Guide to College Majors in Clinical Laboratory Science

I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale.
--Marie Curie

What is Clinical Laboratory Science?

If you are looking for a career path that marries chemistry, biology, medicine, and problem solving, then a degree in clinical laboratory science, or career training as a laboratory technician, may be a good fit for you. Professionals who work in the clinical laboratory perform tests to ensure accurate medical diagnoses. A degree in this field will qualify you for employment in the hospital system or in clinics, working as a researcher or lab technician.

What does a clinical laboratory scientist do?

Clinical laboratory scientists and technicians use specialized procedures and equipment to determine the causes and cures of diseases. These experts use reagents, chemicals, and laboratory equipment to test body fluids and tissues. This is a very versatile degree, with many career opportunities and specializations. The evaluation of blood and tissue samples, and the precision and insight involved in diagnosing and analyzing medical findings, are vital to treating injury and disease.

A few specialties in clinical laboratory science include:

  • Hematology - the study of blood and blood-producing organs, involving analysis of blood cells and plasma proteins for clues which may indicate disease.
  • Bacteriology - the medical study of bacteria.
  • Clinical chemistry (or clinical pathology) - the study of bodily fluids.
  • Chemistry - analysis of chemical constituents of body fluids.
  • Immunohematology - the study of antigens and antibodies associated with the transfusion of blood components.
  • Immunology/Serology - study and analysis of immune responses to disease.
  • Microbiology - identification and evaluation of bacteria and viruses and their properties in relation to disease.
  • Urinalysis -examination of urine on the physical, chemical, and microscopic level.

A degree in clinical laboratory science will begin with a solid foundation in the underlying principles of science. Aspects of basic chemistry, organic chemistry, and biology lead to more specified investigation into the workings of the human body. After the fundamentals of science are mastered, students will gain skills in microscopy, urinalysis, microbiology, hematology, immunohematology, immunology, and clinical chemistry. Working from this foundation, students learn how to perform precise tests with laboratory equipment and how to analyze and interpret their findings. A degree in clinical laboratory sciences will also prepare students to develop skills in laboratory administration, research, and teaching.

For faster entry into the workforce, laboratory technician training usually comprises an associate degree or certificate in a specific field, such as phlebotomy or EKG technology. These degrees are more vocational in nature and may not allow as much advancement, but are well-suited for students seeking steady, lucrative employment in a low-stress part of the healthcare industry.

Do You Have What It Takes?

Naturally, degree programs in clinical laboratory science are rigorous and detail-oriented. Individuals seeking to enter this field should have an aptitude for the sciences, especially chemistry and biology. Clinical laboratory scientists provide information, based on their tests, that is crucial to a physician's diagnosis of a patient's illness.

Most laboratory technicians and scientists perform some combination of the following tasks:

  • Test blood, fluid, and tissue samples
  • Run a lab which employs a team of specialists
  • Lead research projects to develop improved laboratory procedures
  • Undertake clinical research
  • Operate, maintain and repair clinical instruments
  • Use complex computer systems for data entry, retrieval and analysis
  • Ensure quality control throughout the lab
  • Supervise inventory
  • Teach proper laboratory practices to students and health care personnel

As you embark upon a degree path that is as specialized as clinical laboratory science, it is a good idea to consider whether your personal qualities are suited for this work. Some important questions to ask are:

  • Am I interested in how bodies work and why?
  • Am I a natural problem-solver?
  • Do I work well with others in a collaborative manner for a single purpose?
  • Do the mysteries of the physical and chemical world intrigue me?
  • Am I cut out for a demanding job which potentially requires long working hours?
  • Do I enjoy taking fragments of information and interpreting them to find a coherent answer?
  • Am I willing and able to embark on a specialized field of study?
  • Do I enjoy employing instruments and procedures to discover solutions to problems?

If you answered yes to the above questions, your personality may be suitable for a degree in clinical laboratory science.

Career Education in Clinical Laboratory Science

As with all professions, a student must follow a specific trajectory to become qualified clinical laboratory scientists. To become a clinical laboratory scientist, you must pass a national certification exam. Associate, bachelor's, and master's degree programs provide the skills to get certified and employed in most aspects of this varied profession. Online degree programs in clinical laboratory science are rare, due to the hands-on nature of the profession. However, as more online colleges are allowing students to partner with local labs for their practical study, more aspiring lab techs and scientists are choosing to take advantage of the flexibility of online study.

Associate Degrees in Clinical Laboratory Science

Two-year associate degree programs are more likely to focus on laboratory technology rather than laboratory science. These degrees prepare students to assist in laboratories, or to perform their own tests in a particular subfield, such as diagnostic sonography or radiologic science. The associate degree provides basic knowledge of the fundamentals of medical science and the functions of clinical laboratories.

Bachelor of Science

Generally, a Bachelor of Science in Clinical Laboratory Science includes three years of undergraduate course work followed by one year in a clinical laboratory setting. In this fourth year, students gain first-hand experience in a lab that is accredited by the American Medical Association's Council on Medical Education. Upon completion of the Bachelor of Science degree, students will be able to take the national certification examination.

