How to Become a Medical Laboratory Scientist
Medical laboratory scientists conduct complex lab procedures and take leadership roles in diagnostic lab settings. If you’d like to play an active, hands-on role in the healthcare field but aren’t necessarily drawn to working directly with patients, find out how to become a medical laboratory scientist.
Physicians and other medical professionals rely heavily on lab testing to help care for patients. As the volume of lab testing grows and new types of testing emerge, medical lab scientists will continue to be in great demand.
Northwestern Health Sciences University (NWHSU) is dedicated to preparing students for careers in healthcare. In this comprehensive overview, we’ll share what it takes to become a medical laboratory scientist and provide reasons for why it could be a great profession for you. We’ll cover:
- What a medical laboratory scientist does
- The requirements to become a medical laboratory scientist
- Information on how long the process can take
- The benefits of being a medical laboratory scientist
- Tips on how to choose a medical laboratory scientist program
What is a medical laboratory scientist?
Medical laboratory scientists perform sophisticated, hands-on lab tests in hospitals and large clinics. These procedures typically go beyond the more automated processes that a medical lab technician conducts.
The test results ultimately help physicians and other clinicians prevent, diagnose, monitor, and treat illnesses and diseases.
The potential roles and responsibilities of a medical laboratory scientist can include:
- Conducting tests on tissues, blood, and other bodily fluids to:
- Determine the presence of cancer cells
- Identify indications of diabetes or heart disease
- Measure blood cholesterol
- Identify viral and bacterial infections
- Cross-match blood for transfusions
- Determine blood alcohol levels
- Reporting and discussing test results with physicians
- Training new lab employees
- Supervising the work of medical laboratory technicians
- Managing a lab department or an entire laboratory
What kind of education do you need to be a medical laboratory scientist?
Working as a medical laboratory scientist requires a bachelor’s degree. For students seeking a bachelor’s degree program in medical laboratory science, there are two common options:
- A traditional four-year bachelor’s degree path in which students complete two to three years of undergraduate courses before they can formally enroll in a university’s medical laboratory science program.
- A bachelor’s degree completion program for students who already have an associate degree in medical laboratory technology.
NWHSU, for example, offers a degree completion program that awards a Bachelor of Science in Medical Laboratory Science.
Note that there are other pathways to becoming a medical laboratory scientist. For questions on your options, contact the admissions department for the programs you’re researching.
In addition, medical laboratory scientists usually obtain certification. See more on that below.
How long do you have to go to school to be a medical laboratory scientist?
For students who already have an associate’s degree in medical laboratory technology, a bachelor’s degree completion program will usually take around two years.
For instance, NWHSU’s Medical Laboratory Science Program is a 24-month program, which equates to five trimesters, plus a sixth trimester for the internship experience.
A conventional bachelor’s degree path to becoming a medical laboratory scientist will typically take four to five years.
Is medical laboratory science a good major?
Majoring in medical laboratory science is a smart move if you want a specific healthcare profession to enter upon graduation. This isn’t necessarily the case if, for example, you major in a subject like biology.
In fact, many people who are drawn to the field of medical laboratory science already have college credits and possibly even have experience in the workforce. But what they don’t have is a specific professional career path to pursue.
Medical laboratory science programs require an extensive amount of hands-on work. Because of that, they’re typically limited in the number of students they’ll accept. Therefore, enrollment in these programs is generally quite competitive.
What courses do you take to become a medical laboratory scientist?
Specific course requirements will vary from one program to another. At NWHSU, core subjects covered for the Medical Laboratory Science Program include courses in:
- Clinical chemistry
- Clinical microbiology
- Clinical immunology
- Clinical hematology
- Laboratory management and operations
For more detailed information on coursework, check out this curriculum list, which also includes descriptions.
Do you need to be certified to be a medical laboratory scientist?
Although official certification rules vary from state to state, it’s important to understand that in many regions of the country, certification is largely an employer-driven requirement.
Generally speaking, if you want to work as a medical lab scientist, you’ll need to get certified.
Here at NWHSU, we highly encourage it.
The most straightforward path to becoming eligible to sit for the certification exam is to complete a medical laboratory science program accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences.
(Note that NWHSU’s Bachelor of Science in Medical Laboratory Science is accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS)*.)
What is the medical laboratory scientist job outlook?
The job outlook of medical laboratory scientists is promising. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates an 11% growth rate from 2018 to 2028 for medical laboratory scientists and medical laboratory technicians.
