Medical Laboratory Career Options

Top 6 Job Opportunities You Should Know About

Medical lab technician using microscope in laboratory
Hero Images / Getty Images

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, medical and laboratory technology is a fast-growing field with over 335,000 practitioners and an annual growth rate of 13%. Their primary responsibility includes the collection of body fluids, tissues, and other samples to analyze in the lab with a variety of technologies and test.

Lab-based careers often involve little, if any, direct patient contact. They are well-suited for people with analytic minds who enjoy technology and have an exacting, detailed nature.

Job Types

There are many different job opportunities available to those interested in lab technology. Each requires different levels of education, training, and certification. The jobs requiring more education tend to have greater earning potential.

Pathologist

A pathologist is a physician who specializes in pathology (the study of human diseases). Pathology is a field of medicine whose practitioners identify the cause and effect of illness so that patients can be accurately treated.

In addition to overseeing a team of lab technologists and technicians, the pathologist will play a critical role in interpreting test results and collaborating with doctors on the best course of treatment,

Pathologists require extensive education and training, comprised of four years of college, four years of medical school, and three to four years in a pathology residency program.

The majority of pathologists will pursue additional training with a one- to two-year fellowship in a pathology subspecialty.

Medical Technologist

A medical technologist (MT) a highly skilled professional who tests and analyzes blood, bodily fluids, and tissue samples. A medical technologist works in all areas of the lab, including immunology, microbiology, genetics, histology, chemistry, and toxicology.

Medical technologists typically work under the supervision of a pathologist but are sometimes tasked with operating a lab independently. Medical technologists will oversee the work of lab technicians in addition to managing their own duties.

A bachelor’s degree is required to become a medical technologist in addition to the completion of a medical technologist program accredited by the National Accrediting Agency of Clinical Laboratory Science (NAACLS).

Medical Lab Technician

A medical lab technician (MLT) is a skilled professional responsible for performing lab tests efficiently and accurately, usually under the supervision of a medical technologist. Medical lab technologists do similar work but at a less complex level than medical technologists.

Medical lab technicians are typically tasked with setting up, calibrating, sterilizing, and testing lab equipment. They might also prepare the reagents used in lab tests or perform routine assays (such as a complete blood count or liver function) so that the technologist or pathologist can focus on more complicated investigations.

An associate degree is required in addition to the completion of a training program accredited by the American Society of Clinical Pathology (ASCP).

Histotechnician

A histotechnician is a lab technician who specializes in histology. Histology is the study of the structure of tissues using dyes, chemicals, and other technologies. The aim of histology is to identify abnormalities in the structure, composition, and interaction of tissues consistent with disease.

In addition to microscopes, histotechnicians will often use immunological and molecular (DNA) tests to aid in their analysis.

To become a histotechnician, you need to complete a NAACLS-accredited training program or obtain an associate degree with additional hospital-based training in histology.

Cytotechnologist

A cytotechnologist is a lab specialist devoted to the analysis of cells under a microscope. The cells may come from the skin, reproductive tract, digestive tract, or any other part of the body that sheds cells. The prefix cyto- refers to cells.

Cytotechnologists are vital to the identification of cancer as well as infections caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other disease-causing microorganisms. Using the findings of a cytotechnologist, pathologists can often diagnose diseases well before other tests are able to make an accurate detection. 

In addition to a bachelor's degree, a training program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) must be completed to qualify for national certification.

Phlebotomist

A phlebotomist is a healthcare professional responsible for drawing blood for lab tests, transfusions, or donation. Phlebotomists are trained to collect blood via venipuncture (puncture of a vein), finger pricks, or, in the case of infants, heel pricks. 

Phlebotomists are the only patient-facing professionals on the medical lab team. They must be skilled in drawing blood safely, correctly, and with the minimal amount of pain or discomfort.

In addition to drawing blood, a phlebotomist must ensure that all equipment is properly sterilized and that all samples are correctly labeled, stored, and transported.

A high school diploma or GED is the basic requirement for admission to an approved phlebotomy training program.

Work Environment

Many medical laboratories are housed in hospitals or clinics, while others are corporate-owned facilities that outsource lab services to individuals, doctors, organizations, and hospitals. Others still are operated by universities or government, often for research purposes.

Medical laboratories are often well-lit, sterile environments with a lot of high-tech equipment. Working in a lab may entail many hours of sitting or standing, peering into microscopes, and calibrating equipment to ensure accurate and consistent results.

Depending on your role and the type of specimens being handled, you may be required to wear protective gear, including gloves, goggles, a face mask, a lab coat, or even a biohazard suit.

Medical laboratory staff often work independently or in small teams. Although the job often requires you to work in isolation, you may be called upon to interact, either directly or indirectly, with doctors, researchers, and other medical staff.

Unlike some health professions, medical lab personnel tend to work regular hours (although weekend and overnight shifts are not uncommon in high-volume facilities).

Salary and Outlook

The salary of medical lab personnel can vary based on experience, education, location, specialty, and the types of technologies a person is qualified to operate.

Pathologists, by far, have the greatest earning potential, averaging over $275,000 in 2019. Technologists and technicians can expect to earn around $53,000 annually, with certain specialists earning in excess of $80,000. Phlebotomists average around $35,000 per year, not including benefits.

The job outlook is considered good for medical lab personnel, driven in part by an aging population in need of regular monitoring of conditions such as cancer, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

  1. Kane L. Medscape Pathologist Compensation Report 2019. April 29, 2019.

  2. Bureau of Labor Statistics/U.S. Department of Labor. Occupational Outlook Handbook: Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technologists and Technicians. Washington, D.C.; 2018.

  3. Bureau of Labor Statistics/U.S. Department of Labor. Occupational Outlook Handbook: Phlebotomists.Washington, D.C.; 2018.

Additional Reading