Becoming a Cytotechnologist: Job Description & Salary Information

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What are the pros and cons of a cytotechnology career? Get real job descriptions, career prospects and salary information to see if becoming a cytotechnologist is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Cytotechnology Career

Cytotechnologists work in medical laboratories studying samples of patients' cells for abnormalities that could indicate cancer or other diseases. Check out the benefits and disadvantages to see if you want to pursue this career.

Pros of a Cytotechnology Career
Solid salary range ($40,750 - $60,560 annual average as of 2014)**
Opportunities to make potentially life-saving diagnoses*
Steady job growth (22% from 2012-2022)**
Can work almost anywhere (medical labs exist all across the nation)*
Independent working style involved with laboratory diagnostics*

Cons of a Cytotechnology Career
Requires highly-focused formal training in cytotechnology specialty*
Cytotechnologist licensure required in some states**
Pressure from making diagnoses that can save lives*
Safety precautions required when working with specimens**
Possible night or weekend shifts depending on laboratory hours**

Sources: *American Society for Clinical Pathology, **U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Essential Career Info

Job Description

Cytology is the microscopic study of cells. With knowledge of cellular structure and function, a cytotechnologist prepares a slide of a patient's cell sample and checks it for any signs of disease, conferring with a pathologist to make a diagnosis. The Pap smear is a common cytological test, but many types of cells can be reviewed for signs of cancer. As a cytotechnologist, you'll follow strict safety and sterilization procedures. You may find work in a medical lab in a hospital, private lab or doctor's office. Many cytotechnologists work a full-time 40-hour week, but you may also have evening or weekend shifts or overnight work at 24-hour facilities.

Salary Information and Career Prospects

According to the most recent information available, from 2010, the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) reported that cytotechnologists at the staff level made an average salary of about $61,000 (www.ascp.org). Keep in mind that the workers surveyed had an average of 16 years of experience, so entry-level workers may have lower earnings. The ASCP also reported that the highest-paying states for cytotechnologists at all levels were California, Washington, Minnesota, New York and Texas. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not have a specific category for this specialty career; however, medical and clinical technologists had an average annual salary of $60,560 in 2014, while medical and clinical technicians earned an annual salary of $40,750.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projected that employment for medical and clinical technologists would increase by 22% in the decade spanning 2012-2022, which is about as fast as average for all other occupations. This increase is mostly due to the growing aging population and its need for more diagnostic tests.

Education and Training Requirements

Generally, in medical labs, workers with associate's degrees are called technicians while those with bachelor's degrees are called technologists. The Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) accredits cytotechnology programs at the bachelor's degree, master's degree and post-baccalaureate certificate level. You could choose a Bachelor of Science in Cytotechnology program or, after earning your bachelor's degree in biology or a related field, attend a certificate or master's program in cytotechnology. You could also attend a general medical lab technology training program in which you would learn not only cytotechnological techniques but also a variety of other procedures used in medical diagnostics.

In a cytotechnology program, you'll learn through a combination of classroom and laboratory instruction and supervised clinical experience. Along with learning the fundamentals of sample preparation and evaluation, you'll practice cytotechnology techniques during clinical practicums, which are typically held off campus in the laboratory of a hospital or other healthcare facility. You may also take courses in lab management, cytology research and clinical medicine.

Licensure

Some states require you to be licensed to work as a cytotechnologist. After meeting the education or experience requirements, you may need to take a licensing or certification exam to receive licensure. You may also have to complete continuing education in order to maintain licensure. Since requirements vary, you should check with your state for specific regulations.

Skills

Cytotechnologists have a passion for science and exploration in the medical field. Since cytotechnologists examine cells under a microscope, keen eyesight and a strong attention to detail are essential. In this career, you'll help make diagnoses that could potentially save patients' lives, so the job involves a high level of responsibility and requires that you be able to make decisions under pressure. Additionally, you'll need stamina to be able to stand for long periods of time and dexterity to be able to handle small sample slides on a daily basis.

What Employers Are Looking For

Employers' requirements tend to center around formal training and laboratory experience. Many job postings for cytotechnologists mention certification, though not all require it. Check out these summaries of job postings open in April 2012 to get an idea of what employers are looking for:

  • A hospital in Indiana was looking to hire a full-time cytotechnologist who had 1-2 years of experience in a laboratory or research setting and had completed a cytotechnology training program. The employer preferred someone with a bachelor's degree in cytotechnology and a national certification.
  • A diagnostic services lab in Tennessee was searching for a cytotechnologist who had completed at least two years of college and a cytotechnology program. The applicant must also have been licensed by the state and certified or eligible for certification by the ASCP. Ideal applicants had one year of cytotechnology lab experience, preferably with both gynecological and non-gynecological samples.
  • A medical center in North Carolina was looking for a cytotechnologist with two years of biological sciences education and ASCP certification. The applicant should havehad 5-6 years of clinical experience, though this requirement can be substituted with completion of an accredited cytotechnology program.

How to Stand Out in the Field

Get Certified

You may want to seek professional certification in order to demonstrate your skills and knowledge in cytotechnology. In fact, job postings reveal that employers tend to require certification from the ASCP. You can earn the ASCP's Cytotechnologist (CT) designation by earning a bachelor's degree and completing a CAAHEP-accredited cytotechnology program within five years of certification. You'll also have to pass a certification exam. CT certification is active for three years, during which time you must complete continuing education classes in order to re-certify.

Get a Part-time Job

While you're completing your cytotechnology program, you may be able to find a part-time job in a medical lab. You would most likely perform entry-level work, but you could gain valuable real-world lab experience and earn some extra money. In completing simple yet fundamental laboratory tasks, you could learn important safety procedures and familiarize yourself with computerized lab equipment.

Other Careers to Consider

Chemical Technician

If you'd like to work in a lab but want to spend less time in school, consider a career as a chemical technician. Chemical technicians work with chemists to carry out experiments for research and development. You can start working as a chemical technician after attending a 2-year associate's degree program in chemical technology. While this career requires less training, keep in mind that salary and job prospects are lower. The BLS reported that chemical technicians made a mean salary of about $45,000 as of May 2011, and jobs were projected to increase at a slower-than-average rate of seven percent from 2010-2020.

Nursing

If you want to work in healthcare but don't want to be stuck in a lab, you might want to think about a nursing career. The BLS projected a 26% increase in employment for registered nurses from 2010-2020, which is faster than average. You can begin working as a nurse after completing a diploma, associate's or bachelor's program and passing a national licensing exam. The BLS reported that registered nurses made a mean salary of about $69,000 as of May 2011.

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