A Guide to Becoming a Clinical Laboratory Technician

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According to a recent analysis of data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics published by Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News, clinical laboratory technologists and technicians are expected to see the most growth of any job role in the life sciences from now until 2031.

Theresa Dering, senior administrative director of system laboratories at Garnet Health in New York, agreed that demand for this role is high.

“There’s a national shortage, if not a worldwide shortage, of laboratory professionals,” Dering told BioSpace. Someone qualified for this role “can get a job anywhere [they] want to get a job.”

A Day in the Life of a Clinical Laboratory Technician

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for clinical technicians and technologists in the U.S. was $57,800 in 2021, and the bureau predicted the role will grow by 21,800 jobs nationwide by 2031.

Jeff Fisher, founder of CoFactor Recruitment, noted that this job role includes workers with a range of titles and diverse daily tasks. In pharma and biotech, he said, techs tend to run a variety of laboratory tests with a range of instruments.

“These are people that are working underneath scientists at pharmaceutical or biotech companies to help advance research . . . working in the lab with their hands, doing a lot of the science,” he explained.

In healthcare, clinical lab techs focus less on research and more on testing patient samples and returning results intended to help diagnose or prevent disease. For example, they may type and otherwise test blood in blood banks, examine cell samples for abnormalities that might signal cancer or perform genetic testing.

According to the CDC, 70% of medical decisions depend on lab results. That means that “very often, laboratorians see first what’s going on” with a patient, Dering said.

Educational Requirements

For research-focused positions, Fisher said employers in biotech and pharma are often looking for candidates who have experience with specific techniques, such as flow cytometry, mammalian cell culture, ELISA  or next-generation sequencing.

People with a bachelor’s or master’s degree in biology or biochemistry who have taken lab classes are attractive for such jobs, he said. He suggested that students who are interested in such a job work in a research lab while they’re in school and note on their resumes which instruments and techniques they’ve used.

In many states, clinical lab techs are required to complete an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in medical technology or a related subject and pass a licensing exam before they can begin working in the field, Dering said.

For people who already have a bachelor’s degree but do not qualify for the exam, she said the fastest way to become eligible is to enroll in what’s known as a “plus program” in medical technology, which is designed to qualify people who already have a degree to sit for the licensing exam, and typically takes 12 months to complete.

Career Growth Opportunities

In pharma and biotech, many clinical lab techs start out conducting simple laboratory tests according to set protocols and are promoted over time to positions that may involve developing tests, Fisher said.

At the top of this progression is a “scientist” title—in some companies, workers with a bachelor’s degree can be promoted to a scientist role once they have a decade’s experience in the lab, Fisher said, but other companies require that their scientists have a Ph.D.

Experience as a lab technician can similarly open doors in medical labs. Dering, who worked as a technician for about a decade before going back to school for a master’s degree in healthcare administration, said she loved the job. Still, “I knew that I could have greater influence at a higher level,” she said.

Depending on their interests, she said, technologists or technicians in clinical labs may similarly advance into management roles, and those in healthcare may move to the pharma industry.

Jen MacCormack, now a technical writer at an organization that accredits clinical laboratories, also began her career at the bench—in her case, performing testing at a large hospital.

Eventually, she moved to a job at the American Red Cross, where she made reagents used to test blood. Her next role was as a technical advisor for an accreditation organization, where she worked with laboratories found to have compliance issues to help them meet regulations.

In her current role, she writes guidance documents for laboratory personnel and continues to utilize her background in hands-on research. Having been at the bench herself, she said, it's easier to know what information is necessary and how to present it.

“I really would encourage anyone who is inclined to work with their hands, who likes healthcare, likes science . . . clinical lab science is an absolutely worthwhile thing to pursue,” MacCormack said. “I have found that to be a very fulfilling career, and . . . there’s a lot of different things you can do with it afterward."

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