How to Become a Sonographer

Why would someone want to become a sonographer? Besides the fact that median pay in 2013 was $66,410, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and that entrance to the occupation typically requires as little as an associate degree, there can be many additional benefits. According to the website of the Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonography (SDMS), some of these include:

  • Working as an integral member of a larger healthcare team

  • Creating high-tech images for physicians and doctors to use in diagnosing illness

  • Working one-on-one with patients who range from the healthy to the seriously ill

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. In fact, the BLS reports that sonography is often the first imaging test that is performed to help track down a suspected disease.

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 OnLine. 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. A sonographer’s job doesn’t stop there, however. When the images have been obtained or during the process of obtaining them, sonographers need to check them to ensure they are high quality and of the specific areas needed.

Skills and Traits of the Successful Sonographer

There are many traits important to becoming an effective sonographer. According to a May 2013 report from the 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 are seeing 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, they are often on their feet much of their work day, which can be tiring.

  • Possessing interpersonal skills: Since sonographers work so closely with patients, sometime 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.

Role Requirements

You may want to quickly know how to become a sonographer, but the steps may not be as difficult as you think. According to the BLS, both associate degree and bachelor’s degree programs in sonography are available. There are also some certificate-based programs, but these are primarily geared at those already employed in related healthcare occupations, such as that of a radiation therapist, according to the BLS. Interestingly, O*NET OnLine shows that 47 percent of respondents working as sonographers reported having an associate degree and just 17 percent reported having a bachelor’s education. Another 19 percent 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 new-found skills and knowledge in an actual healthcare setting, often under the supervision of an experience professional. Whatever postsecondary program you choose, you might want to check and ensure that it is accredited through the Commission on Accreditation on Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP), or, in Canada, 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 in a non-for-profit founded in 1975 to ensure patient safety and quality service through its certification process.

After students have completed a sonography program, they can prepare to work toward certification. There are at least two different organizations offering certification, which include the American Registration of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) and the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS). The ARRT offers two pathways to its certification in sonography, one of which includes recently completing a sonography program, while the ARDMS offers five different 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.

As of 2015, the AART requires students to have completed at least an associate degree to be eligible for a certifying exam while 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. States may also have various requirements about sonographers becoming employed and working there. According to the American Society of Echocardiography (ASE), only two states, New Mexico and Oregon, have established licensing processes for medical sonographers. Licensing, according to its 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 is 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.

Different Paths: Steps to Becoming a Sonographer

As mentioned earlier, there are many different ways to enter the sonography field. We’ll take a closer look at some of these now:

  • Certificate: One path to becoming a sonographer is by obtaining a certificate available at the postsecondary level, most often offered through vo-tech schools or community colleges. However, like the program available at Rochester Institute of Technology, in Rochester, N.Y. certificate programs can be quite long in length, 18 months, almost approaching the time spent to obtain an associate degree. Clinical hours are also included in these certificate-based programs, giving students, at Rochester at least, the opportunity to rotate through two different clinical sites.

  • Associate degree: Most associate degrees take at least two years to complete, and schools, such as Bellevue College, in Bellevue, Wash., may present students with a number of areas for specialization. For example, three specialty tracks, one of which must be declared at the time of application, are offered at the school: General; Vascular Technology; and Echocardiography. A shorter certification of completion is also available in breast ultrasound. Students also need to clinical hours in these programs, of which four practicums are required at Bellevue, and even do coursework during the summer.

  • Bachelor’s degree: 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. That school offers a distance-learning program that is based on students transferring in existing credits toward their degree. To be eligible, though, students must already be Registered Diagnostic Sonographers through the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS) in Abdomen and OB/GYN. 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 Morehead, Kentucky, students can complete a 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.

  • Post-bachelor’s certificates: 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, in Seattle, students with a bachelor’s degree in a related science can complete a minimum 44 credits to earn a post-bachelor’s certificate.

  • Master’s degree: Students can also find educational options available at the master’s level, such as the Master’s of Health Science with an option for medical sonography offered at Nova Southeastern University, in Fort Lauderdale-Davie, Florida. This program is actually comprised of a bachelor’s degree in medical sonography and a master’s degree in Health Science. The 37-credit program includes an internship, research methods course, and a practicum.

Advanced education might be useful to allied health professionals who are interested in entering administration, education, or research or even in becoming sales representative or consultants. As well, education at or beyond the associate level can allow healthcare professional 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), and 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, it may be important to decide whether there is a particular area you like to work in or if your prefer to work with specific patient populations, such as youngsters.

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.