Television programs tend to focus on healthcare professions that have an element of drama built in. That's why you're more likely to see images of an emergency room surgeon saving lives amid the chaos than an ultrasound technologist taking images of a baby in the mother's womb. It might not be the most spine-tingling job in healthcare, but real-life ultrasound techs, or sonographers, enjoy good working conditions and are in high demand.
According to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, most sonographers work in hospitals. Physicians' offices, diagnostic laboratories and outpatient clinics account for most of the remaining jobs. As workplaces go, these are mostly pretty pleasant. They're typically clean, well-lighted and sanitary, with safe working conditions. There are a few compact, battery-operated machines for field use at accident scenes or disaster areas, but most machines require electricity so you'll normally work indoors.
According to the BLS, most sonographers work full-time hours, though part-time work is also available in many workplaces. In doctors' offices and clinics with set hours, you can expect a reasonably stable schedule. In 24-hour hospitals and clinics you can expect to work varying schedules until you've earned some seniority, and you'll also be on call periodically. A 2010 survey by the American Society of Radiologic Technologists showed that just less than 40 percent of respondents were paid extra for their on-call hours.
Other healthcare professions can be high-stress pressure cookers, but that's usually not the case with sonographers. In its 2012 listing of best jobs, U.S. News & World Report ranked ultrasound technology 12th among healthcare professions, in large part because of its low stress levels. Giving expectant mothers a first look at their new baby is usually a happy feeling, but your work won't be all roses. There will be times you diagnose life-threatening illnesses or major injuries. Long hours, erratic shifts and time in the emergency room can also raise your stress levels.
Working as an ultrasound technologist can take a toll on your body. You'll spend most of each shift on your feet, which can be tough on your back and knees. You'll sometimes have to help transfer patients to the examination table, and arrange them in the correct position if they're immobile. Some examinations require you to reach across the patient and apply force at odd angles, which can result in neck and back pain or repetitive strain injuries. Follow any guidelines your employer suggests to minimize the risks.
Most new sonographers enter the field with an associate degree from a vocational or community college. Comparable programs are available in the U.S. military and many training hospitals. You can earn professional certification from the American Registry of Diagnostic Medical Sonographers or the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists, which can improve your pay and prospects of promotion. The BLS projects 44 percent employment growth for sonographers between 2010 and 2020, more than triple the 14 percent average for all occupations.
- American Medical Association: Health Care Careers Directory -- Diagnostic Medical Sonographer
- Radiology Info: Ultrasound -- General
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook -- Diagnostic Medical Sonographers
- American Society of Radiologic Technologists: Radiologic Technologist Wage and Salary Survey 2010
- U.S. News & World Report: Best Healthcare Jobs -- Diagnostic Medical Sonographer
- Diagnostic Imaging: Sonographers Worldwide Face Debilitating Injuries
- Keith Brofsky/Photodisc/Getty Images