Diagnostic Medical Sonography Schools

While the average person may immediately associate diagnostic medical sonography—also referred to as ultrasound technology—with images of babies growing inside the womb, the field extends beyond obstetrics and gynecology to cardiac sonography, vascular sonography, and even pediatric sonography. Many sonographers choose to focus on general sonography to keep their employment options open, but the possibilities for specialization are quite extensive. Sonographers (i.e., ultrasound technicians) work closely with trained physicians in capturing and interpreting sonographic images. The Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonography (SDMS) adds that by using high-frequency sound waves to elucidate structures such as organs or blood flow patterns, practitioners get deeper insights into whether a person’s body is functioning properly.

In granular terms, sonographers take diagnostic scans; ensure patient safety with proper methods and equipment; maintain detailed patient records (e.g., anatomical or pathological abnormalities); and educate patients on the use of sonographic devices.

Schools across the country offer diagnostic medical sonography (DMS) programs, with distance learning options becoming increasingly prevalent. In addition to coursework, students are expected to complete a supervised clinical practicum to garner real experience working in a professional environment. This hands-on, practical training must be completed prior to certification. While there are a number of national organizations that offer credentials, there is currently no singular licensing requirement recognized by the federal government. While certification and licensure may be voluntary, employers typically prefer registered sonographers. Certification, such as that offered through the the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT), can be accomplished following the completion of an accredited diagnostic medical sonography program and exam. It’s important to note that beginning January 1, 2015, the ARRT began requiring candidates to have at least an associate degree prior to seeking credentialing, although this degree need not be in DMS.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2015), diagnostic medical sonographers make an average annual salary of $70,880. Additionally, the BLS (Dec. 2015) projects that openings in this field will swell 26 percent between 2014 and 2024, an astonishing rate considering that the average growth projected for all occupations is a modest 7 percent. The addition of 16,000 jobs nationwide will continue to impact opportunities in this field for years to come.

For those interested in a relatively lucrative and fast-growing career in a medical field, attending one of many reputable diagnostic medical sonography schools may be the perfect option.

Ultrasound Technician fast facts
Projected Jobs Created27,000
Projected Job Growth46%
Low Salary$48,720
Average Salary (Median)$68,970
High Salary$97,390
Entry-Level EDU Associate Degree
Sourced From BLS, June 2016

Sonography Degree & Certification Programs

Training programs throughout the country allow students to earn either a certificate of completion, an associate degree, or a bachelor’s degree in diagnostic medical sonography. However, it should be noted that in order to qualify for certification through the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT)—one of the predominant credentials in the field—students must earn at minimum an associate degree. Prior to enrolling in any diagnostic medical sonography courses, students should familiarize themselves with the educational and licensing requirements in the state where they wish to practice.

Those seeking to specialize in a certain type of sonography—areas such as obstetric and gynecological (OB/GYN), vascular, cardiac, or pediatric—should look for programs that offer either direct specialization tracks, or clinical practicum options in those fields.

Each program on the following list has, at minimum, earned accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP). The list provides a general cross section of programs offering training at hospitals, universities, and colleges running the spectrum from certificate to four-year bachelor of science (BS) degrees.

  • St. Vincent’s Healthcare: At this hospital in Jacksonville, Florida, students can complete an 18-month certificate course in diagnostic medical sonography under direct supervision of trained professionals. In order to be eligible for this program, applicants must be certified as a radiologic technologist and/or have a minimum of an associate degree (healthcare fields preferred but not required). There are also several prerequisite courses (e.g., physics, algebra, anatomy) that must be completed prior to admission. A full list is available on the program website.
  • University of Colorado at Denver: At the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Denver, the Department of Radiology offers a highly selective diagnostic medical sonography certificate program. Approximately 5 students are selected each year to complete the 12-month program. The program includes classroom and clinical training. Students must have either an associate degree from a two-year allied health program or a bachelor’s degree in a science or medical field prior to admission. Direct patient care experience as well as documented observation within the ultrasound field are also highly valued in the application process.
  • Harper College: Located in Palatine, Illinois, the Harper College diagnostic medical sonography associate degree program is appropriate for those students who do not have the prerequisites necessary to qualify for the above certificate programs. The courses include ultrasound physics & instrumentation, sonography theory, and healthcare technology & informatics. This coursework helps prepare students for the American Registry of Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS) certification exams in either general or cardiac sonography, depending on the path they choose.
  • University of Nebraska Medical Center: The School of Allied Health Professions, located at the Medical Center campus in Omaha, Nebraska, offers students the opportunity to earn either a post-baccalaureate professional certificate or BS degree in radiation science technology upon completion of the program. Graduates are also eligible to take the ARDMS credentialing exams in any or all of the following: sonographic principles & instrumentation, abdomen, obstetrics & gynecology, and pediatric sonography.
  • Mayo Clinic: At both their Rochester, Minnesota and Jacksonville, Florida campuses, this internationally acclaimed clinic offers training in diagnostic medical sonography. The program takes 21 months to complete. Students may choose to receive a certificate of completion from the Mayo School of Health Sciences, or to pursue a BS in health professions (BSHP) in collaboration with the University of Minnesota, Rochester.
  • Seattle University: Seattle University is one of the few programs that offers a BS degree specifically in diagnostic ultrasound. The program includes a basic science foundation, followed by ultrasound-focused courses and clinical training. Applicants may enter the program as freshmen with a high school diploma or GED, or may choose to transfer in later in their academic career.

