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Clinical Laboratory Technologist and Technician Career, Job and Employment Information

Clinical Laboratory Technologist/Technician Career and Job Highlights

  • Typically a certificate or associate degree is required for clinical laboratory technicians; a bachelor’s degree in the life sciences or medical technology is usually required for clinical laboratory technologists.
  • An increase in the total population and advances in testing procedures will lead to job growth.
  • Superb employment opportunities await those interested in this field.

Laboratory Technologist/Technician Career Information and Job Description

Diseases are found, diagnosed, and cared for in part by clinical laboratory testing. Most of this testing is done by clinical laboratory technologists (a.k.a. medical technologists and clinical laboratory scientists) and clinical laboratory technicians (medical laboratory technicians or medical technicians).

Clinical laboratory technologists and technicians run a number of different tests on tissues, cells, and fluids—they match blood types; analyze drug concentration in patient blood; find bacteria, parasites, and viruses; and break down fluids’ chemical composition. They use a variety of instruments and tools to perform these tests, including microscopes, automated equipment, cell counters, and other equipment capable of doing many tests at a time. Technicians summarize data and send the information to doctors for their review. Analytical skills are increasing in importance as technology and automation decrease the need of hands-on skills by technicians.

Level of education and work experience are the biggest factors in determining which types of tests and the amount of analytical and decision-making work a clinical laboratory employee will perform.

While most clinical laboratory technologists hold a four-year degree in the life sciences or medical technology, relevant work experience may be substituted at least in part for education. Technologists perform microscopic, hematological, immunologic, biological, chemical, and bacteriological tests. They look for microorganisms like bacteria and parasites in body tissue and fluid. Technologists determine which chemicals a sample comprises, and match blood types for blood transfusions.

Some technologists fill supervisory roles. Most analyze test results, perform quality assurance, and develop tests.

In larger laboratories technologists usually specialize while technologists in small laboratories do a variety of tests. Clinical chemistry technologists make samples and determine the contents of body fluids. Microbiology technologists are specialists in identifying microorganisms. Immunohematology technologists, or blood bank technologists, are involved with blood used in transfusions at all its stages, including collection, determination of blood type, and preparation. Immunology technologists specialize in the human immune system. Cytotechnologists examine cells microscopically for early signs of cancer. Molecular biology technologists test cell samples using nucleic acid and complex protein testing techniques.

Clinical laboratory technicians do not perform tests of the same intricacy as technologists do. Technicians can prepare samples and use automated machinery to conduct some tests, and they may also do tests manually. They may also specialize in a specific field or perform a variety of tests. Phlebotomists specialize in blood collection; histotechnicians get tissue samples ready for doctors to analyze the samples through a microscope. Clinical laboratory technologists or managers usually supervise the activities of technicians.

Work environment and hours worked depends largely on the employer. Larger employers like big laboratories and hospitals employ technicians during day, evening, and night shifts, some working during holidays and weekends. Rotating shifts may be required in smaller labs, possibly requiring at times technicians to be on call overnight or on the weekends.

A technician’s work involves relatively few dangers when proper safety protocol is observed and protective gear, like gloves and goggles or masks, is utilized. Technicians receive training on how to deal with infectious or otherwise dangerous samples.

Much of a technician’s time is spent walking or standing in laboratories, which are usually kept clean and well lit. Fumes may be produces by samples of tissue and the chemical processes involved in some of the tests.

Laboratory Technologist Career Training and Job Qualifications

It is possible to substitute part of the education requirements for clinical laboratory technologists with relevant work experience and on the job training, though the norm is a bachelor’s degree focusing on the life sciences or medical technology. Medical technology programs are available through both universities and some hospitals.

Statistics, mathematics, biology, chemistry, microbiology, and more advanced classes in clinical skills constitute some of the required classes to obtain a bachelor’s degree in medical technology. Business management and computer courses are offered by several programs. The minimum requirement to carry out advanced clinical tests is an associate degree as mandated by the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Act.

Clinical laboratory technicians may be trained on the job, though the majority obtain their associate degree or certificate through a variety of means, including junior colleges, vocational schools, hospitals, or the military.

There are 467 programs accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS) for diagnostic molecular scientists, cytogenetic technologists, clinical laboratory technicians, clinical laboratory technologists, and histotechnologists and technicians. There are nearly 60 programs accredited by the NAACLS for clinical assisting and phlebotomy. The Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools and the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs are two additional and relevant accrediting organizations.

Laboratory technologists and technicians must be licensed to work in some states; information regarding obtaining the license is available from the State departments. Nongovernmental agencies, often a professional society, set standards and certify those who meet or exceed their standards. Most employers in this field require certification for new hires and for advancement. Each organization sets different standards and is funded by different agencies. Medical and clinical laboratory technologists and technicians may be certified by the Board of Registry of the American Association of Bioanalysts, the National Credentialing Agency for Laboratory Personnel, the American Medical Technologists, and the Board of Registry of the American Society for Clinical Pathology.

Because of the nature of the work lab personnel perform, attention to detail and the ability to work under pressure are essential characteristics. Computer skills are becoming increasingly important given the advances in medical technology. Problem solving, normal color vision, and manual dexterity are all highly valued skills in clinical labs.

Technicians may eventually become technologists by acquiring more education and experience. Technologists increase their advancement opportunities by earning advanced degrees in the life sciences or medical technology. Lab directors must have a doctorate as mandated by Federal statute, though some of that education requirement can be replaced by relevant experience. Experienced technologists can work with home test kit and equipment suppliers developing and marketing products. In laboratory settings they may be promoted to be laboratory mangers or chief clinical laboratory technologist.

Laboratory Technician Job and Employment Opportunities

Job growth through 2012 will be good due to the disparity between the number of job openings and prospective employees. Clinical laboratory personnel will find increased opportunities as the demand for clinical tests increases parallel with the population.

New testing techniques will spur more demand for trained personnel to conduct the tests; however, technological advances will also make it easier for people outside the laboratory, like patients and doctors, to perform the tests without the aid of laboratories. Organ and blood banks, doctors’ offices, and medical laboratories are projected to provide work for an increasing number of clinical laboratory employees, though hospital labs will continue to be the mainstay employer of technicians and technologists.

In addition to job growth, opportunities will be available as technicians and technologists quit, retire, or switch jobs.