Physicians, nurses and other front-line clinicians are the most visible parts of the health care system, but there are hundreds of thousands of clinical and medical laboratory technicians working behind the scenes to provide those front-line workers with the information they need to make accurate diagnoses.
Clinical and medical lab technicians and technologists work in hospitals and diagnostic laboratories, running tests on samples collected by medical staff. There's a slight difference between the two types of lab tech — technologists are typically able to perform and oversee complex laboratory procedures, while technicians are responsible for simpler tests and usually work under the supervision of a technologist or lab manager.
Employment of lab technicians and technologists is on the rise, as well, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor. Job opportunities in this field are projected to increase by 11 percent by 2028, a rate of growth that's much faster than the national average for the job market as a whole.
Read on to get more info about the career environment for clinical laboratory technologists and technicians, find out how a college degree program in the field typically unfolds and pick up some tips for boosting your career prospects after graduation.
Although the work tends to be very hands-on, advances in distance education have made it possible for students to attend lab technician school 100 percent online if they choose. Some institutions may also offer programs that feature a hybrid of online and in-person instruction.
The majority of programs in the clinical laboratory science field lead to a bachelor's degree, which is cited by the BLS as the minimum level of education necessary to start a career in the field. Programs at the graduate and post-graduate levels also exist, for experienced technologists looking to advance into research and academic work, but an advanced degree isn't typically required for entry-level positions.
In general, these programs are designed to provide students with the technical skills necessary to work with sensitive laboratory equipment as well as the knowledge of biology and chemistry required to understand testing methods and effectively communicate results to nurses and physicians.
How long does a bachelor's clinical laboratory science degree program online take?
The typical bachelor's degree program takes around four years to complete, if you enroll with no prior college experience on your academic record. Students who have earned credits previously, through an associate degree program or partial bachelor's in another subject, may be able to complete their clinical laboratory science degree in as little as 16-24 months.
What are the requirements to start a bachelor's clinical laboratory science degree program online?
If you're planning to enter your clinical lab science program as a first-year student, you typically need to provide a copy of your high school diploma or equivalent (GED, TASC, etc.) and official copies of any standardized test scores requested by your school's admissions department. Abbreviated programs that require previous college experience might ask for your degree and transcripts instead of a diploma and test scores.
Why earn a bachelor's clinical laboratory science degree online?
Online study can cause less disruption to your everyday schedule than a traditional classroom-based program. If you're considering a career change but don't want to give up your current job until you're qualified for a new line of work, look into online options that allow you the flexibility to attend lectures and complete assignments at your own pace.
Bachelor's degrees for medical laboratory technologists and technicians contain a fairly substantial general education component, which tends to make up a good portion of your first program year. During your second year, courses typically begin to focus more on the important foundational topics of lab science in professional and academic environments.
Upper division (years three and four)
General education courses that go beyond the basics, such as advanced chemistry, immunology and microbiology, often take place during the third and fourth years of your program. Upper-division students also learn about healthcare administration and delivery, as well as studying medical testing methodologies such as urinalysis and clinical microscopy.
Some colleges and universities offer concentrations within their clinical laboratory science degrees, for students with the aim of focusing their career path on a specific area of the field. Here are a few concentrations you might see in your school's catalog:
This division of clinical lab science concentrates on the study of blood and bodily fluids, focusing on hematology, immunology, microbiology and molecular diagnostics.
This concentration places its focus on preparation and testing of tissue samples, rather than fluid samples, to aid in the diagnosis of disease processes.
A concentration in cytogenics supplements training in clinical lab science techniques with study of the relationship between disease, heredity and human chromosomes.
More than 330,000 people work as clinical laboratory technicians and technologists, according to BLS data, and over 35,000 new positions are expected to be added to the workforce over the next several years. Employers tend to prefer candidates with four-year degrees in the field, but some entry-level technician jobs may be available before you officially finish your bachelor's.
Positions for laboratory managers are on the rise as well, although they typically list several years of experience in the field as one of the qualifications for employment. We go into some detail about clinical lab science jobs in the section below.
What do clinical laboratory technicians do?
Working mainly in hospitals and off-site diagnostic testing centers, clinical laboratory technicians typically conduct simple analyses and ensure that equipment is in the proper shape for effective testing. Here's a short list of the type of duties that a clinical laboratory technician might perform on an ordinary workday:
How to become a clinical laboratory technician
The responsibilities of a clinical laboratory technician are typically less substantial than those of their more experienced counterparts, so it's far from impossible to find a job in the field before fully earning your bachelor's degree. The Occupational Information Network (O*NET) reports that 31 percent of clinical and medical laboratory technicians employed in 2020 held just an associate degree, and another 10 percent had a college diploma, certificate or other non-degree award.
Depending on the state where you live, a license may be required before you can officially work in a clinical laboratory. Contact your State Board of Health or Board of Occupational Licensing for more info.
What does a clinical laboratory technologist do?
