Doctors and nurses get all the attention from TV shows, but there are a lot of other good careers in the health care industry. For example when your doctor sends out for lab tests, that sample might be prepared by a histology technician. They're among the professionals who staff the pathology lab, helping doctors diagnose illnesses accurately. It's a responsible and rewarding position, and requires just two years of formal training.
What They Do
Technologists work with all kinds of tissue samples, including cells from biopsies, organs removed during surgery or even individual hairs. Pathologists and laboratory technologists will eventually examine these tissues under a microscope, looking for cell changes that mark illnesses such as cancer. Before that can happen, histology technicians prepare the samples for viewing. Usually the samples have to be sliced razor-thin on a machine called a microtome, and impregnated with a preservative to keep them from deteriorating. Then the technician stains the sample, to make the cells' interior structures more visible for the pathologist.
It's possible for a histology technician to learn entirely on the job, but that's rare. Most new technicians start their careers with a one-year certificate program or two-year associate degree program at a community or technical college. Some colleges award an associate degree in histology, while others offer degrees in laboratory science with a histology focus. Certificate programs are for students who already hold an associate degree in a related field, and want to add histology to their qualifications. Classroom instruction is heavy on the sciences, and students get to apply their knowledge through supervised clinical time in a working lab.
Licensing and Certification
Histology technicians have to be licensed in some states, which usually means you have to graduate graduate from an approved training program and get certified by the American Society for Clinical Pathology. To be eligible for certification you either graduate from an accredited histology training program, or take similar course work in a different program and then work in histology for at least a year. Certification is voluntary in states without licensing, but it tells future employers that you're both competent and committed to your profession.
Certification is one way to find faster, more reliable advancement in your laboratory career, but there are others. If you have solid organizational and management skills, you might move into a supervisory position in the lab. You could also go back to school and get a bachelor's degree in lab science, qualifying as a histology technologist or laboratory technologist. Technologists enjoy more responsibility and higher pay, and are more likely to be promoted. Earning a degree in business, management or health care administration is another route to advancement, and can lead to a well-paid administrative position.
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