Histologists, also called histotechnologists, work in labs preparing tissue samples for analysis. Some histologists study for an associate's degree before taking on an internship, but, in some cases, you can learn on the job, starting your career as a trainee in a lab. At the end of your training, your work will make a difference, helping solve problems that could save lives or advance medical research. In a testimonial for the National Society for Histotechnology, Judith L. Williams, a histologist at the University of Washington, describes just how much she enjoys her career: "This career has kept me fed, housed and very interested all my life! I still love to just look at the lovely stained slides on the scope for relaxation! I truly love everything about histology!"
Histologists take samples of tissues from humans, animals or plants, and prepare them for examination. This also involves using chemicals and dyes to stain the tissue to get it ready for analysis to diagnose illnesses and conditions. For example, you could prepare tissue from a tumor on one sample to identify its type, so that physicians can choose the most suitable treatment plan for the patient. On the next, you could prepare tissues for pathologists to identify cause of death. Some histologists work in medical labs; others work in pharmaceutical or research environments. If you want to work in animal fields, histologists also work in marine biology and veterinarian environments.
Trainees report to a qualified histologist, lab manager or pathologist. You'll start by learning the practical basics of each part of the job, taking on more responsibilities as you progress. Typically, you'll learn how to prepare samples, by cutting, preserving and processing them, and how to section and stain them ready for examination. The job also involves keeping records and learning relevant lab administration tasks. You're likely to spend at least one year as a trainee, after which time you may choose to study for certification.
Qualifications and Certification
According to the National Society for Histotechnology, the basic education requirement is strong performance in high school sciences (biology, chemistry, computer science and math). Some trainees have a bachelor's of science degree. If you study histology in college, you'll do your training as an intern, either during your studies or after graduation. There's no reason why you can't study and work part-time in a lab, training as you go -- this can be a useful way to earn extra money to help you through college. There is no nationwide licensing requirement in the field, but some states do require a license. Certification is also not essential, but may be useful for your future career path. The American Society for Clinical Pathology Board of Certification has a HTL program for histotechnologists that is widely accepted by employers.
You need a strong understanding of chemistry and biology; a knowledge of anatomy and medical terminology is also useful. The job also requires good problem-solving skills, attention to detail, good eyesight and practical abilities, such as manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination. You have to be precise and accurate when you take and prepare samples, and you'll work with very sharp blades and, in some cases, toxic materials and contaminated tissues.
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