How to Become a Medical Laboratory Technician
By working with cutting-edge technology, medical laboratory technicians help provide doctors and others with vital information to help care for patients. They’re integral to a healthcare team, which is why many people today are eager to learn how to become a medical laboratory technician.
U.S. News & World Report ranks the medical (or clinical) laboratory technician profession No. 19 for Best Healthcare Support Jobs and No. 90 for 100 Best Jobs. Reasons include a promising job outlook, a busy but manageable daily schedule, and a work environment with lower stress.
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 technician and provide more details to help you understand why this is such a promising profession. We’ll cover:
- What a medical laboratory technician does
- The requirements to become a medical laboratory technician
- Information on how long the process can take
- The benefits of being a medical laboratory technician
- Tips on how to choose a medical laboratory technology program
What is a medical laboratory technician?
Medical laboratory technicians use specialized medical instruments and technology to conduct a variety of testing and analysis on specimens taken from patients. The testing results provide information that physicians and other clinicians use to help make decisions in the prevention, diagnosis, monitoring, or treatment of illnesses and diseases.
Although they may have some direct patient contact, the bulk of their duties and responsibilities is actually behind the scenes.
Typical responsibilities for a medical laboratory technician include:
- Collecting patient specimens (e.g., blood, various other bodily fluids, tissue cells)
- Following specified clinical procedures to test specimens using the appropriate instruments and technology
- Documenting procedures and results
- Collaborating with and reporting to medical doctors, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners on test results
- Maintaining strict standards for quality, accuracy, and confidentiality
Medical laboratory technicians play a critical role in clinics and other healthcare facilities.
What kind of education do you need to be a medical laboratory technician?
A common path to becoming a medical laboratory technician is to complete an associate degree program.
For example, NWHSU offers an Associate of Science in Medical Laboratory Technology.
In addition, most employers require medical laboratory technicians to be certified. See more on certification below.
What prior education do you need to enroll in a medical laboratory technician program?
Typically, a high school diploma or GED is the only education you need to enroll in a medical laboratory technology program, although a minimum cumulative GPA may be required.
Note that there may be additional steps to admissions, such as submitting a personal essay, interviewing with a faculty member, and passing a criminal background check.
How long do you have to go to school to be a medical laboratory technician?
Medical laboratory technician programs that grant an associate degree typically take approximately two years to complete.
At NWHSU, for example, you can obtain an Associate of Science degree in Medical Laboratory Technology in two years, which equates to five trimesters, plus a sixth trimester for the internship experience.
Your actual completion time will take longer if you opt to take courses on a part-time basis. On the other hand, the program can take less time if you have credits that transfer.
What classes do you take to become a medical laboratory technician?
Specific course requirements vary from one program to another. To give you an idea of the classes you’ll take to become a medical laboratory technician, here’s a brief overview of coursework in NWHSU’s Medical Laboratory Technology program:
- General education courses in biology, general chemistry, and mathematics, in addition to communications, the humanities, and the social sciences.
- Core courses in:
- Clinical chemistry
- Clinical microbiology
- Clinical immunology
- Clinical hematology
- An internship at an actual clinical laboratory to demonstrate mastery of entry-level skills.
For more detailed information, check out this curriculum list, which also includes course descriptions.
Do you need to be certified to be a medical laboratory technician?
Technically speaking, many states do not require medical laboratory technicians to be certified. But what may be more important to note is that most healthcare employers require medical lab technicians to be certified.
For example, in Minnesota, certification is not required. Without certification, however, you’ll likely have a difficult time securing employment. In fact, even if you’re hired without certification, it will likely be with the stipulation that you obtain the credential within a certain number of months.
Given the time, effort, and expense that goes into completing a medical laboratory technician program, it’s generally considered a smart move to acquire certification. Here at NWHSU, we highly encourage it.
In the medical laboratory technician profession, the American Society for Clinical Pathology is the most widely recognized organization that grants certifications. This is a nationwide certification, which means you won’t have to get recertified if you move to another state.
What are the benefits of being a medical laboratory technician?
1. Join a highly valued, rewarding profession
Medical laboratory technicians play an integral role in the care of patients by carrying out vital testing and analysis—which is why they’re in demand.
