How to Become a Clinical Laboratory Scientist

Five Parts:Earning a Degree in Clinical Laboratory ScienceStarting Your CareerGetting LicensedObtaining a CertificationPursuing a Graduate Degree

Clinical laboratory scientists (CLS) are the detectives of the medical field. They look for clues and analyze results to aid in diagnosis, which is necessary for treating disease and other medical conditions. The clues often come from body fluids, such as blood or tissue samples.[1] In addition, they might oversee and manage the laboratory and ensure all equipment is working properly.[2] As a member of the healthcare team, a person who wants to become a clinical laboratory scientist must enjoy finding the answers to questions.

Part 1
Earning a Degree in Clinical Laboratory Science

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    Gain familiarity with the sciences as early as high school. Chemistry and biology are particularly important to understand as a lab scientist. If possible, invest time early in your career to cultivating a strong foundation in these subjects. Math is also an important subject to understand. If you truly understand and enjoy these subjects, this might be a good career for you.
    • If you’re already out of high school, look for opportunities to improve your knowledge of these subjects online or at the library.
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    Know what type of post-high school education is required for clinical laboratory scientists. Clinical laboratory scientists usually have a bachelor's degree with a major in medical technology or in one of the life sciences; clinical laboratory technicians generally need either an associate degree or a certificate.[3]
    • Lab scientists have a more extensive knowledge of molecular biology and microbiology techniques. Also, they are more likely to obtain management positions.[4]
    • Lab technicians prepare samples, perform basic lab tests, and maintain instruments.
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    Consider various schools. Gather information on universities that have programs specific to training clinical lab scientists. Take into account the cost to attend, the job placement statistics of graduated students, and research availability.
    • Attending a university is a very expensive endeavor. Public schools in the state you reside may be cheaper than private schools, but public schools outside of your resident state may cost just as much as the private school.
    • Schools should be able to provide you with data and job placement following graduation. Look into these statistics while trying to decide which school to attend.
    • To be more competitive following graduation, try to find an internship or research opportunity during school. Not all universities have these available, so keep this in mind when deciding where to apply.
    • Apply to multiple undergraduate universities to increase the probability that you will be accepted.
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    Obtain your degree from a school accredited by a nationally recognized agency. Such organizations include the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS), the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP), or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools.
    • Degrees from schools with these accreditations are nationally recognized and will make you more competitive as a job candidate.
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    Take the proper chemistry, biology, and physics coursework. Being a CLS requires that you learn the proper subjects before entering the workforce: biology, immunology, hematology, chemistry (organic, physical, and analytical), biochemistry, and physics (light and electricity).[5]
    • These courses represent the core type of work you will be doing on a daily basis. If you find these classes don’t interest you, consider a different career path or speak to a counselor about other options.

Part 2
Starting Your Career

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    Look for jobs in the medical field. Hospitals are the leading employers, but clinical laboratory technologists are also employed by independent laboratories, physician offices and clinics, and manufacturers of lab equipment and diagnostic supplies.[6],[7]
    • Look at websites such as the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science for job postings.[8]
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    Learn about the various job duties of clinical lab scientists.[9] Some of the many duties that fall under the job description are:
    • Examine body fluids and tissues for parasites, bacteria, and other organisms.
    • Analyze chemical content and reactions necessary for finding out cholesterol levels and matching blood for transfusions.
    • Measure types and levels of drugs in the system for treatment or to assess response to treatment.
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    Become trained in using various laboratory equipment. Microscopes, cell counters and computerized equipment are all used by clinical laboratory scientists. In the process of obtaining your degree, you will be trained on these devices. Volunteer in a lab for additional experience and to decide if this is the right career for you.
    • Internships are also a good way to learn how to use these instruments.
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    Practice infection control procedures. Clinical lab technicians and technologists often have to handle infectious material. Knowing about and wearing proper protective equipment (PPE) is essential in this field. Training in basic lab safety and bloodborne pathogens is also necessary.
    • Gloves and a lab coat are mandatory in the laboratory.
    • Masks or goggles may be required in certain situations.
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    Specialize in a specific clinical laboratory field to be considered for specific jobs. If you want to practice in a particular field, you will need to do some additional work. Research the different specialties and choose the one that is the best fit for you.
    • Examples of specializations are: clinical chemistry technologists, microbiology technologists, immunohematology technologists, immunology technologists, cytotechnologists and molecular biology technologists.[10]

