John A. Bilello, PhD
Careers in clinical laboratories involve managing and providing diagnostic services to aid in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease. The performance of clinical testing and reporting accurate results can provide clinicians with data essential for therapeutic guidance. An estimated 70 percent of a physician's medical decisions on any one patient are a direct result of laboratory test data. In addition to providing clinical test results, laboratory scientists can also offer health informatics and other data supporting biotechnology research and development.
Medical laboratory science encompasses two distinct career paths: (1) medical laboratory scientists (MLS) and (2) medical laboratory technicians (MLT or MT). Multiple sub-specialties (e.g., microbiologist, histologist) exist within the MLS and MT groupings. While both MLS and MTs perform tests for clinicians, hospitals, and health care services, laboratory scientists are more highly trained and perform more complex tests and laboratory procedures than technicians.
Skills required for medical scientists and technicians alike include:
- Attention to detail
- The ability to compare the benefits of different solutions to problems
- The ability to operate sophisticated equipment
- Manual dexterity (ability to handle small tubes and needles)
- Stamina (because technical staff spend much of the day on their feet)
Job outlook and salary for medical laboratory scientists
Employment of medical laboratory scientists was projected to grow 12 percent from 2016 to 2026. Similarly, the need for medical laboratory technicians is projected to grow 14 percent of the same period, that is faster than the average (7 percent) for all occupations. Depending upon the state, degree, licensure, and specialization, pay scales can vary. By way of example, salaries in California are about 25 percent higher on average than other states. According to Glassdoor, the average base salary for a medical laboratory scientist is $54,452 per year (ranging from $44k to $66k).
Duties for medical laboratory scientists and technicians
Medical laboratory technicians perform necessary laboratory procedures, such as testing specimens and recording results. MTs work with diagnostic and analytical equipment, including analyzers, which measure chemicals and characteristics of biological samples, and automated assay equipment, such as those designed for immunoassays. Medical technicians typically work under medical laboratory scientists and may receive instructions from physicians or other medical professionals. Like many employees in the medical field, they may work different shifts, odd hours, or be on-call. In addition to performing routine laboratory work, they may collect samples directly from patients.
The duties of a MLS include complex analysis of microscopic, immunologic, biologic, bacteriologic, hematologic, and chemical tests, and their results. Medical or clinical laboratory scientists usually oversee MTs’ work in addition to their duties. As would be expected, they may perform more complicated tasks. Depending upon the laboratory size and remit, lab scientists may be a generalist or specialized in specific areas (e.g., blood banking, molecular biology, or pathology). An MLS may focus their activities on samples that are diagnostic challenges, where their training and experience permits them to select appropriate tests and procedures. An MLS would also be involved with monitoring programs that ensure data accuracy.
Educational requirements for medical laboratory scientists and technicians
Medical laboratory technicians often complete an associate's degree program in clinical laboratory science (two years). There are colleges and universities that offer programs for medical laboratory technicians. The coursework in these schools address both the theoretical and practical aspects of each of the major laboratory disciplines. Even though very many community colleges offer courses for MTs, finding an accredited school with an active program can be challenging. Organizations such as the National Accrediting Agency For Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS) or the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) can be useful sources of information on whether a program is accredited. NICHE.com provides a list of the top colleges for medical technicians. Ranking by NICHE was based on rigorous analysis of academic, admissions, financial, and student life data from the US Department of Education along with reviews from students and alumni. As an alternative to an associate degree, a limited number of one-year certificate programs are available from hospitals, the Armed Forces and vocational or technical schools. The admission requirements for those certificate programs vary, but high school students should have a diploma and course work in chemistry, biology, and math.
Medical laboratory scientists typically need a bachelor's degree (four years), including courses in chemistry, biology, microbiology, math, and statistics. The introduction of sophisticated automated analytical instruments into clinical laboratories requires laboratory scientists to make decisions about the validity of data to be used by physicians in the clinic. Such data analysis requires a knowledge of normal and abnormal physiology, permitting the correlation of laboratory data to a specific disease. Medical scientists require an understanding of individual test principles as well as training on the calibration and maintenance of instrumentation. During their degree program, laboratory scientists are trained to work in clinical chemistry, hematology, immunology, and microbiology, with various sub-specialties in each of these significant areas. Course work also includes test implementation, laboratory management, laboratory procedures, and quality assurance controls, and personnel supervision. In addition to NAACLS and CAAHEP, information on top bachelor's degree programs can be found here.
Licenses and certifications
According to the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science (ASCLS), state licensure is required in 11 states: California, Hawaii, Florida, New York, North Dakota, Tennessee, Louisiana, Nevada, West Virginia, Montana, Georgia, as well as Puerto Rico. The licensing process is different in each state but typically requires proof of certification, education, and fingerprinting. Any aspiring MLS who plans to work in a state requiring licensure should be sure to research that specific state's requirements before enrolling in an MLS program to ensure they can meet all standards upon graduation.
Although certification is not required to enter the occupation in all cases, employers typically prefer to hire certified medical scientists and technicians. Medical laboratory scientists and technicians can obtain a general certification as MLS or MT or a certification in a specialty, such as hematology or molecular biology. Credentialing institutions such as ASCP or AMT require that technologists complete an accredited education program to qualify to sit for an exam.
Steps to becoming a medical laboratory scientist
- Step 1: Complete high school diploma or GED. Almost all four-year bachelor’s degrees require completion of one of these. Course work in chemistry, biology, and math will be particularly relevant.
- Step 2: Complete a bachelor’s degree. These are typically four-year programs that include courses in chemistry, biology, microbiology, physiology, genetics, math, and statistics. Certain schools offer bachelor’s programs specifically geared toward medical laboratory science.
- Step 3: Obtain a license. Requirements vary by state; research the licensing process for the state in which you plan to work.
- Step 4: Obtain certification. Employees often prefer to hire a certified MLS, even though certification is not always a requirement.
- Step 5: Find an entry-level position. An entry-level position will provide the experience needed to eventually apply for more specialized MLS jobs, such as toxicology, microbiology, or biobanking.
The bottom line
Lastly, the range of career opportunities available to MLS and MTs will grow as medical diagnostics and treatment become more specialized, sophisticated, and crucial to keeping an aging population healthy.