Laboratory technicians are trained professionals responsible for performing complex tasks and procedures that are medical in nature. Their job responsibilities include collecting and analyzing body fluid and tissue samples for abnormalities, and operating laboratory equipment and other computerized tools in a laboratory setting. Most laboratory technicians work in hospitals, but some work in veterinary clinics and research laboratory settings.
Most laboratory technicians in entry level positions have associate degrees from accredited two-year colleges. An associate degree takes two years to complete, although some schools, such as Arapahoe Community College, allow qualified students to complete the degree in one year. This option is available to students who have previously completed a bachelor's degree. Associate degree holders are eligible to sit for the national certification examination to gain licensure, as well as have the necessary skills to work in professional settings such as hospitals, public health facilities, nursing homes, and laboratories.
Students in two-year laboratory technician degree programs can expect to take classes in clinical microbiology, clinical hematology and immunology, and phlebotomy. They also may be required to complete an internship or practicum. Associate degree programs also require students to complete general education courses that add breadth to their educational experience. Such courses include English composition, anatomy and physiology, chemistry, and communication courses.
While some laboratory technicians find an associate degree sufficient, others opt for a bachelor's degree, which takes four years to complete. Course requirements for four-year bachelor's degree programs do not differ significantly from those required to complete an associate degree program. The format is expanded, however, which allows for students to delve more deeply into the material.
At schools like DeVry University, general subjects covered include clinical laboratory operations and management, hematology, microbiology, and chemistry. Students also develop skills in quality control analysis through testing procedures. Those who complete a bachelor's degree in clinical laboratory science are eligible for licensing and can begin work when they pass the licensing exam.
A high school diploma, or GED, is required to enroll in an associate or bachelor's degree program. However, admission requirements for laboratory technician programs vary depending on the program and the institution. Arapahoe Community College, for example, requires minimum scores on English and math college placement tests for admissions consideration and requires applicants to submit a supplemental Medical Laboratory Technician program application. For competitive programs, work experience is also beneficial and makes students stronger applicants. Other admission requirements may include criminal background checks, immunizations, and personal interviews. Some programs also have course prerequisites that must be fulfilled before students can be considered.
As with admission requirements, tuition for laboratory technician degree programs varies among colleges and by whether a student qualifies for in-state or out-of-state tuition rates. Folsom Lake College, for example, costs $46 per credit hour, while tuition at Allegany College of Maryland costs $270 per credit hour. West Kentucky Community and Technical College runs $156 per credit hour for in-state students but jumps to $546 per credit hour for out-of-state students.
Bear in mind that there may be other costs associated with these programs. For example, although the Folsom Lake College tuition is affordable, the school requires that students provide scrub uniforms, pass a background check and drug test, be CPR certified, and have health insurance coverage. All of these are additional expenses and contribute to the overall financial investment. Financial aid may be available to students who need assistance.
Students who have undergraduate degrees in related fields, such as biology or biochemistry, may find that their best option in pursuing a career as a laboratory technician is to earn a certificate or diploma. Typically, a certificate or diploma takes one or two years to complete and may be separate from or a component of an associate degree program. Some states require students to have a certificate to become licensed, in which case finding a certificate program or a degree program that includes formal certification is a smart choice. There are both general certifications in medical laboratory technology and specific certifications in areas such as cytotechnology.
The National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Science, or NAACLS, accredits laboratory technician degree programs. According to the organization's website, the NAACLS serves as "the premier international agency for accreditation and approval of educational programs in the clinical laboratory sciences and related health professions through the involvement of expert volunteers and its commitment to public service."
Students researching laboratory technician degree programs should verify that the programs are accredited to ensure that the education that they receive meets the standards set by the accrediting organization. The NAACLS website provides a tool for locating accredited programs, which can be used to help students check the accreditation status of specific programs.
Licensing for laboratory technicians varies by state; some states require that lab personnel obtain licensure, while other states do not. Licensing may require at least an associate degree, a prescribed number of clinical hours, and a formal exam, or some combination of the three. There are several licensing bodies through which medical laboratory technicians can obtain licensure. Once students know in which states they would like to work, they should find out the licensing requirements for the particular state on websites such as the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science.
Some laboratory technicians become specialized, which results from advanced training or continued work in a particular area of the field. Histology, endoscopy, and respiratory care are examples of laboratory technical specializations. Most specializations require licensure to gain employment.
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