Medical Laboratory Degrees: Bachelor, Associate & Online Course Info

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What kind of jobs can you get with an associate's or bachelor's degree in medical laboratory technology or sciences? Find out associate's and bachelor's degree requirements, online options and info on courses in medical laboratory technology training programs.
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Studying Medical Laboratory Technology or Sciences: Degrees at a Glance

Medical laboratory degree programs prepare you to perform a variety of routine tests, which help physicians diagnose patients and monitor their treatment. Associate's degree programs in medical laboratory technology train graduates for entry-level careers as technicians. By completing a bachelor's degree program in medical or clinical laboratory science, you may become a higher-paid medical lab technologist, a career in which you perform more complex tests and often supervise lab technicians.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted the healthcare and social assistance sector to provide 28% of all new jobs from 2010-2020 nationally; however, the BLS predicted only average job growth of 15% for medical lab technicians and 11% for medical technologists (www.bls.gov). Though job prospects, as well as pay, are better in other healthcare careers, a medical laboratory degree may be a good option if you prefer operating high-tech lab equipment to interacting directly with patients.

Associate's Bachelor's
Who is this degree for? Students who want to become medical lab technicians Students without previous related training and technicians seeking more responsibilities as medical lab technologists
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary) -Medical lab technician ($37,000)*
-Phlebotomist ($30,000)**
-Histology technician ($50,000)**
-Medical lab technologist ($57,000)*
-Medical technologist in hematology ($56,000)**
- Cytogenetic technologist ($54,000)**
- Medical technologist in microbiology ($57,000)**
Time to Completion Two years full-time Four years full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - Laboratory practicum - Laboratory practicum
Prerequisites High school diploma or equivalent High school diploma or equivalent
Online Availability Rare (usually in a hybrid format) Yes (typically degree-completion programs)

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

Associate's in Medical Laboratory Technology

The curricula of associate's degree programs in medical lab technology are science intensive and may require you to successfully complete science prerequisites for program eligibility. Prerequisites may include human anatomy and physiology, chemistry, biochemistry and microbiology. In core program courses, you will study the primary areas of medical lab sciences, which typically include microbiology, chemistry, blood banking and hematology (the scientific study of blood). You can expect to spend a lot of time in the lab to complement coursework, as well as do internships at hospitals or diagnostic laboratories.

You may also choose to complete an associate's degree program in histotechnology, a specialized area of medical lab technology that involves preparing tissue samples for pathologists. Whether you choose a general or specialized program, selecting a program accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS) is important because program accreditation is generally a requirement for professional certification. Certification of medical lab technicians and technologists isn't mandatory; however, most employers prefer to hire certified applicants. Certification is also sometimes part of requirements for licensure, which is required by several states.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Internships or practica with clinical rotations prepare you to perform a variety of routine tests.
  • The foundation in sciences and technical training offered in these programs prepares you for direct employment with the option to continue your studies to earn a bachelor's degree.
  • NAACLS-accredited programs are typically designed to prepare you for certification exams for medical lab technicians.
  • Tests you perform may help lead to the early detection of diseases like cancer or diabetes.

Cons

  • Admission to programs may be competitive, with some schools selecting eligible students by lottery.
  • Because some lab facilities operate day and night, you may be required to work overnight and weekend shifts as a medical lab technician.
  • Lab work requires long time periods on your feet.
  • Without paying careful attention to sterilization and infection-control procedures, you may be exposed to hazardous specimens.

Courses and Requirements

Typically, on completion of general education and science prerequisites, you will begin your core course studies in medical lab technology. In core courses, you will learn how to collect blood samples, identify blood elements, describe and classify bacteria, characterize fungi and parasites, type blood and perform chemical analyses.

Some typical core courses in medical lab technology associate's degree programs:

  • Hematology
  • Immunology
  • Parasitology
  • Urinalysis
  • Clinical chemistry

Manual dexterity for working with lab equipment and visual acuity for correctly interpreting test results are important physical requirements that you need to meet to be successful in this program of study. You may be required to have a physical examination and demonstrate your immunization records. Some programs also require applicants to pass a criminal background check and a drug screening test. On meeting these requirements and completing your coursework, you will begin supervised internships with clinical rotations in areas like microbiology, hematology and immunology. The amount of hours you need to clock at clinical labs varies by program, with some requiring 400-500 hours of internship experience.

Online Course Options

Because of the hands-on nature of the coursework and internship requirements in medical lab technology programs, exclusively online programs are very rare. If you decide to pursue an exclusively online program, you may need to buy lab materials and manuals to complete lab projects at home. You may also consider a hybrid program, which combines online coursework with visits to on-campus and affiliated clinical sites to complete lab work and internship requirements.

How to Stand Out

Becoming a student member of a professional organization can provide you with several benefits and resources, with which you may impress potential future employers. As a student member of the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP), for example, you may win scholarships and awards, have access to professional literature, attend conferences and enjoy networking opportunities. Furthermore, you'll have access to study materials for the ASCP's professional certification examination for medical lab technicians.

You may take the ASCP's Board of Certification exam to qualify for licensure in some states. Several states require medical lab technicians to be licensed. Even if you intend to work in a state that doesn't require licensure, many employers prefer to hire certified candidates. Medical lab technicians can earn credentials through American Medical Technologists and the American Association of Bioanalysts, as well as the ASCP. To maintain your certifications from these professional organizations, you'll need to earn continuing education credits.

