Becoming a Sonographer - Step-by-Step Guide to Education & Certifications
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Why would someone want to become a sonographer? There are many reasons why this is a desirable career path. For example, the average annual salary is generous at $75,780 (BLS May 2019)—especially for an occupation that typically requires only an associate degree.
According to the Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonography (SDMS), sonographers enjoy working as an integral member of a larger healthcare team, creating high-tech images to aid physicians and doctors in diagnosing illnesses, and working one-on-one with healthy and seriously ill patients. In short, sonographers are critical in providing a bigger picture perspective of a patient’s health to confirm whether or not further medical care is needed.
Medical sonographers use a variety of tools to create images of specific parts of the body, including organs and tissues, which may include the abdomen, blood vessels, breasts, heart, and female reproductive systems, according to the SDMS. These images can be important in detecting a variety of diseases, including heart and vascular disease, which according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is the leading cause of death in the United States. In fact, the BLS reports that sonography is often the first imaging test that is performed to help diagnose specific diseases.
Some of the technologies sonographers use on the job range from A-Mode ultrasound machines to pulsed-wave Doppler ultrasound units, according to O*NET (2020). They also typically use a small tool called a transducer that is placed upon a patient’s skin in the area to be imaged. The transducer bounces high-frequency sound waves off the area being imaged, allowing a computer to build pictures from there.
However, a sonographer’s job doesn’t stop there. When the images have been obtained or during the process of obtaining them, sonographers need to check images to ensure they are high-quality and focused on the specific areas needed.
Discover what to expect from a career as a sonographer, including how to join this high-growth career.
Sonographer Skills and Responsibilities
There are many traits important to becoming an effective sonographer. According to a May 2019 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), these include:
- Being detail-oriented: Sonographers must be able to complete very exact work to obtain the images they need.
- Having good hand-eye coordination: Sonographers must be able to focus on what they see on the screen, but also be able to move the transducer around on the patient’s body at the same time.
- Having physical stamina: Not only must sonographers be able to help lift and move around people, but sonographers are also often on their feet much of their workday.
- Possessing interpersonal skills: Since sonographers work so closely with patients, sometimes in uncomfortable situations, they must be able to put them at ease, particularly to be able to obtain the precise kinds of images they need.
- Understanding technical equipment: Most of the tools that medical sonographers use are technologically-based—and not just the physical pieces themselves, but also the software and programs that are recording the sound waves being transmitted.
What Kind of Degree Does a Sonographer Need?
There many educational pathways for becoming a sonographer. According to the BLS, both associate degree and bachelor’s degree programs in sonography are available career pathways. There are also some certificate-based programs, and some colleges and hospitals also offer one-year certificate programs, according to the BLS.
Advanced education might be useful to allied health professionals who are interested in entering administration, education, or research or even in becoming sales representatives or consultants. Interestingly, O*NET (2020) profiles three unique education pathways for sonographers:
- 47 percent of respondents working as sonographers reported having an associate degree
- 17 percent of sonographers reported having a bachelor’s education
- 19 percent of sonographers reported having a postsecondary certificate
Students are typically required to complete some type of clinical hours in their program, which gives them the opportunity to test out their newfound skills and knowledge in an actual healthcare setting, often under the supervision of an experienced professional.
Prospective students in the United States are advised to see out an accredited sonography program through the Commission on Accreditation on Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) and students in Canada are advised to research accredited programs listed with the Canadian Medical Association (CMA). The SDMS also recommends that students look for a program that follows the minimum curricular standards set by the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS), which is a non-for-profit founded in 1975 to ensure patient safety and quality service through its certification process.
Overall, regional and nationally-accredited schools also provide degrees that meet high standards of educational rigor and quality.
Step-by-Step Education Guide to Becoming a Sonographer
As mentioned earlier, there are many different pathways to becoming a sonographer. Below is a the common educational pathways, including a breakdown of three options for popular first steps:
- Step 1a: Earn a certificate (12 to 18 months). One path to becoming a sonographer is by obtaining a certificate available at the postsecondary level through vocational tech schools or community colleges. For example, Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) provides an 18-month certificate program. Clinical hours are included in these, which give students the opportunity to rotate through two different clinical sites.
