Diagnostic Imaging Degrees: Associate, Bachelor & Online Course Info

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What will you learn in a diagnostic imaging degree program? Read about program requirements, the pros and cons of an associate's degree and a bachelor's degree and potential careers.
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Studying Diagnostic Imaging: Degrees at a Glance

Diagnostic imaging refers to the various technologies that are used to produce images of parts of the body that physicians use to diagnose disorders or diseases. The technologies used include computed tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), X-rays, nuclear medicine and sonography. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects employment in all imaging areas to grow faster than the average for all occupations from 2010 to 2020 (www.bls.gov). According to the BLS, nuclear medicine is expected to grow the slowest, at 19%, and sonography the most fastest, at 44%.

An associate's degree is the most common prerequisite for employment in the field of diagnostic imaging. Bachelor's degrees are also available, and may help you qualify for leadership or management positions. Certification is available in all areas, but requirements vary by state and specialty. Regardless of a state's requirements, employers often prefer to hire certified individuals.

Associate's Bachelor's
Who is this degree for? - Individuals with no healthcare background who want to qualify for entry-level positions in diagnostic imaging technology - Individuals with no healthcare background who want to qualify for entry- to mid-level positions in diagnostic imaging technology
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary) - Echocardiograph technician ($62,200)*
- Nuclear medicine technologist ($69,500)**
- Diagnostic medical sonographer ($65,200)**
Radiologic technologist ($55,100)**
All career paths available to an associate's degree holder, plus:
- Chief diagnostic imaging operations technologist - requires at least 7 years of experience ($86,600)*
- Diagnostic imaging manager - requires at least 5 years of experience ($93,700)*
Time to Completion 2 years, full-time 4 years, full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - Approximately 60 course credit hours of study
- Internship or other work experience
- Approximately 120 course credit hours of study
- Internship
Prerequisites - High school diploma or equivalent High school diploma or equivalent
Online Availability Yes, but not for all specialties Yes

Sources: *Salary.com (June 2012 figures), **U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures)

Associate's in Diagnostic Imaging

Associate's degree programs in diagnostic imaging usually have titles that relate to the type of imaging equipment that the program prepares you to use. The Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) accredits programs in all specialities.

Programs typically consist of general education courses, general health and science courses and professional courses that teach students how to use the specific equipment. Students also complete a work experience that allows them to practice learned skills in a clinical setting. In the case of sonography, you have the option to specialize in imaging a specific part of the body. Examples of specialties include cardiac sonography, vascular sonography and obstetrics and gynecological sonography.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Diagnostic imaging is a growing field with many employment opportunities
  • Once you have an associate's degree in one field, you can add a specialty in an additional technology by completing a 1-year certificate
  • An associate's degree prepares you for almost all entry-level positions in diagnostic imaging

Cons

  • You may be competing with bachelor's degree holders for similar positions
  • You may be limited in advancement opportunities, especially leadership and management opportunities, if you only have an associate's degree
  • You will not have as many options for advanced coursework as you would in a bachelor's degree program

Courses and Requirements

Coursework varies according to the technology studied. Most programs include courses in anatomy and medical terminology. Courses you may take, depending on your specialty, include:

  • Physics for ultrasonography
  • Advanced abdomen sonography
  • Nuclear medicine instrumentation
  • Positron emission tomography
  • Echocardiography
  • Principles of radiography
  • Pathophysiology

All programs require students to complete clinical experience. This may be conducted in an internship during your last semester or could be spread out in smaller increments throughout the program.

Online Degree Options

Online options exist for diagnostic imaging programs but are not very common. There are more options for sonography than for radiologic technology and nuclear medicine. Online options are limited to hybrid formats that require you to take some courses online, attend some lectures or residence days on campus and complete your internship or other work experience in person.

Get Ahead With This Degree

Certification and licensure requirements vary by state, and passing a certification exam may be a requirement in some cases. However, in the cases of sonography and nuclear medicine, certification is usually optional. Being certified may make you a more attractive job candidate and could prepare you to meet future state requirements should they change. Consider attending a program that has a record of successfully preparing students for certification exams to increase the chance that you will be adequately prepared to enter the job market.

Bachelor's in Diagnostic Imaging

Bachelor's degree programs in diagnostic imaging take four years to earn or two years if you transfer credits earned in an associate's degree program. It is very common for programs to either require that a student have an associate's degree or complete an introductory curriculum similar to that of an associate's degree program before taking professional coursework.

The last two years of a bachelor's degree program train you to use the technologies of your desired speciality in a variety of clinical situations. Most programs prepare you to create images from many areas of the body, and some train you to conduct preliminary analysis of images. Many bachelor's degree programs aim to prepare students to assume leadership roles in healthcare.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • A bachelor's degree program prepares you for advancement opportunities in diagnostic imaging
  • Degree may make you a more competitive candidate for employment
  • You are more thoroughly-trained in one or more specialty areas, which may not be an option in an associate's degree program

Cons

  • You must commit to at least four years of study
  • You will have to pay additional tuition fees beyond what you may have committed to your associate's degree education
  • Many entry-level jobs require only an associate's degree

Courses and Requirements

The first two years of a bachelor's degree program commonly consist of courses in medical terminology, anatomy and physiology, radiographic procedures, pathophysiology and general education courses. During the last two years, you take courses pertaining to your area of specialty and also complete several clinical labs and work experiences that will train you to use your knowledge in various clinical situations. These courses could include:

  • Advanced physics and instrumentation
  • Radiopharmacy
  • Medical imaging department management
  • Research in medical imaging

Online Degree Options

Online options are commonly available, but these programs usually require that have an associate's degree. For students who have already earned an associate's degree and certification in your field, an online program can give you the option to be working as a radiologic technician while completing bachelor's-level coursework. Clinical experiences required by the bachelor's degree program need to be completed in person.

Stand Out With This Degree

To stand out with your degree, you may want to acquire skills in more than one specialty. This could lead to certification in more that multiple specialty areas, which could aid you in your job search. Additionally, you may not only be more qualified for immediate employment opportunities, but your varied expertise could make you a competitive candidate for supervisory opportunities in imaging departments that create images for multiple specialty areas.

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