Other Degrees to Consider

According to the professional organization American Medical Technologists, simplified routine tests and other technological advances are having a negative impact on the job outlook for medical lab technicians and technologists. You may wish to consider some healthcare careers with brighter job prospects and higher pay, which you can enter on completing an associate's degree program.

Associate's Degree in Nursing

The BLS predicted jobs for nurses to increase by 26% from 2010-2020, which is faster-than-average growth. By earning an associate's degree in nursing (ADN), you can begin a career as a registered nurse. This program is also science intensive, with courses in anatomy, physiology, chemistry and microbiology. The BLS estimated in its May 2011 report that registered nurses earned an average salary of about $69,000.

Associate's Degree in Diagnostic Medical Sonography

Diagnostic medical sonographers (or ultrasound technicians) also perform tests to help diagnose and evaluate patients. Associate's degree programs that train you to use ultrasound imaging equipment include courses in anatomy, physiology, physics, ultrasound instrumentation and methods for imaging different organs. The BLS predicted a 44% increase in job growth for diagnostic medical sonographers between 2010 and 2020, which is much faster than average. Workers in this profession earned an average salary of around $66,000 as of May 2011.

Bachelor's in Medical Laboratory Technology

Bachelor's degree programs in medical or clinical laboratory science are similar to associate's degree programs in medical laboratory technology in content; however, 4-year programs include some extra career preparation. In some programs, for example, you may be required to take more science and math courses before beginning your applied medical lab science courses. You can also expect to participate in a more extensive clinical internship; at many schools, the clinical internship lasts one year. Yearlong programs in medical lab science are also offered at some hospitals, which are typically for bachelor's degree holders who have completed biology and chemistry prerequisites.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Bachelor's degree programs prepare you for higher-earning positions (the average salary for medical lab technologists is almost $20,000 more than that of medical lab technicians).*
  • The lab internship in bachelor's degree programs is typically longer than at the associate's degree level, providing you with more extensive hands-on career preparation.
  • Graduates from bachelor's degree programs have more specialization options (in areas that include blood bank, clinical chemistry and microbiology).
  • Graduates from bachelor's degree programs in medical lab science may apply to graduate programs in medical lab science or other healthcare fields, like veterinary, medical, physician assistant or dental schools.

Cons

  • In some programs, the clinical internship takes place in the year after earning the bachelor's degree.
  • Local internship positions at approved labs may be scarce in some locations, and some charge tuition.
  • Medical lab technicians and technologists are on their feet for long stretches of time and may be required to work weekend or overnight shifts.

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (based on May 2011 salary figures).

Courses and Requirements

Certification and/or licensure as a medical lab technologist or scientist require that you complete more credit hours of biology and chemistry than the requirements at the medical lab technician level. For example, to qualify for certification as a technician through the American Society for Clinical Pathology, you need to complete six semester hours each of biology and chemistry; to become certified as a medical laboratory scientist, a minimum of 16 semester hours each in biological science and chemistry are required. The curricula of NAACLS-approved bachelor's degree programs in medical lab science are designed to meet these and other requirements.

To prepare for core coursework in your major, you may take organic chemistry, physics, analytical chemistry, calculus, biostatistics and genetics, in addition to introductory courses in biology and chemistry. You can expect to take core courses in all the major areas of medical lab science, including hematology, clinical microbiology and parasitology. Some programs include coursework in laboratory management and medical lab science education. Many programs culminate with a 1-year clinical internship, which takes place during the fourth year of a bachelor's degree program in some programs or a fifth year following graduation in others.

Online Course Options

Though this field of study is lab-intensive, you can earn a bachelor's degree in medical lab science online. Online programs at this level aren't widely available and tend to have conditions. Some online programs, for example, require that you're employed and certified as a medical lab technician prior to enrollment. Though you can complete coursework online, many courses have lab components, for which you will need to either use your employer's facilities or go to a campus or approved affiliated lab. Completion of clinical rotations at labs is also required.

How to Stand Out

As at the medical lab technician level, professional certification and student membership in professional organizations offer advantages that may help you get a good medical lab technologist job. Scholarship opportunities, job banks, discounts for conference registration, involvement in community projects and access to professional publications are some of the benefits you may enjoy as a student member of an organization like American Medical Technologists or the American Society for Clinical Pathology.

Whether or not professional certification is required for licensure in the state you intend to work, becoming certified will increase your job opportunities. With a bachelor's degree in medical lab science, you're eligible to pursue specialized certifications through the ASCP, in addition to a general medical laboratory scientist credential. As a certified medical lab scientist, you can earn additional certifications in areas like chemistry, blood banking, hematology, microbiology or molecular biology by passing related exams. By meeting additional educational and/or experience requirements, you can also earn specialist certifications in some of these sub-disciplines. Earning additional or specialist credentials may give you a competitive edge.

Other Degrees to Consider

Other science-intensive bachelor's degree programs are available that lead to careers that involve lab work. You may earn higher salaries or find more job opportunities, for example, by completing bachelor's degree programs to become a pathologists' assistant or forensic science technician. Pathologists' assistants are specialized medical lab scientists who prepare and describe surgical or autopsy specimens. According to Salary.com, pathologists' assistants earned a median salary of about $72,000 as of July 2012.

Forensic science technicians who work in crime labs typically complete a bachelor's degree program in forensic science, though degree programs in biology or chemistry also serve as preparation for the career. The BLS predicted average job growth of 19% for forensic science technicians from 2010-2020 and estimated in their May 2011 report that professionals in this field earned an average salary of about $56,000.

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