That’s more than twice the average growth rate for all occupations. (The BLS uses the terms clinical laboratory technologists and clinical laboratory technicians, respectively.)
Note that these two professions have similar responsibilities, but medical laboratory scientists have more education and training and therefore carry out more complex lab procedures and may also take on leadership roles.
What are the benefits of being a medical laboratory scientist?
1. Join a highly valued healthcare profession that fits with your interests
Maybe the idea of direct patient care doesn’t appeal to you, but you’d still like to play an integral role in the expanding field of healthcare. Working as a medical laboratory scientist allows you to do that.
2. Set yourself up for leadership positions
With the appropriate amount of professional experience, medical lab scientists can take on leadership roles in laboratories and in hospital administration.
3. Find a schedule that works best for you
No matter what time of the day or night, medical laboratories are typically always operating. That means as a medical laboratory scientist, you’ll likely be able to find a schedule that fits well with your lifestyle and your responsibilities outside of work.
This feature makes the profession a great option for parents trying to accommodate the needs of their family.
4. Choose a work environment that suits you
The pace and the specific lab work you do on a daily basis can vary depending on the type of lab in which you work. For example:
- Research and reference labs are slower paced and typically involve conducting similar procedures each day.
- Community hospital labs may demand you do a little bit of everything each day.
- Laboratories in major trauma centers can be fast-paced.
You’ll likely be able to experience a number of lab environments in your internship. Pay attention to which types of labs fit with your preferences.
5. Do hands-on work with cutting-edge laboratory tools and technology
As a medical lab scientist, you’ll be qualified to perform complex, cutting-edge testing procedures using sophisticated medical equipment.
And depending on the career direction you take, you could also work in the research and development of new testing technology and procedures.
The next step: Review medical laboratory scientist programs and find the best one for you
You’ll want to weigh a number of factors as you consider medical laboratory scientist programs—and ask lots of questions. Here are some of the most important.
Is the program accredited?
If you’re going to spend the time and money to receive an education in medical laboratory science, you want to attend a program that’s accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS).
When a program is accredited, that means it’s been reviewed by an outside education authority to verify that it meets specific requirements and standards for educational quality. Additionally, the best pathway to becoming certified (see above) is graduating from an accredited program.
For example, NWHSU’s Bachelor of Science in Medical Laboratory Science is a NAACLS-accredited degree-completion program.
Does the program offer enough courses specific to medical laboratory science courses?
You want to take enough coursework to prepare you for the certification exam and to be a successful entry-level medical lab scientist.
Look for programs that have at least two full semesters of core courses specifically related to medical laboratory science.
How are the courses offered?
Today, courses can be taken in several ways. You want to choose a program that fits with your needs and lifestyle.
For example, some programs may require that you’re on campus for most of the week. Others may offer a hybrid approach to course work in which some classes offered online and others require on-campus lab work in the evenings or weekends. And some programs may provide most or all of their courses online.
At NWHSU, for example, lecture courses are done online, and on-campus lab work can be completed on the weekends.
What is the on-campus lab experience?
Be sure to ask how a program handles the clinical laboratory training of students. Virtual lab exercises done online may not provide you the same level of preparation as in-person lab work.
To be better prepared for performing actual lab procedures, look for a program that incorporates on-campus lab work within a supportive environment and provides easily accessible lab facilities.
This is an important point. Lab preceptors, who will be evaluating your performance during your internship, will expect a high level of performance.
What’s the program (and the school) like?
To give you an idea of what a program is like, schools may put on multiple admissions events a year for prospective students. If it’s not possible to attend in person, check out the program’s virtual events.
Similarly, to get a feel for the campus and the life of a student, you can schedule a visit or a virtual tour.
How much will it cost?
A program in medical laboratory science should be as transparent as possible as it clearly lays out its fees. As you consider cost, be sure to consider all the other expenses that will be involved in attending. For example, how will you get to school? And what will the expenses be related to that travel?
Make sure you incorporate financial questions into your search early on. The best place to start is with a school’s financial aid specialists. Be sure to also research both school-sponsored scholarships and external scholarships.
Finally, here’s an important caveat as you research programs in medical laboratory science: Don’t simply look for the lowest cost. Remember that the value you gain from attending a given program will depend a lot on how well it prepares you to be a successful professional.
The program you choose should not only deliver subject matter but also help you develop the hands-on skills that are so integral to the profession.
The best medical laboratory scientist programs provide easily accessible faculty and staff who can offer helpful guidance and academic support.
*National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences
5600 N River Road
Rosemount, IL 60018