Becoming a Cytologist: Job Description & Salary Information

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A cytologist's average salary is around $69,160. Is it worth the training requirements? Get a real job description and salary information to determine if a career in cytology is right for you.
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The Pros and Cons of Becoming a Cytologist

Cytologists work in labs and use a variety of tests to investigate human cell samples for signs of cancer and other diseases. Read on to find out the pros and cons of being a cytologist.

Pros of a Cytologist Career
Rapid job growth (22% expected increase from 2012-2022 for all medical and clinical laboratory technologists and technicians)*
Can work in various health care facilities: hospitals, diagnostic laboratories, physicians' offices, outpatient care centers, home health care*
Play a large role in critical medical decisions (research reveals that lab data drive at least 70% of medical decisions)**
Autonomous work with little supervision **

Cons of a Cytologist Career
Exposure to specimens and chemical fumes can be hazardous*
May spend a lot of time standing *
Must take an exam every three years to maintain certification**
Only 31 accredited cytotechnology programs are available in the U.S.***

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

Essential Career Information

Job Description

Cytologists, more commonly referred to as cytotechnologists, help physicians make decisions by creating and analyzing slides of patients' blood and tissue samples. They examine the slides under a microscope, compare them to normal cells for that part of the body and determine if there have been any changes that could indicate the presence of cancer, infections or other diseases. Cytologists generally work alone in laboratories, but they often collaborate with pathologists to determine a final diagnosis before communicating it back to the doctor.

A cytologist is like a detective, looking for clues and drawing conclusions based on what they learn. To find those clues, it's essential to be detail-oriented. The cellular changes you'll look for may be extremely subtle, and the resulting decisions you make will probably be an important factor in someone's treatment plan. You'll also need to have good eyesight, patience and the ability to stand for long hours over a microscope. You will not work with patients directly, but you'll know that the work you are doing is potentially life-saving.

Career Options

Most cytologists work in hospital labs, but if that's not for you there are other options. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that cytologists will increasingly work in doctor's offices, diagnostic laboratories, outpatient care centers and other health care services. If you like the idea of managing others, you can advance to supervisor, chief technologist, lab manager or lab director in any of the facilities listed above, but you'll most likely need additional training and certifications to do so.

If you like business, you can work in product development, sales or marketing for manufacturers of the equipment used by cytologists. There are also opportunities for cytologists to work in research and education at hospitals and universities.

Salary Information and Career Prospects

According to a 2013 survey conducted by the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP), staff cytologists, on average, earned about $31.45 per hour, lead cytologists earned $35.20 per hour, and supervisors made around $37.09 per hour. Academic institutions paid cytologists the most, on average $32.74, private industries paid $32.23 per hour, nonprofit institutions $31.12, and community based institutions averaged $29.56

Future job opportunities for cytologists look positive, possibly due to the increase in population, the development of modern lab tests and a federal regulation that limits how much workload any one cytologist can have. The BLS predicts a rapid 22% job growth for all lab technologists through 2022.

Education Requirements

To become a cytologist, you'll need to complete a bachelor's degree program, preferably one that includes several biology, chemistry, math and computer science courses. You'll also need to finish a 1-2 year cytotechnology program that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs. Currently, there are only 31 such programs in existence, so finding one near you may be challenging. You can complete the required cytotechnology training in the final two years of a program leading to a Bachelor of Science in Cytotechnology, or you can earn a certificate if you choose to complete the program after earning a bachelor's degree in a different field.

Certification and Licensure

Most employers look for certification in this field, so you'll also want to take and successfully pass the ASCP's national Technologist in Cytotechnology certification exam. However, you won't be done just yet; cytotechnologists must complete the ASCP's Certified Maintenance Program every three years to maintain certification.

If you're interested becoming a cytology supervisor, manager or educator, you'll want to get certification as a Specialist in Cytotechnology. To do this, you'll need at least a bachelor's degree and three years of on-the-job experience, a master's degree and four years' experience or a doctoral degree and three years' experience. This certification must also be renewed every three years by taking the ASCP maintenance program. Some states require cytologists to obtain a license before they can practice, so it's vital to check with the American Society for Cytotechnology to see if your state falls into that group.

Job Postings from Real Employers

Because there are more cytology jobs than people to fill them, some employers are willing to accept applicants with high school diplomas and a few years of cytology experience. Most, however, are looking for cytotechnologists who hold bachelor's degrees, certification from the ASCP and, when needed, state licensure. To help you understand what employers are looking for, here are a few job postings from March 2012:

  • A reference lab in North Carolina is looking for two cytotechnologists to screen and evaluate specimens for abnormal conditions. Each candidate must have a bachelor's degree in biology, licensing eligibility and 1-3 years of work experience.
  • A health organization in New York is seeking a cytology technologist to prepare and examine cell sample screens for abnormalities, assist with fine needle aspiration biopsies, assess abnormalities present in samples and document all findings. Qualifications for consideration include at least a high school diploma or equivalent, but preferably a bachelor's degree in medical technology or a related field. The company also requires New York state licensure as a cytotechnologist and one year of work experience.
  • A medical lab in Iowa needs a graduate of an accredited cytology school who has some work experience in cytology and is comfortable with computers, especially spreadsheets. Job duties include preparing and evaluating cell specimens, determining final diagnoses, maintaining accurate records, following quality control procedures and helping to train new employees.

How to Stand Out in the Field

As a cytologist, you can stand out among the competition by getting a postgraduate degree in biology, medical technology, chemistry or a related field, which will allow you to move into a managerial position. Additional certifications that can set you apart include the aforementioned Specialist in Cytotechnology and the Technologist in Molecular Pathology, which is a relatively new field in which technologists use molecular biology and molecular genetics to address health issues.

Continuing Education

Cytologists can stay current with the latest research and technology advancements by taking continuing education courses provided by either the ASCP or the American Society for Cytotechnology (ASCT). Cytologists can also gain industry recognition by submitting their written articles for publication and applying for front-cover exposure in the ASCT's publication, The Voice.

Alternative Career Paths

Chemist or Materials Scientist

If science, analysis and technology interest you, but working with human body fluids doesn't, a career as a chemist or materials scientist might be a better fit. The training requirements are about the same, but the salary may be more than you'd earn as a cytologist. Chemists and materials scientists often work in teams, so this might be a smart choice if you enjoy collaborating with other people.

Science Technician

If you're excited about the idea of working in a lab, but don't want to get a 4-year baccalaureate degree, you could consider becoming a science technician. Science technicians usually need only an associate's degree or two years of postsecondary education. There are more career options, because they specialize in such areas as biology, chemistry, environmental science, nuclear science and geology. The job outlook for science technicians isn't as strong as the prospects for cytologists; the BLS predicts only 12% job growth through 2018. In addition, the pay is slightly lower, about $15-26 per hour as of May 2008, unless you want a job as a nuclear science technician, which made about $32 per hour for the same time period.

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