Hybrid & Online Programs

Online training programs for diagnostic medical sonography are rare. As of June 2016, there are few online programs which have received accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Programs (CAAHEP). While these programs offer didactic courses online, there is still an essential clinical piece of ultrasound technician training that requires hands-on experience. Students will not be able to earn the sonography certification necessary to obtain top employment without clinical practice in addition to classroom or online courses. Here is a sampling of online and hybrid certificate, associate, and bachelor’s programs for aspiring diagnostic medical sonographers:

  • Washburn University: This school, with its main campus in Topeka, Kansas, has been offering online diagnostic medical sonography training for more than a decade. All didactic courses are offered online, while clinical training can be arranged close to the student’s home for maximum flexibility and convenience. Graduating students are eligible for the ARDMS and CCI certification examinations. The program offers a general sonography certification program as well as specialized tracks in cardiac and vascular sonography.
  • Jackson College: As part of their allied health program, this Michigan-based college offers training in general, cardiac, and vascular sonography. Like Washburn, Jackson College offers their sonography didactic courses online but still requires students to complete an in-person clinical practicum. Students can expect to spend between 24 and 32 hours a week over the course of approximately one year at an approved clinical site near their home in order to successfully complete the program.
  • University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee: Unlike the previous two schools on this list, UWM offers a bachelor of science (BS) degree in biomedical sciences with a diagnostic medical sonography sub-major. Students complete two years of classroom training, either on campus or online, followed by two years of professional and clinical training at a UW clinical site. The school is affiliated with the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics in Madison but also has clinical sites in Milwaukee and Chicago. Students can choose a general focus or may concentrate on vascular or cardiac ultrasound.
  • Adventist University: This school based in Orlando, Florida provides an online BS in diagnostic medical sonography (BSDMS) program. When taken as a degree-completion program, the BSDMS is open to applicants currently registered in sonography through ARDMS, ARRT, or CCI. In as few as two years, students complete 34 credits of imaging courses such as advanced sonographic specialties and pathophysiology. Notably, Adventist University is CAAHEP-accredited and was one of the pioneers in distance-based education, offering online degrees since 2001.
  • Oregon Tech Online: This school also provides an online bachelor of science (BS) degree-completion program in diagnostic medical sonography. Open to registered diagnostic sonographers, Oregon Tech’s courses include intro to diagnostic imaging, applications of abdominal sonography, pelvic sonography, and physics of medical imaging. Additionally, students complete a DMS externship at an approved clinical facility located close to their homes. Supervisors sign off on a DMS skills checklist as employment-ready skills are acquired.

Core & Elective Courses

In order to establish a standard curriculum across the many diagnostic medical sonography schools in the US, the Joint Review Committee on Education in Diagnostic Medical Sonography (JRCDMS) has made available a common core curriculum list of courses, as well as those specialty courses that should be taken for specialization in the field. The core curriculum of an accredited program typically includes:

  • Anatomy & physiology
  • Mathematics
  • Physics
  • Communications
  • Psychology & human behavior
  • Statistics
  • Information technology
  • Superficial structures
  • Vascular & neurosonographic imaging
  • Patient care
  • Medical ethics & law
  • Medical terminology
  • Pathophysiology
  • Sonography principles & instrumentation
  • Work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WRMSD)

Full descriptions of each of these requirements are available on the JRCDMS website in a PDF. Students who wish to specialize in abdominal sonography should expect to find courses that include each of the following areas:

  • Biliary
  • Liver
  • Pancreas
  • Renal & lower urinary tract
  • Spleen
  • Adrenal
  • Abdominal vasculature
  • Gastrointestinal tract
  • Abdominopelvic wall & cavities
  • Interventional
  • Organ transplant
  • Breast
  • Neck
  • Prostate
  • Scrotum
  • Musculoskeletal sonography
  • Pediatric hip
  • Neonatal brain
  • Neonatal spine

For students who wish to specialize in obstetrics and gynecology, the following elective courses are generally required:

  • Clinical assessment of obstetrical patients
  • Fetal assessment
  • High-risk obstetrics
  • Fetal structural abnormalities
  • Interventional procedures
  • Postpartum complications
  • Performance standards & documentation

There may be other elective possibilities for those students pursuing a four-year degree that are outside of the sonography curriculum.