Part 3
Getting Licensed

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    Determine if your state requires a license. Right now, not every state in the United States requires a license, but it can be beneficial to obtain a license to be more employable. States that don’t currently have licenses may have them in the coming years. Before you apply for a job, make sure you have all the necessary licenses and certification required at the time of application.
    • The states that currently require licensure are California, Tennessee, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Montana, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, West Virginia, and Puerto Rico.[11]
    • Licenses also vary depending on specialty. If you are going into a very specific field, you will need to obtain a license for that specialty.[12]
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    Earn a bachelor’s degree. Before you can be licensed as a CLS, you must first earn a bachelor’s degree with specific course requirements. Number of semesters required may vary by state, but you must at least have the following coursework covered:[13]
    • Chemistry units including clinical chemistry or analytical and biochemistry.
    • Biology units must include immunology, hematology, and medical microbiology.
    • Physics units including light and electricity.
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    Gain at least one year post-graduation experience. Obtaining a license requires that you have at least one year of work experience or training in a clinical laboratory. You must also have verification of this experience before applying for the license. The training must be comprehensive in terms of the duties of a clinical scientist.[14]
    • Some states may require more work experience before becoming licensed. Each state has its own regulations so be sure to look up the specifics for where you will be working.
    • Experience may also vary if you are seeking a license for a specialty.
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    Pass the written examination for licensure. Not all states require the exam to be licensed, but some do and it is important to do well on it. The exam is called the Clinical Laboratory Scientist generalist licensure exam. There are three organizations certified to give the exam: ASCP (American Society for Clinical Pathology), ASCPi (international license), and AAB (American Association of Bioanalysts).[15]
    • Failure to pass the written exam twice requires a waiting period of one year before you may try again.
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    Apply for the license. Applications can be submitted online for the license once you have met all of the minimum requirements. Have the paperwork certifying your degree, your work experience, and passing the exam before applying. There is usually an application fee (up to $300) associated with licensure, so make sure you have the proper funds before you apply.[16]

Part 4
Obtaining a Certification

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    Pursue national certification. Look at CLS/MT (Clinical Laboratory Scientist/Medical Technologist) or CLT/MLT (Clinical Laboratory Technician/Medical Laboratory Technician) programs. American Medical Technologists, the National Credentialing Agency for Laboratory Personnel or the Board of Registry of the American Society for Clinical Pathology are some of the better known certification bodies.
    • Professional associations vary in certification requirements for lab scientists, therefore check with each association.
    • Employers may require specific certifications.
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    Apply for the certification. Gather all of your important documents verifying your work and training experience (employer documentation, letters of authenticity, certificates, etc) and your education (transcripts and degrees).[17] You must also apply to take the exam, paying an application fee between $100-200.
    • Different certification organizations may have slightly different requirements and application fees.
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    Schedule your exam. Following the approval process of your application, you will be able to schedule the date of your exam. For some licensing bodies, you have a three-month window to schedule the exam.
    • Start studying as soon as you finish the application so you have plenty of time.
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    Study for the certification exam. There are many online practice tests and review courses available to help you study. If you know other people taking the exam around the same time, try forming a study group. Practice tests are the best way to gauge your knowledge. Take one every few weeks to see how you’re improving.
    • Study early and often. Don’t try to learn too many things at once or you may get study fatigue.
    • Focus on one or two topics each day to study in depth. Review the same subjects every few days to keep them fresh.
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    Take the certification exam. On the day of the exam, make sure you aren’t hungry and have eaten a decent meal. The exam is taken on the computer and is called an adaptive test: the exam gets harder as you get more questions correct.[18]
    • Make sure you have the basic computer skills necessary to take an exam on the computer.

Part 5
Pursuing a Graduate Degree

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    Decide if graduate school is the right choice for you. Graduate school takes many more years of hard work and is not the right choice for everyone. Graduate degrees can provide more opportunities for advancement into administrative positions. Lab scientists often have master’s degrees and directors usually have a doctorate.
    • Pursuing a master’s degree takes about 2 years to complete. Most master’s programs require that you pay your own tuition.
    • Pursuing a doctorate takes an average of 5.5 years to complete. Many PhD programs provide a stipend and pay for your tuition in exchange for your work in a lab.
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    Choose a graduate program. Once you have decided to pursue an advance degree, you must choose a graduate program. If you have been in the workforce for a few years, you may have a specialty in mind already. Choose a program that focuses on that specialty and is well-known for job placement. Many of the factors to consider are similar to those of choosing an undergraduate university.
    • Attending a university is a very expensive endeavor. Public schools in the state you reside may be cheaper than private schools, but public schools outside of your resident state may cost just as much as the private school.
    • Schools should be able to provide you with data and job placement following graduation. You should look into these statistics while trying to decide which school to attend.
    • Where does the program you’re looking at rank compared to other schools? You don’t need to go to the number one program, but choose a school that has the ability to get you the type of job you’re hoping to achieve.
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    Ask for positive letters of recommendation. Graduate school applications require reference letters. You want to make sure they are going to be positive letters. If you ask someone and they hesitate, they may not be the best person to write a recommendation for you. Ask professors you had a strong bond with or someone you did research with. Employers also make good references if they are in the correct field.
    • A retail manager is not the ideal reference, but can work if you are trying to change fields.
    • Friends and family are not generally accepted as valid references.
    • Give your references a few months to complete their letters. Gently remind them closer to the deadline if you know they haven’t been submitted yet.
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    Take the Graduate Records Examination (GRE). The GRE is the standard entrance exam into graduate school. The test takes almost four hours to complete and is administered on a computer.[19] You must have basic computer skills to take the exam.
    • Spend an appropriate amount of time studying for the exam. You can purchase study aid books or you can take a special class to prepare for it.
    • Consider taking the test a second time if you didn’t achieve the score necessary for the school to which you’re applying.
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    Apply to multiple graduate programs. It’s good to be confident, but you want to make sure you get into a program after spending all of that time preparing. Apply to more than one program to increase your chances of being accepted into at least one.
    • Make sure you get your applications in by the deadline.
    • Check with your references to make sure they have submitted their letters of recommendation on time.

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