Medical laboratory science professionals (also called clinical laboratory scientists or clinical laboratory technicians) are highly skilled scientists who discover the presence or absence of disease and provide data that help physicians determine the best treatment for the patient.
Although they are not often personally involved with patients, medical laboratory scientists and technicians play a crucial role in the process of providing personalized care. They generate vitally important data for identifying and treating cancer, heart disease, diabetes and many other health conditions.
Using sophisticated biomedical instrumentation and technology, as well as highly skilled manual techniques, clinical laboratory professionals:
- Examine and analyze body fluids, tissues and cells
- Identify infective microorganisms
- Analyze the chemical constituents of body fluids
- Identify blood-clotting abnormalities
- Cross-match donor blood for transfusions
- Test blood for drug levels to measure the efficacy of particular treatments
- Evaluate test results for accuracy and help interpret them for the physician
Medical laboratory technicians and clinical laboratory technicians have associate degrees, while medical laboratory scientists have baccalaureate degrees.
Although some of the laboratory work performed by these professionals is the same, laboratory technicians focus on collecting, processing and analyzing biological specimens; performing laboratory procedures; maintaining instruments; and relating findings to common diseases or conditions.
Medical laboratory scientists perform these same tasks, but because they have a more extensive theoretical knowledge base, they conduct more advanced testing, such as molecular diagnostics and highly involved microbiological testing and cross-matching blood for transfusion. They also evaluate and interpret laboratory results, integrate data, solve problems, consult with physicians, conduct research and evaluate new test methods. Medical laboratory scientists also are more likely to advance to management positions.
Medical laboratory technicians and medical laboratory scientists can find challenging employment in a wide range of arenas, including:
- Hospital clinical laboratories
- Commercial or reference laboratories
- Public health laboratories
- Pharmaceutical or chemical industries
- Biotechnology companies
- Forensic and law enforcement laboratories
- Veterinary clinics
- Research and teaching institutions
- Transplant and blood donor centers
- Fertility clinics
- The cosmetics or food industry
Work hours may vary, depending on the work setting, but most hospital and reference laboratories operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This lends itself to great flexibility in scheduling work shifts, which can be especially helpful for working parents.
Both laboratory scientists and technicians may spend a lot of time on their feet.
Salary Range and Outlook
The median salary (half earned more than this amount and half earned less) for medical laboratory scientists was $60,520 in May 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The lowest 10% earned less than $41,510, and the highest 10% earned more than $84,300.
The median salary (half earned more than this amount and half earned less) for medical laboratory technicians was $38,970 in May 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The lowest 10% earned less than $25,890, and the highest 10% earned more than $60,810.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that employment for medical laboratory technicians and medical laboratory scientists will grow 16% between 2014 and 2024, much faster than the average for all occupations.
Whether you want to be a medical laboratory technician or a medical laboratory scientist, you will want to start your preparation in high school by taking courses in biology, chemistry, math and other sciences. Look for chances to volunteer in a laboratory so you can see the work and what it involves.
To become a medical laboratory technician, you must earn a two-year associate’s degree from an approved program and pass a certification exam, which you can take through one of two agencies:
Medical laboratory scientists have a baccalaureate degree and have completed an accredited medical laboratory science program. While in college, take courses in mathematics, chemistry and biology. These accredited programs may be located within a hospital system or a university. After graduating, a medical laboratory scientist also must pass a certification exam.
Higher levels of training also are available for those who want to pursue a particular field of specialization.
Learn More About a Career as a Medical Laboratory Scientist/Technician
- Listen to laboratory professionals, including medical laboratory scientists and technicians, talk about why they love their jobs in this video.
- American Society for Clinical Pathology
- American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science
- American Medical Technologists