Accreditation

Generally speaking, accreditation means that a particular educational program has been evaluated and approved of by a nationally recognized body of experts. Prior to seeking professional certification through a body such as the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS) or the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT), aspiring ultrasound technicians must complete a program at an accredited school.

For many branches of medical technology, the gold standard of programmatic accreditation is the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Programs (CAAHEP), a group that has established ultrasound technician program standards in conjunction with the Joint Review Commission on Education in Diagnostic Medical Sonography (JRCDMS).

Additionally, there are six regional institutional accrediting organizations which have been recognized by the US Department of Education’s Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA):

Each agency has their own process, but accreditation typically consists of a thorough application, self-study, and site visit by the accrediting agency. Typical criteria used in the program-approval process are curriculum standards, quality of facilities, program finance management, availability of institutional resources, and student outcome measures. Please note that CAAHEP maintains a list of accredited sonography programs.

Prior to enrolling in a program, students should ensure that their school has the proper accreditation, which can vary by region, place of employment, or desired credential.

Career Outlook

The career outlook for diagnostic medical sonographers is exceptionally strong. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS Dec. 2015) anticipates a 26 percent increase nationally in openings for diagnostic medical sonographers (DMS) between 2014 and 2024, nearly four times the average growth projected for all occupations in that time period (7 percent).

Because diagnostic medical sonographers can be useful in many different situations, there are a number of factors contributing to this positive outlook. First, as with so many healthcare occupations, the aging US population is going to continue to have more and more contact with the healthcare industry. From mammograms to blood clots, ultrasounds can be of assistance for many age-related ailments. Furthermore, medical imaging technology is continuing to advance. This means that physicians are going to be able to treat more health issues using non-invasive techniques and outpatient procedures, which can include the assistance of ultrasound technicians.

While hospitals are expected to hire the majority of new sonographers, physicians’ offices as well as outpatient surgical centers are also expected to be in the market for trained sonographers moving forward. Specializing in a certain area of medical sonography can also enhance a person’s employment prospects and earning potential. According to the Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonographers (SDMS 2016) annual compensation survey, there’s evidence that sonographers specializing in obstetrics tend to be paid more that general sonographers meaning there is likely a higher demand for that particular specialty. Of course, one should also take into account that demand can fluctuate based on geographic location and demographics, so other specialities might be growing at a faster pace in other states.

The BLS (May 2015) found that the 61,250 diagnostic medical sonographers around the country had an annual average salary of $70,880. Here were the annual percentiles:

  • 10th percentile: $48,720
  • 25th percentile: $57,100
  • 50th percentile (median): $68,970
  • 75th percentile: $81,540
  • 90th percentile: $97,390

In hourly terms, these figures equate to an average $34.08/hr. and these ranges:

  • 10th percentile: $23.42/hr.
  • 25th percentile: $27.45/hr.
  • 50th percentile (median): $33.16/hr.
  • 75th percentile: $39.20/hr.
  • 90th percentile: $46.82/hr.

Interestingly, Payscale (June 2016)—an aggregator of self-reported wages—found lower figures among its 1,103 DMS respondents:

  • 10th percentile: $19.00/hr.
  • 25th percentile: $24.00/hr.
  • 50th percentile (median): $28.00/hr.
  • 75th percentile: $34.00/hr.
  • 90th percentile: $39.00/hr.

For annual salaries, Payscale (2016) had 344 DMS respondents with the following percentile ranges:

  • 10th percentile: $36,000
  • 25th percentile: $42,000
  • 50th percentile (median): $51,521
  • 75th percentile: $63,000
  • 90th percentile: $75,000

The Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonography (SDMS 2015) conducts an annual salary survey. With data from 15,389 sonographer respondents, SDMS found a similar median wage to the BLS at $34.00/hr median base wage. Notably, this figure represented a 3 percent increase over 2014. Not surprisingly, wages and employment figures in this field also tend to vary based on region. The BLS (May 2015) found that the top-employing states for diagnostic medical sonographers correlated roughly with population size:

  • California: 5,060 employed ($95,880 annual average salary)
  • Florida: 4,780 employed ($62,160 annual avg.)
  • New York: 4,780 employed ($68,980 annual avg.)
  • Texas: 4,650 employed ($74,640 annual avg.)
  • Pennsylvania: 2,480 employed ($64,730 annual avg.)