- Step 1b: Earn an associate degree (18 to 24 months). Most associate degrees take at least two years to complete. Schools such as Bellevue College in Washington may present students with a number of areas for specialization. For example, three specialty tracks are offered at the school: general; vascular technology; and echocardiography. A shorter certificate of completion is also available in breast ultrasound with this CAAHEP-accredited program. Students also fulfill clinical hours in these programs, of which four practicums are required. Summer coursework is also available.
- Step 1c: Earn a bachelor’s degree (four years). A bachelor’s degree may be right for those who are already working as a registered sonographer and want to advance their career, according to Oregon Tech Online. This regionally-accredited school offers a distance-learning program that is based on students transferring in existing credits toward their degree. To be eligible, students must already be registered diagnostic sonographers through the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS). While other completion programs may also be available online, students can also find bachelor’s degree programs in sonography available on-campus. For example, at Morehead State University in Kentucky, students can complete a CAAHEP-accredited bachelor’s degree in imaging sciences with a concentration in medical sonography. Clinical practice hours in this program can average 30 to 36 hours per week.
- Step 2: Earn a post-bachelor’s certificate (optional, two years). A number of post-baccalaureate certificates in medical sonography are available to students who already have a bachelor’s degree. For example, at Seattle University, a regionally-accredited school, students with a bachelor’s degree in a related science can complete a minimum of 44 credits including a clinical internship to earn a post-bachelor’s certificate in diagnostic ultrasound.
- Step 3: Earn a master’s degree (optional, two years). Students with the highest leadership or managerial ambitions can also pursue a master’s degree, such as the master’s of health science with an option for medical sonography offered at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. This regionally-accredited program comprises a bachelor’s degree in medical sonography and a master’s degree in health science. The 37-credit program includes an internship, a research methods course, and a practicum.
Education at or beyond the associate degree level can allow healthcare professionals to pursue niche areas of work in sonography. According to the SDMS, some of these areas of specialization include:
- Abdomen (AB)
- Breast (BR)
- Cardiac (AE)
- Musculoskeletal (MSK)
- Neurosonology (NE)
- Obstetrics/ gynecology (OB)
- Vascular technology (VT)
Some of the specialty exams offered through the ARDMS in certifying fields include fetal echocardiography (FE), pediatric sonography (PS), and pediatric echocardiography (PE). Because a sonographer will see approximately 109,500 patients over the course of a 25-year career, according to the ARDMS, sonographers should take time to consider whether they prefer to work with specific patient populations, such as pediatrics, obstetrics, or another targeted patient population.
Sonographer State Licensing & Professional Certification
After students have completed a sonography program, they can prepare to work toward sonographer certification. There are two main organizations offering certification:
- American Registration of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT)
- American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS)
The ARRT offers two pathways to its certification in sonography: 1) the primary pathway, which includes recently completing a sonography program, and 2) the post-primary pathway for those who are currently certified and registered with the ARRT and are seeking additional credentials. The ARRT has 15 available credentials that cover a variety of medical disciplines such as mammography, bone densitometry, and vascular sonography. Certification is valid for one year and proof of continuing education is required for renewal.
By comparison, the ARDMS offers five different certification credentials, ranging from registered diagnostic medical sonographer (RDMS) to registered vascular technologist (RVT). Different exams are required for each of the various credentials available through ARDMS. The ARDMS recertification program has been paused since January 2020, and while the exact details are currently unknown, the recertification program will not include retaking the initial credentialing examination.
As of 2020, the ARRT requires students to have completed at least an associate degree to be eligible for a certification exam. The ARDMS, which has certified nearly 90,000 professionals, features an interactive tool on its website to allow new applicants to determine their eligibility status.
As for sonographer licensing, states may also have specific requirements. According to the American Society of Echocardiography (ASE), only four states (New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Oregon) have established licensing processes for medical sonographers. Licensing, according to the ASE website, is that process in which legal permission is given to an individual “by a designated governmental authority to engage in an activity” and it can often require national certification.
The ARDMS reports that it expects other states to require licensing processes in the future and that it will stay abreast of these efforts and educate its members with updates through its website and e-newsletters.