How to Become an Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Tech
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Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) represented 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 performing 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. Reasons for MRIs range from something as simple as a bad sprain to life-threatening 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 illnesses 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 a Successful MRI Tech
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.
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 of an MRI Tech
The gold standard to become an MRI tech is holding certification from the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT), but there are alternative pathways.
The minimum level of education required to become an MRI technologist (assuming they do not want to pursue ARRT certification) is an accredited 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. It should be noted that an MRI certificate is not enough to make one eligible to sit for the ARRT exam.
The majority of new MRI techs have an academic degree (specifically an associate 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), this certification is not quite as common.
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 factors, including the size of the staff and the demand for MRI services.
Steps to Becoming an MRI Tech
Step 1: Graduate from High School or Obtain a GED (Four Years)
MRI tech programs typically require students to have completed high school or obtained a GED in order to be eligible for admission. Students who wish to pursue a career as an MRI tech should focus on science and math classes while in high school. Additionally, completing AP classes and earning college credit by taking the related AP tests will give students a head start on their college education.
Step 2A: Complete a Minimum of an Associate Degree and/or an Accredited MRI Tech Education Program (Three to Four Years)
Candidates generally complete a minimum of an associate degree plus an approved MRI tech certificate program, but a bachelor’s degree may be preferred. A bachelor’s degree program can increase employability and opportunities in leadership.
Students should ensure the MRI tech program they complete is accredited as this ensures a minimum quality of education and is typically required for certification. There are several accrediting agencies for MRI Tech programs including the Joint Review Committee on Education in Radiologic Technology (JRCERT), the American Registry of Magnetic Resonance Imaging Technologists (AMRIT), and the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP).
Step 2B: Complete Clinical Work Experience (Optional, One to Two Years)
A clinical apprenticeship as an MRI tech may be substituted for education for those pursuing ARMRIT certification. Applicants must provide documentation of 2,000 hours at a certified apprenticeship. Those not pursuing ARMRIT may still find an apprenticeship or clinical work experience to be a valuable asset when applying for work.
Step 3: Obtain Certification (Timeline Varies)
While certification is not required to work as an MRI tech, the reality is very few employers will hire someone without one. There are two main certifications (detailed below): ARRT and ARMRIT. Both certifications require students to complete MRI tech studies and pass an exam.
Step 4: Obtain State Licensure (Optional, Timeline Varies)
MRI techs are only required to be licensed in New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, and West Virginia. Licensing is done on a state by state basis and applicants should contact their local boards to learn about testing and education requirements.
The two main certifying bodies for MRI Tech are the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) and the American Registry of Magnetic Resonance Imaging Technologist (ARMRIT). Requirements for each certification vary.
American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) – MRI Tech Certification
The ARRT has a primary pathway and post-primary pathway for eligibility for the MRI. For the primary pathway, the requirements are:
- Complete an associate’s degree or higher in any field from an institution accredited by an agency the ARRT recognizes
- Complete an ARRT-recognized MRI technologist education program (certificate or bachelor’s degree)
- Comply with the ARRT’s standard of ethics
The post-primary pathway eligibility requirements are:
- Hold a certification from the ARRT, Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board (NMTCB), or the ARDMS
- Earn at least 16 credits of structured education in MRI technology no more than 24 months before applying for certification
- Complete the clinical experience requirement, which includes at least 125 scans in at least 21 different procedures
- Comply with the ARRT’s standard of ethics
The MRI tech exam costs between $200 to $400 depending on the eligibility pathway and consists of 200 questions in the following categories:
- Patient care
- Image production
The ARRT does not endorse or publish study guides or exam preparation materials. Candidates are expected to review the content specifications for the exam and utilize any resources they have at their disposal to prepare for this exam.
ARRT certified MRI techs must apply for renewal each year. In order to renew, candidates must be current with the biennial Continuing Education (CE) requirements and pay a $30 renewal fee.
Every two years, MRI tech certificate holders must earn 24 continuing education credits. These credits can be earned as part of state licensing renewal, CPR certification renewal, relevant academic courses taken at a college or university, or courses taken through a recognized continuing education provider.
Every ten years, MRI tech certificate holders must complete Continuing Qualifications Requirements (CQR) to ensure they are staying up to state with the latest research, technology, and best practices. This process involves completing a professional profile and structured self-assessment. If any gaps in knowledge of skills are identified continuing education courses will be prescribed.
American Registry of Magnetic Resonance Imaging Technologist (ARMRIT) – MRI Tech Certification
There are five paths to eligibility for the ARMRIT MRI technologist exam. In order to sit for the exam, candidates must meet one of the following requirements:
- Graduate from an ARMRIT accredited MRI program with at least 1,000 hours of documented MRI clinical training
- Graduate from a non-ARMRIT accredited MRI program with at least 2,000 hours of documented MRI clinical training
- Graduate from an MRI Registered Apprenticeship Program with at least 2,000 hours of documented MRI clinical training
- Transfer from a field related to MRI technology and provide proof of at least 1,700 hours of MRI clinical experience.
- Have four years or 6,240 hours of documented full-time MRI clinical experience or hold an associate degree and 2,000 hours of full-time MRI Clinical experience
Candidates with foreign degrees can have their education and training evaluated by an approved evaluation company in order to establish eligibility.
The ARMRIT MRI Technologist exam consists of three sections of 80 questions each and must be completed in four hours. The three sections are:
- MRI physics
- Clinical applications
- Bioeffects, safety, patient care, and MRI cross-sectional anatomy
Questions can be either multiple-choice, true/false, or matching anatomical structures on MRI images. Candidates must achieve a score of 70 percent or higher to pass this exam.
The ARMRIT publishes a list of recommended review resources and has an online study guide available for $50.
ARMRIT certification must be renewed every three years. Renewals cost $300 and must be accompanied by 24 hours of continuing education hours, at the rate of eight per year. All continuing education credits must be derived from topics related to MRI technology or patient care and safety.
State Licensing for MRI Techs
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. As mentioned above, MRI techs are required to be licensed in New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, and West Virginia. Most states do not have any licensing or certification requirements for MRI techs, though employers still often demand some type of certification or credential.
In general, once an MRI technologist becomes certified, he or she can begin looking for entry-level jobs as an MRI tech. Some common job titles for this stage of the career might include:
- Staff technologist
- MRI technologist
- MRI specialist
Salary and Career Outlook for MRI Techs
Employment for MRI techs is projected to grow 11 percent nationally between 2018 and 2028. This growth is primarily due to an aging population in the US and an increase in medical conditions such as multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s.
MRI techs earn a median annual salary of $74,270, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2019). The percentiles for wages in this field are:
- 10th percentile: $51,150
- 25th percentile: $61,030
- 50th percentile (median): $73,410
- 75th percentile: $87,280
- 90th percentile: $101,580
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 supervising 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 careers, they may have better schedules with fewer nights, weekends, and days spent on call, due to their seniority.