Fortunately for residents of the Golden State, California was both the top-employing and top-paying state in this profession. The BLS (May 2015) reported that the five top-paying states for diagnostic medical sonographers were:

  • California: $95,880 annual average salary (5,060 employed)
  • District of Columbia: $88,230 annual avg. (150 employed)
  • Oregon: $86,390 annual avg. (550 employed)
  • Washington: $85,120 annual avg. (1,480 employed)
  • Massachusetts: $81,370 annual avg. (1,760 employed)

Additionally, all five of the top-paying metropolitan areas in the country were located in California and concentrated in the Bay Area:

  • Vallejo-Fairfield, CA: $120,990 annual average salary (130 employed)
  • San Francisco-Redwood City-South San Francisco, CA Metropolitan Division: $119,550 avg. (290 employed)
  • Oakland-Hayward-Berkeley, CA Metropolitan Division: $114,660 avg. (560 employed)
  • San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA: $108,800 avg. (270 employed)
  • Sacramento-Roseville-Arden-Arcade, CA: $104,930 avg. (370 employed)

Overall, considering that only two years of postsecondary school is the typical entry-level education for this career, it can prove a very lucrative professional field. In 2018, the SDMS will celebrate the 70th anniversary of diagnostic ultrasound. For aspiring technicians in this field, there’s a wide range of specialties and conditions which benefit from the application of this continually evolving technology. Some of the high-growth subfields of this discipline include gynecology, pregnancy, breast imaging, heart disease screening, prostate cancer detection, and musculoskeletal exams.

Career Facts Ultrasound Technician
Related CareersMedical And Clinical Laboratory Technician, Nuclear Medicine Technologist, Radiologic Technologist, MRI Technologist, Cardiovascular Technician
Common Job TitlesCardiac Sonographer, Cardiac/Vascular Sonographer, Diagnostic Medical Sonographer, Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer (RDMS), Sonographer, Ultrasonographer, Ultrasound Technician, Ultrasound Technologist
Technology & EquipmentUltrasound Monitors, Ultrasound Video Equipment, High Frequency Transducers, Patient Medical Record Software, Office and Productivity Software
Sourced From BLS, June 2016

Licensing & Certification

There are two main bodies that offer national certification exams for careers in sonography. More diverse, specialty-focused credentials are available from the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS), while a generalized sonography certification is available from the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT).

The ARDMS offers five specialized exams which result in the credential of Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer (RDMS). The exams are:

  • Abdomen (AB)
  • Breast (BR)
  • Fetal Echocardiography (FE)
  • Obstetrics and Gynecology (OB/GYN)
  • Pediatric Sonography (PS)

Additionally, the ARDMS has three credentials for subfields of diagnostic sonography: Registered Diagnostic Cardiac Sonographer (RDCS), Registered Vascular Technologist (RVT), and Registered Musculoskeletal Sonographer (RMSKS). The ARDMS has minimum education and/or experience levels in order to sit for any certification exam. In order to obtain certification, students must pass the basic Sonography Principles and Instrumentation (SPI) exam as well as at least one specialty examination. Applicants can visit the Prerequisite and Requirement Eligibility Program (PREP) portion of the ARDMS site to determine if they are eligible for their intended certification exam. This credential is valid for one year.

The ARRT provides a generalized sonography certification. In order to be eligible for the ARRT exam, students must have completed an ARRT-approved sonography program within the last 3 years, and must have earned an academic degree. Accredited agency lists are available on the ARRT website.  Additionally, candidates must have fulfilled the didactic and clinical competence requirements, which include proof of having completed seven mandatory patient care procedures, four mandatory scanning techniques, 22 imaging procedures, and five elective imaging procedures. This registration must be renewed annually.

As of June 2016, the American Society of Radiologic Technologists (ASRT) reports that there are three states which regulate sonographers: New Mexico, Oregon, and North Dakota. It's entirely possible, and perhaps likely, that additional states will pass licensure laws for sonographers, so interested students would be wise to check with their local state organizations to determine whether licensing is required.

Both the ARRT and ARDMS certifications require continuing education (CE) units in order to maintain the credentials. The ARRT requires 24 CE credits biennially as well as continuing qualifications requirements (CQR) to be fulfilled every 10 years. The ARDMS requires 30 continuing medical education (CME) units every three years. Please reference the links above for details about what types of CE qualify.

Finally, the Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonography (SDMS) provides a wealth of CE and CME opportunities through annual conferences, events, meetings, online coursework, and other offerings.

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.