Clinical laboratory technologists perform a similar set of on-the-job duties, albeit at a typically higher level of responsibility, to the technicians described above. They run complex analyses of blood, fluid or tissue and oversee the more elementary processes conducted by lab technicians.
Clinical and medical laboratory technologists may also specialize in a particular area of the field. Here's some info on specializations that might be available to you:
How to become a clinical laboratory technologist?
Due to the elevated level of clinical responsibility in technologist positions, it's important to earn a bachelor's degree if you're planning to pursue this career without any previous professional experience in a medical lab environment. O*NET reports that nearly 60 percent of clinical laboratory technologists active in 2020 had bachelor's degrees, with roughly 5 percent holding master's degrees.
Accuracy and precision are extremely important in these careers, in terms of testing as well as reporting results, and you should have a high level of comfort working with sensitive equipment. Remember to check with your state's occupational authority to find out about licensing requirements.
What does a laboratory manager do?
Most medium- to large-sized hospitals and testing centers have at least one laboratory manager on staff to handle the administrative side of the lab and supervise the corps of technicians and technologists. Here's a short list of responsibilities that typically fall to lab managers:
How to become a laboratory manager?
The conventional route to a position in laboratory management involves several years of employment as a clinical laboratory scientist, technologist or technician, and often requires an advanced degree. According to O*NET, around one in six laboratory managers holds a master's degree, while more than 25 percent of those working in 2020 had earned a Ph.D. or other post-graduate degree.
A good professional record and several years of service seems to be more important than a high level of education, however — around 40 percent of active laboratory managers hold just a bachelor's.
The American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) offers this entry-level certification for students and graduates looking to get their start in the clinical laboratory science field.
Requirements: An associate degree or 60 semester hours of college credit from an accredited institution, as well as three years of clinical experience or completion of an equivalent training program.
Exam Format: 100 multiple-choice questions with a 2.5-hour time limit.
How long does the certification last?: Holders must renew their certification every three years by completing 36 points on the ASCP's Credential Maintenance Program (CMP).
This intermediate ASC certification can help you demonstrate to employers that you have the knowledge and skills necessary to take on the additional responsibilities of a technologist's position.
Requirements: Several paths to eligibility exist, but all include a bachelor's degree and most require some amount of work experience in a clinical laboratory setting.
Exam Format: 100 multiple-choice questions with a 2.5-hour time limit.
How long does the certification last?: Three years, with renewal contingent on the ASCP's CMP system.
Also offered by the ASCP, this credential can certify you as capable of handling the various administrative and clinical challenges that come with managing a lab facility.
Requirements: Many sets of eligibility criteria include a graduate degree or higher, but bachelor's degree holders can qualify with four or more years of experience in clinical laboratory supervision or a valid ACSP scientist certification like the MLS described above.
Exam Format: 90 multiple-choice questions with a 2.5-hour time limit.
How long does the certification last?: Renewal comes up every three years and requires 36 points on the ASCP CMP.
The increased earning potential that can come with a clinical laboratory science degree tends to make up for the cost of college, but it's always a good idea to look into available financial aid programs. We've got a short list of options below, as well as a wider range of info in our guide to scholarships.
Applicant must be enrolled or accepted at an accredited college or university, demonstrate academic qualifications and financial need, and be a U.S. resident.
Applicants must be currently enrolled or plan to be enrolled in a science related degree program. Scholarship is open to undergraduate and graduate level science related programs and all science related majors are eligible (biology, chemistry, social sciences, environmental sciences, engineering, etc.). Scholarship is awarded once in the spring and once in the fall.
Applicant must be a senior who has a minimum 3.0 GPA and who has demonstrated the finest qualities of leadership through participation in campus organizations and has rendered service of significant benefit to the campus community.
Selection is based upon financial need, career objectives within the next five to 10 years, community involvement, community background, and academic performance. Recipient commits to a one-year service obligation service practicing direct patient care in a medically underserved area (MUA) of California.
Applicant must demonstrate community leadership and have met the award criteria established by the Alumni Association's Scholarship Committee. Applicant must have completed 12 credits last semester and 24 credits at Bridgewater State College as of December 31. Applicants who have transferred from Massachusetts Community Colleges, Dean College, or Quincy College are eligible to apply.
Applicants must be at least 13 years of age, have a minimum 3.0 GPA and be a U.S. citizen. Students must be studying or planning on studying a medicine related field. Students must be at least a high school senior. AvaCare Medical offers an annual scholarship for an inspiring act of kindness. Selection is based on judge scores as well as public votes. Submission may be in the form of a blog post, an image or a short video clip. Finalists are selected based on content, creativity and quality of work.
Applicant must have a minimum cumulative high school GPA of 3.0 and be in the upper half of their graduating class. Applicant must also provide an essay on major selection.
Becoming a member of a professional organization can provide a range of advantages, including specialized continued education resources and access to job boards specific to your profession. Take a look at these four organizations for clinical laboratory science technicians and technologists: