How to Become a Medical Laboratory Scientist

Laboratory testing plays an essential role in the world of healthcare. However, there is currently a shortage of skilled workers needed to process an ever-increasing number of tests. Though problematic for healthcare organizations, the workforce shortage in the growing medical laboratory sciences industry is promising for clinical laboratory technicians and medical laboratory technicians who are looking to advance their careers as a medical laboratory scientist.

“Our nation’s clinical laboratories are facing a critical and growing shortage of qualified laboratory personnel,” according to the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP), the professional organization supporting pathologists and medical laboratory professionals. “This shortage hampers the ability of clinical laboratories to meet patient testing demands, which may pose problems for patient health and welfare.”

With laboratories across the nation facing shortages of medical laboratory scientists, there has never been a better time to earn your bachelor’s degree and advance your career. However, first let’s take a closer look at the entire process of how to become a medical laboratory scientist.

What is a Medical Laboratory Scientist?

A medical laboratory scientist (MLS) plays a pivotal role in a variety of laboratory settings. Medical laboratory scientists utilize laboratory equipment to:

  • Analyze specimens
  • Diagnose diseases
  • Conduct research and development
  • Test new products
  • Provide physicians with vital information needed for patient care

For example, a working medical lab scientist might be responsible for conducting a variety of tests on patient samples (including blood, various body fluids, cells and tissues) to detect the presence or absence of health conditions. After examining test samples, the MLS typically reports back to the ordering physician to confer on the results.

With an advanced educational background, medical laboratory scientists often find themselves in positions of leadership within a laboratory setting compared to their medical laboratory technician (MLT) counterparts.

Is a Career as a Medical Laboratory Scientist Right for You?

The most common career pathway for medical laboratory scientists includes first working as a medical laboratory technician. Not everyone follows the MLT path, but experience in that role will definitely shape your view of whether a career as an MLS is right for you.

Generally speaking, in addition to life science and medical knowledge, along with laboratory skills, it is suggested that aspiring medical lab scientists possess:

  • An aptitude for basic science, computer technology and a variety of laboratory instruments
  • The ability to perform tasks carefully, thoroughly, self-sufficiently and quickly
  • Problem-solving and critical thinking capabilities
  • The emotional stability needed to sensitively deal with patients’ medical conditions and personal information
  • Written and oral communication skills, since medical lab scientists may be required to write reports and converse with physicians

Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming a Medical Laboratory Scientist

Step 1: Earn your high school diploma

Most people don’t decide to pursue a career as a medical laboratory scientist in high school but, if you do, you’ll want to take science courses that will prepare you for future studies and the workplace — for example, biology, chemistry, math, and other sciences.

Step 2: Earn your bachelor’s degree

To become a medical lab scientist, you must also earn your bachelor’s degree from an academic institution that is accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS). While those uncertain about their career goals may wish to consider a more general degree, aspiring medical laboratory scientists may be best served by gaining the knowledge, skills and experience available through a Bachelor of Science in Medical Laboratory Science degree program.

Step 3: Gain some work experience

Clinical experience working in a laboratory setting as a medical laboratory technician is beneficial but not always necessary (note: MLTs completing their associate degree program can transition into a bachelor’s degree program immediately). Opportunities to gain experience will likely be available during your bachelor’s degree program; common hands-on training includes internships in a medical laboratory environment, as well as volunteer programs at local labs or hospitals.

Step 4: Earn your ASCP certification

Once you’ve earned your bachelor’s degree and gained a little experience, it’s time to apply for your MLS certification through the American Society for Clinical Pathology, which offers several routes to certification. For detailed information, check out ASCP’s Get Credentialed page and click on U.S. Certifications to review the different routes to MLS certification.

Medical Lab Scientist [Certification Information]

Your certification as a medical laboratory scientist through ASCP will cost a $240 non-refundable application fee. ASCP offers an Examination Content Guide, as well as a list of suggested reading, to help prepare students for the 100-question, multiple-choice MLS certification exam.

There are five “routes” to MLS certification exam eligibility, the first of which is to earn your bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited college or university and to successfully complete of a NAACLS-accredited Medical Laboratory Scientist program within the past five years. The other routes to certification involve combinations of lower certifications and/or work experience in lieu of completing an accredited, MLS-specific degree program.

Medical Laboratory Scientist [Educational Requirements]

The most direct route into a career as an MLS remains earning your bachelor’s degree in medical laboratory science because the curriculum will typically focus on such important topics as:

  • Clinical Fluid Analysis
  • Clinical Immunology
  • Clinical Microbiology
  • Clinical Chemistry
  • Principles of Immunohematology
  • Diagnostic Molecular Biology
  • Hematology
  • Laboratory Operations
  • Advanced Lab Concepts
  • Advanced Clinical Practice
  • Medical Laboratory Science Capstone

Additionally, medical laboratory science degree programs are now available not just on campus at leading colleges and universities, but also online, enabling you to earn your degree in just over two years while balancing the responsibilities of work and family life.

For example, the 100% online BS in Medical Laboratory Science program offered by the University of Cincinnati is taught by world-class faculty members who are experts in the field of medical laboratory science. In addition to the course curriculum, students also complete a clinical practice portion of the program and a medical laboratory science capstone research project.

The University of Cincinnati’s Medical Laboratory Science Program is accredited by NAACLS and is designed to prepare students for the ASCP certification exam (with a 90% success rate, 10% higher than the national average).

Medical Lab Scientist [Job & Salary Outlook]

Due to the ongoing shortage of medical laboratory science professionals, earning your bachelor’s degree in this in-demand field can be a smart investment in your future. According to ASCP, medical laboratory scientists typically earn between $56,000 and $77,000 annually.

Graduates are well-positioned for a wide range of opportunities in laboratory science, including but not limited to:

  • Medical laboratory management
  • Clinical supervisor
  • Research and development
  • Pharmaceutical representative
  • Forensics
  • Technical specialist
  • Education and instruction
  • Laboratory information specialist

Projections from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that job growth of 11%, which it characterizes as “much faster than average.”

For more information on the University of Cincinnati’s online BS in Medical Laboratory Science degree, visit the program pages and then reach out with any questions you may have.

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