Cytology Technician Careers: Job Description & Salary Information

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A cytology technician's median annual salary is around $38,000. Is it worth the education and training requirements? See real job descriptions and get the truth about career prospects to find out if becoming a cytology technician is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Cytology Technician Career

Cytology technicians assist in medical diagnoses by examining samples of cells. Read on for more pros and cons to this career.

Pros of Being a Cytology Technician
Can get a job with just a high school diploma and some relevant experience**
The aging population and their medical conditions contribute to the expected steady need for technicians*
Can work in various locations (physician offices, hospitals and labs)*
Opportunity to detect cancer in patients and help people***

Cons of Being a Cytology Technician
Median annual wage ($38,000) is lower than the national average*
May need to be licensed or certified to work in some states*
May work with infectious bodily samples and dangerous chemicals*
Some technicians work during evenings, nights and weekends*
May need stamina to stand a long time*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Multiple online job postings, *** American Society for Cytotechnology (ASCT).

Career Information

Job Description and Duties

Cytology technicians fall under the wide umbrella category of medical and clinical laboratory technicians. These workers analyze patients' cells and body tissues to discover any abnormalities. Cytology technicians, or cytology prep technicians, specifically look at human cells for possible diseases, like cancer.

Your job duties would include verifying that the correct specimens are received, preparing laboratory equipment and staining samples. You may also perform clerical tasks like recording data and patient information. Usually, you work under the supervision of pathologists or technologists.

Career Outlook and Salary Information

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), all medical lab technicians have a projected 18% employment growth for the years 2014-2024. Compared to all other occupations, this is above average growth. The growing elderly population will need more medical attention and proper diagnoses of their health conditions, which contributes to an expected stable job growth.

In 2014, the BLS reported the median annual salary of these workers was about $38,000. The highest-paid workers nearly $60,000 or more, while the bottom 10% of technicians earned around $26,000 or less.

Requirements for the Job

Usually, you need either a high school diploma with some on-the-job training or some formal education (certificate or associate's degree) to qualify as a cytology technician. In high school, take classes such as biology, math, chemistry and laboratory procedures. Depending on the state that you live in and your employer, you may also need to be certified and/or licensed. You usually have to complete an approved training program and then pass an exam to receive your official credentials, then take part in continuing education to keep your credentials current.

Useful Skills

In order to be a successful cytology technician, you should have these following skills and qualifications:

  • Attentive to detail
  • Able to stand for long hours at a time
  • Strong interest in the science and medical field
  • Strong communication skills
  • Able to handle delicate equipment and perform meticulous tasks

Job Postings from Real Employers

Job advertisements often request a high school diploma (or the equivalent) and at least one year of work experience. Here are summaries of some job postings from online job boards on and from May 2012:

  • A physician and laboratory company in Indiana asked for a specimen-processing technician with a high school diploma or the equivalent and at least one year of experience in a lab setting. Applicants needed to have good computer and communications skills. They had to be able to prepare cytology solutions and stains, maintain cytology files and adhere to safety regulations.
  • A university in North Carolina sought a histology and cytology prep technician with a high school diploma and at least one year of experience in the lab. Applicants needed to know how to prepare specimens, label them correctly and teach students or residents how to prepare specimens as well.
  • A diagnostics lab in Pennsylvania required the help of a cytopreparatory technician with a high school diploma or the equivalent and preferably with experience in anatomic pathology. Applicants had to be willing to work overtime and obtain state licensure. They needed to be able to prepare and dispose of specimens correctly.
  • A lab in California asked for a cytology technician with an associate's degree in medical lab technology and 1-3 years of work experience. The technician's duties included working with safety regulations, identifying specimens and maintaining a clean workspace.

How to Stand Out

Even if you live in a state where certification is not required, you can still benefit from earning such a designation. Per the BLS, certification can give you a better chance of being hired. The American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) offers a Medical Laboratory Technician (MLT) certification. To qualify to take the exam, you need an associate's degree or a minimum of 60 semester hours of college credit plus either completion of an MLT program or a certain number of science and laboratory courses.

Alternative Careers

Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technologist

If you'd like to perform similar duties to a cytology technician but have a bit more responsibility and better salary prospects, consider undertaking extra years of education and becoming a laboratory technologist - more specifically, a cytotechnologist. You may be able to collect samples from patients, perform more complex sample tests, have more say in determining the normal/abnormal status of samples and supervise technicians. The typical minimum educational requirement is a bachelor's degree, and you may need to be certified and/or licensed.

The BLS reported that these professionals made a median annual salary of about $57,000 in May 2011 and that an 11% (average) employment growth was projected for the decade 2010-2020.

Biological Technicians

If you are more interested in assisting scientists in research, then you can consider becoming a biological technician. Like cytology technicians, you would clean, prepare and maintain laboratory equipment as well as analyze specimens. However, instead of just human cells, you could also study bacteria or food samples, and you would have more responsibility for writing up reports about lab experiments and discoveries. Working on product development could be an additional job duty. You usually must get a bachelor's degree in biology to qualify for jobs. Make sure laboratory classes are part of your training, and consider getting an internship to improve your skills and qualifications.

According to the BLS, these workers made a median annual salary of about $39,000 in May 2011. The BLS expected that biological technicians would have a 14% employment growth for 2010-2020. Unfortunately, strong competition is expected for jobs, partly due to the high number of biology degree-holders.

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