A look at the process of breaking into clinical laboratory science as a profession.
Have you ever asked a young child what she wants to be when she grows up? Maybe she responded with “a teacher,” “a firefighter” or maybe “a doctor.” But the chances are she didn’t respond with, “A medical laboratory professional.”
That isn’t to say that the field of medical laboratory science (MLS) isn’t exciting. It offers the unique opportunity to do the behind-the-scenes diagnostic work, exploring medicine in a way that isn’t possible for most healthcare professionals. So, why aren’t more young people aspiring to enter this field?
“I was lucky to have found out about this profession before entering college,” said Stephanie Noblit, MLS(ASCP)CM, medical laboratory scientist in the medical toxicology lab at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. “This is not the case for many people in the field, however. Some people do not find out about the profession until after graduation, and medical laboratory science becomes a second degree or even second career for them.”
Whether you’re in the same position as Noblit and know that clinical science is right for you before starting your undergraduate career or you’ve already graduated and want to enter this field, ADVANCE wants to give you an inside look on how you can break into medical laboratory science.
Medical laboratory professionals (MLPs) take many of the same courses as other healthcare professionals, including upper level biology and chemistry courses, microbiology, immunology, parasitology and hematology. However, unlike many other careers in healthcare, it does not require an advanced degree.
At the University of the Sciences, Noblit earned her bachelor’s degree in medical laboratory science after three years of classes on campus and a year-long internship at a hospital. She explained, however, that a “3+1” curriculum like the University of Sciences’ is not necessarily the standard.
“Other universities offer a 2+2 program,” she explained. “2+2 programs offer the same degree as 3+1 programs, but rotations are scattered throughout the last two years instead of one year-long internship.”
If you’ve already pursued a degree in another area, however, that doesn’t mean you can’t become an MLP. Knowing right from the start of your undergraduate career that you want to pursue laboratory science isn’t a requirement to enter the field. “Other ways to enter the profession include 4+1, post baccalaureate or accelerated programs,” said Noblit. “These programs are meant for those with a science degree, but would like to become certified as a medical laboratory scientist.”
Scott Warner, MLT(ASCP), laboratory manager at Northern Maine Medical Center in Fort Kent, Maine, entered the field in another way entirely. “I’ve been a non-traditional student, which isn’t as bad as it sounds,” he said. “I was trained in the Air Force and later completed a 2-year college degree. I’ve found the laboratory field diverse enough that any skill set I’ve acquired can be put to use.”
If you have friends studying business or humanities, they’ll become envious pretty quickly when they realize that MLS students don’t usually have to spend countless hours searching for the perfect internship to let them even start applying for an entry level position. “Most internships that are completed while earning your degree count as a year experience at many hospitals,” Noblit explained.
The internship that MLPs complete during their education is often the determining factor in what direction their career will go. “During my internship, I rotated through all areas of the clinical lab,” said Noblit. “You may think you like one area of the lab, but then complete a rotation in a different area and realize you like that better. You may think you want to become a lab manager after a few years, but after learning about infection control, you realize you might want to go down that path instead.” The experience gained through your internship will likely play a huge role in determining the focus for your career later on.
Medical laboratory science is a very diverse field offering a wide range of career paths and opportunities for advancement. While most MLPs start out working the bench, they aren’t bound to that same position. “Usually, as an MLP moves up the career ladder, they do less and less lab work,” said Noblit. “The traditional path is bench tech to manager to lab administer, but with a clinical laboratory background, you can go in so many different directions.”
Indeed, depending on your interests, the trajectory of your career can go far beyond the lab itself. After gaining experience in the lab, you can work in instrument sales, education, research, public health, forensics and more.
However, as in most professions, opportunities for career growth vary from place to place. “How quickly a person moves up is really dependent on where they are working,” said Noblit, “but as the workforce continues to retire, younger professionals are going to be put into high roles more quickly than they would have in the past.”
In Warner’s experience, this rapid career advancement is a big change from the more traditional career path for MLPs-and it’s not necessarily beneficial. “Back in the day, the ‘noobs’ were expected to work any shifts, any bench and any hours. It was a rite of passage,” he said. “The good news was that at the time, people were there, ready to help. In a way, that makes sense. A lab needs to weed out the chaff early on. If you can’t handle an evening shift alone, can you really make critical decisions?”
A Diverse Career
One thing’s for sure: A career in MLS can take you in countless directions. “The medical laboratory profession is one of the most versatile out there,” said Noblit. “You can literally do anything and go anywhere with a degree in this field.” However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s an easy path to take.
“Many years ago, I attended a seminar in which a speaker said something I’ll never forget. He said, ‘To succeed in this field, you need to have a passion for medical technology,'” Warner shared. “If you look for money, fame or prestige, you might be disappointed. The journey is its own reward and there are no shortcuts, no easy answers. This is a complex, difficult job to do well, but the professional rewards are there.”
No matter how difficult the path may be, a career in MLS is certainly worthwhile and crucial for the success of healthcare. “Doctors make life or death decisions based on what we report,” said Warner. “In the lab, you make a unique contribution to the healthcare of a patient that affects almost everyone else on the team. Our job has never been more important.”