Guide to Diagnostic Imaging Careers
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The medical field is vast, and it doesn’t take years of medical or nursing school to find a rewarding career helping sick people. Diagnostic imaging has been around in one form or another for more than a century.
In the 21st century, it’s possible to look inside the human body to diagnose all types of ailments. To pursue any kind of diagnostic imaging career requires a bit of training and hands-on patient experience. Still, it’s a job where you can truly make a difference, working closely with patients and physicians to diagnose illnesses and develop treatment plans.
Careers in diagnostic medical sonography, cardiovascular technology, and vascular technology are keeping pace with other healthcare careers and are projected to grow substantially in the coming decade. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2022) shows that between 2021 and 2031, employment in these fields will grow 10 percent, which is double the national average for all occupations (5 percent). This means 14,700 new positions will be created.
Most jobs require a two-year associate’s degree and certification from an organization such as the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonographers, (ARDMS), or the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT). Hospitals are the top employer of diagnostic imaging professionals (76 percent), followed by physicians’ offices (11 percent). Still, diagnostic imaging professionals with specialized certifications can find work in outpatient care centers and medical and diagnostic laboratories (BLS 2022).
Following is a rundown of the various types of diagnostic imaging careers available in the medical field and a collection of valuable links that can help you determine whether diagnostic imaging is the right career choice for you.
Become a Computed Tomography (CT) Technologist
Although some programs teach computed tomography (CT) technology alongside MRI technology, despite their similarities, in many hospitals, they are two separate functions and two different jobs. CT technologists use CT machines to examine the body using a device that emits radiation. CT scanning machines are more appropriate for identifying and imaging bone injuries, lung, chest issues, and certain cancers. On the other hand, MRI machines are more suitable for soft tissue damage, spinal cord injuries, and brain injuries, especially tumors.
The responsibilities of a CT technologist are similar to that of an MRI technologist, only with their specific type of machinery, and include:
- Patient transfer and safety
- Machine maintenance, including changing any necessary settings
- Emergency scans
- Interfacing with physicians
The BLS does not maintain separate statistics for CT technologists, but PayScale.com, an aggregate of self-reported salary data, shows that in October 2022, CT technologists earned average annual salaries of $66,778 per year (PayScale Jan. 2023). These estimates are based on 2,547 salary profiles and may include bonuses and provide sharing options.
Although PayScale doesn’t provide job growth data, CT technologists share job responsibilities with radiologic technologists, meaning that demand for this particular career can be expected to grow over the next decade.
CT technologists can earn national computed tomography certification from the ARRT. However, before pursuing their CT certification, applicants must have prior standing with the ARRT in either radiography or nuclear medicine technology.
The following links may help you to decide if this is the right career path for you:
- “Meet a CT Technologist,” Cleveland Clinic: This brief interview with a working CT technologist may help you understand what it means to pursue a job in this field.
- “Computed Tomography Scans and Cancer,” National Cancer Institute: Detecting cancers is integral to the CT technologist career. In this article, the National Cancer Institute outlines the purpose of CT scans in diagnosing and treating cancers, particularly colorectal and lung cancer.
- “ Computed Tomography: An Overview,” Google Books: This textbook, designed for use in CT technology training programs, is available for free review online. It may help give a clearer picture of what you would be expected to learn in one of these programs.
- “MRI and CT Technologist Certificate Program,” Johnson College of Technology: This certificate program trains students in MRI and CT scanning technology, giving them a broader choice of employment upon graduation.
- “Fellowships,” Society for Advanced Body Imaging (SABI): SABI provides a list of fellowships, categorized by state and institution, that allow students to get specialized training in the CT field, including exposure to PET-CT, Cardiac CT, CT colonography, and 3D CT.
- “Cardiac Computed Tomography,” American Heart Association: Upon completing education as a CT technologist, students may want to go on to specialize in cardiac CT scans. This article from the American Heart Association explains getting one of these specialized cardiac scans.
Become a Diagnostic Medical Sonographer
While you may imagine diagnostic medical sonographers as doing little more than examining expectant mothers, the truth is that ultrasound technology is helpful for many different medical applications.
Diagnostic medical sonographers, also known as ultrasound technicians, use ultrasound machines to create images of a patient’s internal organs and tissues. They may specialize in a specific body part, such as abdominal or breast sonographers, or a particular field, such as obstetric and gynecologic sonographers. Some general responsibilities include:
- Preparing patients for the ultrasound procedure
- Maintaining ultrasound equipment
- Interpreting images with physicians
- Keeping detailed patient records
According to the BLS, diagnostic medical sonographers are expected to be in extremely high demand through 2031, with the field adding 14,700 new jobs in the U.S. over that time at an increase of 15 percent (BLS 2022). The median annual wage in the field is $77,740, with the lowest-paid 10 percent earning less than $59,640 and the highest-paid 10 percent earning more than $101,650.