You can begin a rewarding career in healthcare after two years of formal education. If you’ve had concerns about the time and expense it could take to pursue a four-year degree or a professional degree, the medical lab technician path could be a great option to join the healthcare field.
2. Channel your background and interests toward a professional career
Are you satisfied with your current career options? Maybe you’ve already taken a lot of science courses, or already have a degree in a subject like biology.
By completing a medical laboratory technology program, you can put your interests and abilities to practical use in the expanding field of healthcare.
3. Enjoy variety in your work responsibilities
Hands-on problem-solving is a daily part of a medical laboratory technician’s duties. At the same time, depending on the type of lab you work in, you could be performing an array of testing procedures each day, which means every day can be different.
4. Enjoy a profession with a great work schedule
Generally speaking, medical lab technicians work steady shifts, usually during regular daytime hours, with occasional weekend rotations. Also, medical laboratory technicians typically have plenty of opportunities for part-time positions.
For parents trying to accommodate the needs of their family, features like these make the profession a great option.
5. Establish a solid professional foundation for additional opportunities
If you complete an associate degree program in medical laboratory technology, you have additional options such as continuing your education and completing a bachelor’s degree. That opens up opportunities like becoming a medical laboratory scientist.
Also, that bachelor’s degree and your medical laboratory technician credentials also create a solid foundation to pursue a professional healthcare program—for example, medical school or physician assistant school.
Additionally, the skills and knowledge you acquire to become a medical laboratory technician can be be helpful in other professional areas such as:
- Pharmaceutical sales
- Medical lab equipment sales
- Research and development in healthcare fields
- Research and development in other sectors (e.g., food or manufacturing)
6. Find a work environment that suits you
What kind of healthcare environment do you see yourself working in? Today, a variety of facilities need the skills of a medical lab technician:
- Small primary care clinics
- Large-scale, multi-specialty clinics
- Health department labs
- Drug-screening labs
- Research labs
The next step: Find the best medical laboratory technology program for you
You’ll want to weigh a number of factors as you consider medical laboratory technology programs—and ask lots of questions. Here are some of the most important.
Is the program accredited?
The quality of programs will vary. That’s why it’s so important to attend one that’s 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 is graduating from an accredited program.
At NWHSU, the Associate of Science in Medical Laboratory Technology program is accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences.
Does the curriculum cover the core areas of medical laboratory work?
You want courses that prepare you for more than just general lab skills. Confirm that the program’s core courses cover the specific medical laboratory areas of:
- Clinical chemistry
- Hematology (including blood bank support)
What is the instructor-to-student ratio?
Find out about your class sizes. Your preparation to become a medical lab technician should involve an extensive amount of hands-on work. Smaller class sizes will make it much easier to get valuable one-on-one attention as you learn lab skills and procedures.
What kind of equipment does the program provide?
The hands-on component of your medical lab technician education is critical. Make sure to check out the instrumentation and technology that you’ll have access to in your lab training.
What are the opportunities to study and develop skills outside of formal classroom hours?
Support from faculty during class hours is obviously important. But what if you need access to on-campus facilities to practice on your own?
Look for a program that has clearly defined student resources and find out how accessible they are throughout the week, including evenings and weekends.
You may also want to speak with current students to see how accessible and responsive instructors and other faculty are to answer questions and provide extra support to help you succeed.
What is the coursework model, and how well will it fit with your daily life?
How often do classes meet? Is there an online component? How does the program handle the lecture and laboratory portions of its courses? Getting answers to questions like these will help give you a deeper understanding of the program.
At NWHSU, for instance, courses are typically offered in a hybrid format. That means some lecture and pre-lab activities can be completed online when it best fits into a student’s schedule.
Meanwhile, other lecture and lab components are integrated within the same on-campus class period. This allows students to learn about lab procedures, see them demonstrated, and then practice them immediately after, which can be helpful for reinforcing skills.
What is the program—and the overall college or university—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, try to schedule a visit or take a virtual tour.
How much will it cost?
A program in medical laboratory technology should be as transparent as possible as it clearly lays out its fees. As you consider cost, be sure to include 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 concerns 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 technology: Don’t simply look for the lowest cost. The value you gain from attending a given program will depend a lot on how well it prepares you to:
- Pass the medical laboratory technician certification exam (see above).
- Possess the necessary entry-level skills for a successful internship and for your role as a medical laboratory technician in the workforce.