In a bachelor's degree program, emphasis is on clinical trials and research experiments. In addition to specific scientific procedures, students will be trained in broad practical skills of laboratory management, personnel supervision, medical informatics, clinical waste management, professional standards, and regulations. Topics of instruction include:

  • Hematology
  • Clinical chemistry
  • Microbiology
  • Immunology
  • Immunohematology
  • Physiological relationships to test results
  • Laboratory procedures and quality assurance controls
  • Test and research design and implementation
  • Analytic techniques
  • Laboratory management and personnel supervision
  • Data development and reporting
  • Medical informatics
  • Professional standards and regulations

Often, the practical clinical experience is obtained in an off-campus clinical laboratory. This practice has smoothed the way for accreditation of online bachelor's degrees in clinical laboratory science, in which the student learns theory online and arranges to practice in a local lab. For students who do not live near a college or university, or for busy professionals and parents who cannot attend an on-campus program, the online degree program offers compelling opportunities for personal and professional development.

As long as they are accredited, online programs are just as thorough as their on-campus equivalents. A good online curriculum will include the fundamental courses of chemistry and biology as well as hematology, immunohematology, clinical chemistry, microbiology, instrumentation, serology, urinalysis, mycology, and parasitology. Online students can fulfill their laboratory requirements by attending a compressed, on-campus residency, or by participating in lab sessions held at nearby labs or schools with reciprocal agreements.

Certificate Programs in Clinical Laboratory Science

Typically, certificate programs provide more specialized study opportunities to students who already possess bachelor's degrees in clinical laboratory science. Possible topics include clinical systems management, molecular laboratory diagnostics and laboratory management. Other certificate programs are more broad-based; graduates of these programs receive certificates which qualify them to sit for the national certification examination.

Many clinical laboratories will hire graduates of certificate programs who have yet to take the national certification exam (called "registry-eligible" graduates) with the understanding that the exam will be taken and passed within a predetermined time frame. Certificate programs are a feasible option for individuals who are interested in taking the study of clinical laboratory science a step further than the Bachelor of Science degree, but without the intense level of commitment that is required for a Master of Science degree.

What Can You Do With a College Degree in Clinical Laboratory Science?

Clinical laboratory science is a smart choice for students who want a career with solid growth potential. As Americans live longer, we will require more trained specialists to assist in our advanced medical care. Baby Boomers, in particular, have already begun to place greater demands on our healthcare system, creating higher demands for trained professionals throughout the industry.

What Is the Difference Between a Clinical Laboratory Technician and a Clinical Laboratory Technologist?

As you begin your search of the employment opportunities for qualified laboratory scientists, you may be confused by the difference between a "technician" and a "technologist."

Clinical laboratory technologists are professionals who have received a Bachelor of Science or higher and passed the national certification. Laboratory technologists specialize in the actual laboratory processes required to test and microscopically analyze body fluids and tissues. They perform complex chemical and biological tests, with an emphasis on determining the presence and function of bacteria, fungi, parasites, and other microorganisms. In larger laboratories, technologists will specialize in the tests that they perform, whereas in smaller institutions the tests will be more general.

The clinical laboratory technologist's job description includes evaluating test results, developing and modifying laboratory procedures, monitoring programs for efficiency and accuracy. A technologist will often be called upon to supervise clinical laboratory technicians and other personnel.

The clinical laboratory technician serves a different function in the laboratory. Becoming a technician does not require the same level of formal education and training in the biological and chemical sciences. The tests that a technician performs are not as complex as those of the technologist. Technicians may prepare specimens and operate laboratory equipment under the supervision of a technologist, but will not be expected to have the same level of analytical training as a technologist.

What's It Like to Work as a Clinical Laboratory Scientist?

Working environment and working hours will depend on what aspect of the field you choose to work in. In large hospitals and laboratories that operate continuously, shifts are usually divided into day, evening, and night shifts. Some employees may be required to work weekends or holidays.

Obviously, the work necessitates working with infectious specimens. However, anyone employed in a clinical laboratory will have been trained in the proper handling methods of such substances. When the proper procedures are followed, little risk exists for laboratory personnel.

Possible Career Paths

Consulting

  • Internal consultants provide expertise within an institution

Marketing

  • New product development
  • Promotion and sales
  • Providing technical assistance for new product developers

Laboratory Information Systems

  • Develop, sell, select, install and support software and hardware for laboratory information systems
  • Work with LIS databases in hospitals, commercial clinical laboratories, multi-site health care institutions, or research facilities

Research and Product Development

  • Develop new laboratory instruments and working methods
  • Analyze data for acceptability

Forensic Biological Sciences

  • Test and analyze tissue, blood, and other physiological specimens collected for the purposes of criminal investigations
  • Utilize immunological, biochemical, and microscopic methods
  • DNA analysis

Certification and Licensure

To be certified as a licensed, professional clinical laboratory scientist, individuals must complete at least three years of formal study, earn a bachelor's degree, and fulfill one year of clinical training in an accredited school of clinical laboratory science. At this point, the graduate is eligible to apply for certification examinations of the National Certification Agency for Medical Laboratory Personnel and the Board of Registry of the American Society of Clinical Pathologists. When this exam is passed, individuals are then qualified for any entry-level position in the field.

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