can find employment as an MRI tech can do that job without certification, strictly speaking. However, the reality is that someone with no educational background, experience, or certification from an organization such as the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) is unlikely to find employment as an MRI tech.

Instead, the minimum level of education required to become an MRI technologist, assuming they do not want to pursue ARRT certification, is a certificate program from a community college or hospital. These programs, which can last anywhere from a few months to about a year teach the basics of MRI technology to those with at least a high school diploma or GED. However, it should be noted that an MRI certificate is not enough to make one eligible to sit for the ARRT exam. In the case of hospital training programs, MRI techs may be able to get a job in the MRI department upon completing the MRI training program

The majority of new MRI techs have an academic degree (specifically an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree) in MRI technology and certification from ARRT. Though certification is also available from the American Registry of Magnetic Resonance Imaging Technologist (ARMRIT), but this certification is less common and less in demand for employers.

Furthermore, some states have their own separate licensing requirements. In some instances, ARRT offers state specific examinations that are approved by local governing bodies in order to allow MRI technologists to work in that particular state. The ARRT website provides a list of state licensing contacts that are available for consultation about the licensing requirements in that state. Some states do not have any licensing or certification requirements for MRI techs, though employers still often demand some type of certification or credential.

MRI technologists can go on to have supervisory roles in hospitals once they have gained experience in the field. The amount of experience necessary in order to become a supervisor will be dependent on many different factors, including the size of the staff and the demand for MRI services. In private physician’s offices and smaller outpatient clinics where only one or two MRI techs are employed, there may be little room for advancement, regardless of education or professional experience.

Different Paths: Steps to Becoming an MRI Tech

There are a few different ways for interested students to pursue a career as an MRI Tech. Those who know at a young age that this is a job they want to work towards may choose to enter an educational program directly from high school at a local community college or university. These educational programs, which should be accredited by an officially recognized body such as the ARRT, amy offer either an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree in MRI technology. As part of these educational programs, students will be required to do practicum work in clinics and hospitals to gain experience in the field. Upon completion, graduates should be eligible to site for the ARRT certification exam and find work as a registered MRI tech.

Another way that many MRI technologists begin their careers in the field is by first gaining experience in a related medical imaging field, whether that means radiography, sonography, nuclear medicine, or another field. After gaining experience there, there may be opportunities to work with an MRI machine and learn the necessary skills to transition to the specialty.

Still other prospective MRI techs may work in a different medical field entirely, such as hospital administration, and decide to advance their career with additional knowledge. While these individuals may have a leg up in the experience and networking department when it comes time to search for employment, they will have still have to complete the same training requirements as less experienced individuals.

For those interested students who plan on earning their certification from ARRT, the two pathways to certification parallel the two pathways just outlined. In order to be eligible for the primary certification pathway, students must attend and complete an educational program that has earned accreditation from a recognized body. As of 2015, students interested in the primary certification pathway must also earn an academic degree from that institution, which could be an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, or post-graduate degree. For the primary pathway, certification programs will no longer be accepted in order to sit for the ARRT exam.

The ARRT also offers a post-primary pathway to certification. In order to be eligible for this manner of certification, individuals do not need to have completed an accredited MRI educational program. Rather, they must meet ethics requirements, document their clinical MRI experiences, and must hold ARRT registration in Radiography, Nuclear Medicine Technology, Radiation Therapy, or Sonography. Nuclear Medicine Technology registration from the Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board (NMTCB) is acceptable for this requirement, as is American Registry of Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS) registration for the sonography requirement.

In general, once an MRI technologist becomes certified, he or she can begin looking for entry level jobs as a MRI tech. Some common job titles for this stage of the career might include:

  • Staff Technologist

  • MRI Technologist

  • MRI Specialist

With some experience, good MRI techs can advance to higher roles in the hospital or clinical setting, such as Lead MRI Technologist, MRI Supervisor, or Senior Staff Technologist. These advanced positions may find technologists supervisor other MRI techs and taking on more administrative roles at their facility. It is easier to find these more advanced titles and roles in larger hospital settings where there is a bigger staff as opposed to smaller outpatient clinics and private physicians offices. Further, as MRI techs advance in their career they will often have better schedules with fewer nights, weekends, and days spent on call, due to their seniority.

For many people, MRI tech is a long career. While they may advance to supervisory roles, there is no next step towards further certification should they choose to remain in this particular career. While some MRI techs may choose to go back to school to further their medical education and become nurses or physicians, this is not the typical career trajectory.