Diagnostic medical sonographers may earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in the field, but some also go through non-degree certification programs. In most cases, graduates will need to become certified by the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS) or the ARRT before seeking employment. However, some employers will hire new graduates, provided they become certified within a specific amount of time.
The following links provide a thorough overview of this diagnostic imaging career and the opportunities therein.
- “Apply for an Examination,” ARDMS: Learn the specific prerequisites for sitting for an exam to become certified by the ARDMS in any specialty.
- “Sonographer Testimonials in the Field,” ARDMS: This resource shares quotes from working sonographers about what it means to pursue a career in this particular diagnostic imaging field.
- “Diagnostic Medical Sonography,” SAIT Polytechnic: For a change of pace, check out this brief video that explains the technology and training involved in becoming a diagnostic medical sonographer.
- “Diagnostic Medical Sonographer: Reviews and Advice,” U.S. News & World Report: This career report card gives a good sense of what this career is like and how happy people choose this path.
Become an MRI Technologist
For those who may already be radiologic technologists but looking to further their careers in diagnostic imaging, becoming an MRI technologist may be a good path. These professionals work with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines to take more detailed images of patients than are available through X-rays alone. Daily, MRI technologists may be expected to:
- Administer contrast dye to patients
- Properly position the MRI machine
- Ensure proper maintenance of the MRI machine
- Use judgment in setting devices and patients
- Adhere to hygienic standards
- Have a thorough knowledge of human anatomy and physiology
Most MRI technologists are certified as radiologic technologists and then gain professional experience working with MRI machines before earning that certification. However, there are specific training programs geared solely toward MRI technologists.
MRI technologists have more experience than radiologic technologists. Therefore, there are fewer of them, and demand is high. According to the BLS, demand for MRI technologists is expected to increase by 7 percent from 2021 to 2031, with 3,000 more jobs available over that time. Salaries are also higher, with the median annual wage for MRI technologists at $77,360, the lower 10 percent being $59,110, and the upper 10 percent earning more than $100,870.
Like radiologic technologists, MRI technologists are certified by the ARRT. Applicants for certification who are not already certified in another area by the ARRT must have completed an academic degree in MRI technology at an accredited institution, such as an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, before sitting for the certification exam.
Those already certified as radiologic technologists, nuclear medicine technologists, radiation therapists, or sonographers do not need the academic degree requirement. However, the following links can help to provide a more detailed overview of the MRI technologist career:
- “Magnetic Resonance Imaging Technologist Program,” University of Utah School of Medicine: As part of their radiology department, UU offers a certificate in MRI technology. This page provides a thorough overview of the career for prospective students.
- “Magnetic Resonance Imaging Technologists,” O*NET OnLine: Learn standard job titles for MRI technologists and review the different technologies they use daily. Additionally, O*NET provides helpful information on state-to-state demand for the occupation, including projected openings and salary ranges for each area.
- “Documents and Guidelines,” Society for Cardiovascular Magnetic Resonance: Those interested in specializing in the MRI field may find it helpful to review the documentation for the Society for Cardiovascular Magnetic Resonance, which focuses specifically on the diagnostic imaging of the cardiovascular system.
- “Magnetic Resonance Imaging Certification,” The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists: Review the specific requirements for sitting for the certification exam for MRI technologists, which are different from those for radiologic technologists.
- “How Do I Pursue Becoming an MRI Technician?” Seattle Post-Intelligencer: This local Seattle paper provides a course of study for high school graduates to pursue an MRI tech career upon receiving their diploma.
Become a Nuclear Medicine Technologist
While nuclear medicine technologists still focus on taking images of internal organs and systems, they are also responsible for administering radioactive drugs that help with possible trouble areas. Nuclear medicine technologists then work closely with physicians and specialists to interpret the images.
- Counseling patients on imaging procedures
- Protecting themselves and patients from unnecessary exposure to the chemicals with which they work
- Scanner maintenance
- Patient monitoring
Like other diagnostic imaging careers, the outlook for nuclear medicine technologists is quite good. According to the BLS, an estimated 300 nuclear medicine jobs are expected to be added between 2021 and 2031, representing a slower-than-average growth rate of 2 percent (BLS 2022).
