What is a Medical Laboratory Technologist?

Career Information

Mature male technologist examining sample in test tube
••• Hero Images / Hero Images / Getty Images

A medical laboratory technologist performs complex tests that help other healthcare professionals such as physicians detect, diagnose, and treat diseases. A lab tech who works in a small laboratory typically performs a variety of tests, but one employed in a larger lab is more likely to specialize. 

Specialties include histotechnology, immunology, microbiology, and cytogenetic technology. Medical laboratory technologists are also known as laboratory technologists and medical laboratory scientists.

Quick Facts

  • Medical laboratory technologists earn a median annual salary of $51,770 (2017).
  • Almost 171,000 people work in this occupation (2016).
  • Most have jobs in hospitals, diagnostic laboratories, and physicians' offices.
  • The job outlook for this occupation is excellent. Employment is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations from 2016 to 2026.

How to Become a Medical Laboratory Technologist

If you want to work in this career, you will need a bachelor's degree in medical laboratory science (MLS). You can search for a program that has been accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS) on that organization's website: NAACLS Accredited and Approved Program Search.

Medical laboratory technologists need a license to practice in some states. The Licensed Occupations Tool from CareerOneStop can help you learn what the requirements are where you plan to work. You can also contact that state's health department or board of professional licensing. 

Some states and many employers also require professional certification. Credentialing agencies include the American Society of Clinical Pathology (ASCP) Board of Certification and the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science (ASCLS).

What Soft Skills Do You Need to Succeed in This Career?

In addition to the technical skills you will learn in school and an aptitude for science, you will need the following soft skills—personal qualities you were born with or acquired through life experience—to succeed in this field:

  • Active Listening: Excellent listening skills will allow you to communicate with patients and fellow medical personnel.
  • Problem Solving: You must be able to identify problems and solve them.
  • Critical Thinking: This skill will allow you to determine your options when making decisions or solving problems, compare them, and then choose the one with the most promising outcome.
  • Attention to Detail: Precision is of the utmost importance when conducting testing procedures.
  • Reading Comprehension: You must be able to understand and follow physicians' written instructions.

The Truth About Being a Medical Laboratory Technologist

  • You will have to wear protective equipment and use procedures that mitigate your risk of coming into contact with infectious materials.
  • If you work in a hospital or other facility that is open 24/7 your work hours may include evenings, overnights, weekends and holidays.
  • Plan to spend a large part of your day on your feet.

Differences Between a Laboratory Technologist and a Laboratory Technician

Medical laboratory technologist and laboratory technician are related occupations that people often confuse with one another. They differ considerably regarding educational preparation and, subsequently, job duties.  Because technologists must earn a bachelor's degree, they have a much more extensive theoretical knowledge base than technicians, who need only an associate degree. 

Technicians collect, process, and analyze specimens. They perform lab procedures and maintain instruments. Medical laboratory technologists conduct the same procedures technicians do but also execute sophisticated analyses. They evaluate and interpret the results, conduct research and develop new methods (What is a Medical Laboratory Science Professional. ASCLS: The American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science).

What Will Employers Expect From You?

Here are some requirements from job announcements on Indeed.com:

  • "Ability to work independently and as part of a team"
  • "Personal computer skills, including strong typing ability and proficient use of Microsoft Office"
  • "Must be self-motivated and able to prioritize work"
  • "Must be able to accommodate scheduling adjustments, off shifts, holiday, on-call, and weekend work assignments"
  • "Ability to deal with problems involving several variables"
  • "Strong organizational skills"

Is This Occupation a Good Fit for You?

A suitable career matches your personality, interests, and work-related values. A self assessment will let you find out if you have the traits that make this career a good fit. They are:

  • Interests (Holland Code): IRC (Investigative, Realistic, Conventional)
  • Personality Type (MBTI Personality Types): ISTJ
  • Work-Related Values: Support, Independence, Achievement

Related Occupations

Title Description Median Annual Wage (2017) Minimum Required Education/Training
Pathologist Analyzes patient specimens to diagnose the presence of diseases $208,000+ Doctorate or post-doctoral study
Radiologic Technologist

Performs CT scans, x rays, MRIs, and mammograms to help doctors diagnose illnesses and injuries

$58,440 Associate degree in radiography
Phlebotomist Draws patients' blood $33,670 Certificate or diploma from one-year postsecondary phlebotomy training program
Nuclear Medicine Technologist Uses PET and SPECT scans to help doctors diagnose diseases $75,660 Associate or bachelor's degree, or 12-month certificate in nuclear medicine technology

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor,  Occupational Outlook Handbook; Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor,  O*NET Online (visited June 18, 2018).