What sort of school is required for the job (in the US)?
That’s a tough question, because “the job” can mean a few different things, and different schools handle Medical Laboratory programs differently. Most hospitals prefer to hire people who are certified by the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP), so if you’re considering a laboratory career, their website is a good place to start. This link will bring you to their certification section, where you can look into the various requirements to sit for the exams and earn a certification. There are several different certifications, and several ways to qualify for them, depending on your level of education and experience. In a nutshell, you qualify for certification as a medical laboratory technician (MLT) with an associate’s degree, and a medical laboratory scientist (MLS) with a bachelor’s degree. The difference between the two, in practical terms, varies a lot. Many employers will give an MLS a higher salary than an MLT, reflecting the extra years spent at school, but some places don’t bother to differentiate between them. If you’re looking to move up into management, keep in mind that most places will require the higher degree for supervisory or charge positions. You can also choose to certify in only one sub-specialty of laboratory science, like biochemistry or microbiology, but that will limit the areas you can work in, and all the schools I know of prepare you for the “everything” exams.
At school, you’ll learn chemistry and biology and math and physiology, with a little bit of computer stuff and instrumentation thrown in. In my limited experience, a bachelor’s level program will go deeper into the why and how of laboratory testing, but a graduate of a 2-year program is no less equipped to do the actual work. There are sit-and-take-notes classes, of course, but also many hours spent in the school’s labs, learning techniques. Hospitals sometimes donate their older equipment to Medical Laboratory Science programs, so students get a chance to work with the instruments instead of just learning things theoretically. See if the school you’re applying to has an internship program, or if you need to find work experience yourself. Internship programs are great because you get a feel for what the lab is really about, and employers get a free trial of you as an employee, so there’s a chance you’ll get a job offer out of it if you impress them.
I think it’s a great long-term job because of the job security. The laboratory workforce is aging, and there aren’t enough new techs graduating to fill the positions left open when people retire. Hospitals are doing their best to cut back and make do with fewer techs, but the fact remains that someone’s got to run the laboratory if the hospital is going to provide decent health care, so laboratory personnel aren’t going to be downsized out of existence.
I’m happy that I made this career choice mostly because of the built-in flexibility. Because hospital laboratories are running 24 hours a day and never close, there are an incredible number of schedules to choose from. There are usually three shifts – days, evenings, nights – and some hospitals even have some swing shifts that fit somewhere in the middle. You can work full-time or part-time. You can work only weekends. You can be “PRN” (which means “as needed”) and get called to fill in gaps in the schedule when people are sick or on vacation.
Not everyone shares my opinion about how good a career choice it is. Unfortunately, the pay for most Medical Laboratory Technicians and Medical Laboratory Scientists is far less than for comparable healthcare professions, like radiology techs, nurses, and pharmacy techs. Here’s the most recent data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Because of the lower wages, it’s difficult to keep ambitious and talented young people in the field. Many younger techs I’ve worked with have used the laboratory as a part-time job while they go back to school to pursue advanced degrees in the hopes of moving into nursing or pharmacy. Let’s just say that the med techs who stick with it long-term are definitely not in it for the money.
How much continuing education do you have to do? How well does your employer support it?
To maintain my MLS certification with ASCP, I need to complete 36 education credits every three years, spread across different areas of laboratory work. ASCP offers some online activities to help me earn credits, but unfortunately most of them aren’t cheap. I try to look for free educational activities through vendors and other professional organizations. There are several ways to earn credit, including attending college classes, publishing a research paper, serving on committees, or attending lectures. The amount that an employer will chip in for educational activities varies a lot – education is often one of the first casualties of a shrinking budget. I’ve heard that some hospitals are very diligent about keeping their techs certified and helping track their education credits, but I’ve been more or less on my own so far.
If you’re employed outside of the hospital world, certification maintenance is less important. Of course, keeping up on developments in your field of work is a good idea either way.
How much of your work deals with software?
Laboratory computer systems are interfaced with the hospital’s information system so that tests can be ordered and reported electronically. Especially in hematology and chemistry, tests are mostly run on large analyzers which are hooked up to the computer system, so the techs only need to accept results on a screen before they send them on their way. You definitely need to be comfortable with learning how to work with new software if you’re going to work in a modern lab, because the instruments all have their own operating systems, and most of your day will be spent ordering and reporting tests on computer screens. The more you can learn about how to make the instruments do what you want, and how to fix little issues that arise, the less stressful your work shifts will be. Of course, none of that helps you when the computers crash and you need to do it all on paper…
I’m always wearing gloves and a lab coat when I’m handling specimens, because it’s safest to assume that every specimen may be positive for something infectious. Where I am right now, all the blood I work with has tested negative for all the bad stuff, but it’s important to remember that only means “the bad stuff we currently know about and test for.” Blood wasn’t tested for West Nile virus or Hepatitis C twenty years ago, and I have every reason to believe that some new bloodborne disease will become an issue in the next few decades and I’ll find out that all this blood I thought was “clean” may have in fact been exposing me to some new pathogen. So I glove up, always. Why take a risk?
On top of the gloves and lab coat, I sometimes wear a face shield or work behind a splash guard if I’m doing something that might cause splashes. Cutting open units of plasma and pouring them into a pooling vessel, for example. That gets messy, and I don’t need plasma in my eyes. I’ve also got big insulated gloves to wear when I handle specimens frozen in liquid nitrogen.
What’s the neatest/most unusual thing you ever found (if you can talk about it)?
I think it’s pretty incredible that in many cases, I was the first person to know that someone had influenza, or herpes, or leukemia. Until I called the doctor with the result, it was a suspicion. Afterwards, it was a diagnosis. That sort of thing kept me very aware of how important the work is.