Pay for nuclear medicine technologists is also quite competitive among other diagnostic imaging careers, with the median wage being $78,760 per year. The lowest-paid 10 percent earned less than $60,550, while the highest-paid 10 percent earned more than $105,530. This is significantly higher than the annual mean wage for all occupations at $58,260 (BLS May 2021) and the median pay for all healthcare practitioners and technical occupations, which is $45,760 (BLS May 2021).
There are several educational pathways that prospective nuclear medicine technologists can take. Some can find employment with only an associate’s degree in nuclear medical technology, but many go so far as to earn a bachelor’s degree from a college or university. In addition, some hospitals offer certification programs for those individuals who have already completed an educational program in radiology.
Some states require that nuclear medicine technologists be licensed within the state, while others accept national certification, and others do not require any specific certification. Instead, certification is available from the ARRT or the Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board (NMTCB).
The following links can help shed light on the reality of becoming a nuclear medicine technologist and should make it easier to decide whether this might be the proper diagnostic imaging career for you:
- “Nuclear Medicine Technologists,” O*NET OnLine: As with a host of other professions, O*NET OnLine provides a good overview of what a nuclear medicine technologist may be called, what technologies they are expected to know, and what geographies have the highest demand for this particular career.
- “Nuclear Medicine Technology,” Mayo Clinic: The Mayo School of Health Sciences gives a good description of the field as part of the application process for their Minnesota-based training program.
- “Nuclear Medicine Technology Education Programs,” NMTCB: The certification board provides links to training programs that have been certified by either the Joint Review Committee on Educational Programs in Nuclear Medicine Technology or the Canadian Association of Medical Radiation Technologists.
- “What Is a Nuclear Medicine Technologist,” U.S. News & World Report: Nuclear medicine technologists rank #27 on the list of “Best Health Care Support Jobs,” providing links to open nuclear medicine technologist positions.
- “How to Earn Nuclear Medicine Technology Credentials,” ARRT: A complete guide to the education, ethics, and examination requirements for ARRT certification as a nuclear medicine technologist.
- “Technologist – Careers in Nuclear Medicine,” Society of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging: Review the role of the nuclear medicine technologist, including information on available educational programs and different career paths technologists can take.
Become a Radiologic Technologist
A radiologic technologist is trained in some of the most prevalent imaging technology, namely x-ray machines. This career involves using these machines on patients and maintaining them to ensure they stay in good working order over time. Other responsibilities that radiologic technologists may have include:
- Following physician orders
- Protecting areas not to be imaged from radiation
- Taking patient history
- Physically moving and adjusting the patient for proper imagine
- Keeping detailed records
The BLS shows that radiologic technologists are in high demand. In 2021, there were 222,800 employed in the U.S., and by 2031 there are expected to be 14,100 more (BLS 2022). That represents an increase of 6 percent, which is faster than the average for all jobs in the country. Although specific salaries depend on several factors, the median salary for a radiologic technologist in the U.S. is $61,370 per year. The lowest 10th percentile earned less than $46,850, while the top 10th percentile earned more than $94,880.
To qualify for a position in radiologic technology, an associate’s degree is the minimum required education, although postsecondary training includes certificate programs and bachelor’s degrees.
Many community colleges offer training programs in radiologic technology. However, the right program for radiologic technologists depends on what job they hope to find and how much time and tuition they invest. Prospective radiologic technologists should look for training programs that have been accredited by the Joint Review Committee (JRCERT). In addition, many positions require radiologic technologists to be certified by the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists.
Check out the links below for more resources on this diagnostic imaging career.
- “Radiologic and MRI Technologists,” BLS: Discover the most common paths to becoming a radiologic technologist, employment opportunities, and information on related occupations and careers.
- “Radiologic Technologists,” O*NET OnLine: Learn more about the typical day-to-day tasks of a radiologic technologist as well as the specific tools and technology required to do the job each day.
- “ARRT Certification,” The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists: Review the educational and ethical prerequisites for taking the ARRT certification exam on the official ARRT site.
- “FAQs,” Joint Review Committee on Education in Radiologic Technology: Learn the guidelines for becoming accredited by JRCERT to fully understand what it means to attend an accredited institution for training.
- “Radiologic Technologist Careers,” American Society of Radiologic Technologists: Resources for all points in the radiologic technologist career path, including job listing, career planning, and a career requirements overview.
- “Associations and Societies,” Radiological Society of North America: A list of many professional associations and societies available for those in the radiology field, from the American Board of Radiology to the Society of Uroradiology and everything in between.