With the job outlook for clinical laboratory scientists (CLS) expected to grow much faster than for other professions, the career possibilities for people just entering the field appear limitless. From working at the bench to focusing on research to performing data analysis, CLS professionals have a wide range of potential career paths from which to choose.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job market for clinical laboratory technologists and technicians is expected to grow by 11% between 2018 and 2028, compared to 5% for the average growth rate for all occupations. This growth is being driven, in part, by an increase in the aging population and an increase in the number of laboratory tests being ordered by clinical providers.
CLS staff members, also known as medical technologists, earn a bachelor of science degree and then typically complete a 1-year training internship program before sitting for a comprehensive written exam. Once certified, CLS professionals can pursue a variety of career trajectories. But where they launch their careers is often not where they land. Below we highlight the stories of several CLS professionals who have found career success, all anchored in their passion for science and patient care and in an insatiable curiosity that keeps them on creative journeys.
The Joy of Problem-solving
Erin Bartos, MT(ASCP)SC, a chemistry technical specialist at Children’s Minnesota in St. Paul, knew from an early age that she wanted to work in healthcare. As a child she was diagnosed with aplastic anemia and received a bone marrow transplant at the University of Minnesota. “I became fascinated with what happened to my blood after it was taken,” she explained.
After high school, Bartos was offered a scholarship to Mount Mercy College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and decided immediately to pursue medical technology. After completing her internship at St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids, Bartos worked at Trident Hospital in Charleston and eventually moved back to Minnesota. For 14 years she worked for United Hospital in St. Paul, first as a generalist on the evening shift, then as chemistry lead on the day shift. In 2016 she took a job as chemistry technical specialist at Children’s Minnesota. In her current position, Bartos performs competency assessments (including proficiency testing review for the College of American Pathologists) and ensures that the chemistry laboratory meets all federal and state regulations.
“What I like best about my job is that I do a lot of troubleshooting and problem-solving,” said Bartos, who recently completed her MBA with a concentration in business analytics. “I like using data to drive informed decisions, and I’m very interested in quality control.”
Bartos advises junior CLS to be open to new experiences and to get involved with professional organizations. Conferences are a great way to stay current, as are certificate programs such as those offered through AACC, she added. For example, Bartos is certified as a specialist in chemistry and also holds a graduate certificate from University of Minnesota in performance improvement.
Facing Everyday Challenges
Amy Rockefeller, MLS(ASCP), switched her major from accounting to microbiology at the beginning of her college career and never looked back. She received a bachelor’s degree in microbiology with a CLS option from California State University, Chico, and performed a 1-year internship at University of California, Irvine.
Rockefeller’s first job was with Sharp Healthcare System in San Diego, where she worked as a generalist for 6 years. Eventually, she moved to University of California, San Diego, where she started as a senior specialist and was promoted to supervisor and then to clinical lab manager.
As a generalist, Rockefeller was exposed to various specialties, including hematology, coagulation, chemistry, and urinalysis. Working on the bench allowed her to be a key operator on different analyzers and to work on middleware information technology projects for auto-verification. This ultimately led her off the bench where she crafted rules for auto-verification.
“I like that my job changes every day,” she explained. “I like the fast pace, and I like the challenges I face. Analyzers are going down, the phone is ringing, there’s always something going on. I also enjoy interacting with healthcare providers and collaborating. This allows me to use my critical thinking skills and to play detective. It’s what makes this job so exciting.”
Rockefeller advises new CLS professionals to volunteer when growth opportunities are offered within a laboratory to gain exposure to different specialties. She also recommends taking advantage of online resources, such as online communities like AACC Artery and continuing education, as well as networking through attendance at conferences.
“There really are a lot of different paths you can take,” she said. “You can stay on the bench, you can go into administration. If you stay on the bench, there are many different departments you can work in depending on the size of your healthcare system. You can get into biotech. There are many options. If you have a CLS license, you won’t have a problem finding a job.”
From CLS to Application Specialist
When his plans to attend medical school changed after getting his microbiology degree from the University of Idaho, Jeffrey Young, MLS(ASCP)CM, decided to pursue a career in clinical laboratory science at Idaho State University. The CLS program with a 90-day clinical rotation allowed him to graduate with a CLS degree at about 15 months. Young worked as a bench technologist for a short period before taking a position as a field application specialist for Beckman Coulter.
“It was kind of a hybrid role, part technical support and part customer service,” he explained. “I would help labs with validation studies. I would make sure they understood how to use the analyzers and the software. I became a subject matter expert on five or six different clinical systems. I had a large territory, which meant that I traveled continuously.”
When his family grew and he needed a position that required less travel, Young took a job as a development technologist for Providence Health in Portland, Oregon. The role was similar to the one he performed for Beckman Coulter, but from the perspective of the customer, not the vendor.
“I perform validation studies, I write procedures, I help set up instrument interfaces and verify that the vendor’s equipment is communicating with our laboratory information system,” he explained.
While he is in a somewhat unconventional role for a CLS professional, Young noted that there are many different career pathways for laboratory scientists, and that there are a lot of options outside of the traditional bench tech to lead tech to supervisor/manager career pathway.
“It’s a stable career choice and has been dependable through times of economic turmoil,” he said. Like the others interviewed for this article, Young advised that all CLS professionals get involved with professional organizations early in their career. “Go to conferences, network, and participate,” he said.
After taking part in an allied health services camp while in high school, Pamela Banning, MLS(ASCP)CM, PMP(PMI), knew she wanted to study science in college. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in biology at Boise State University in Idaho and then completed a 1-year medical technology program. Banning’s internship was at St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise.
Banning’s first job was at Holy Rosary Hospital in Ontario, Oregon. After marrying a Marine, she moved around often, but always found there was a need for CLS professionals. “I never had a problem finding work,” she said. “I worked at a doctor’s lab, a trauma center, different sized hospitals. I had about eight different positions over 16 years, but that really helped me be a generalist. I got to do blood banking, microbiology, lots of different things.”
By the late 1980s, as laboratory information systems first came into play, Banning found that she enjoyed working with information technology. She was hired by ARUP Laboratories to convert microbiology department workcards to computer-based templates. Eventually, she migrated to the IT department doing database administration.
After 7 years at ARUP, Banning joined 3M Health Information Systems (HIS) almost 19 years ago as a healthcare data analyst. In this job, she advances promotion of vocabulary terminology, provides technical support in database management for various clients, and represents 3M HIS clients with standards development organizations, such as Regenstrief Institute’s Logical Observation Identifier Names and Codes (LOINC) Committee.
“It’s like the ultimate puzzle for me because I didn’t build any of the information systems, but we apply LOINC for the assays and SNOMED CT for the non-numerical values to all of them,” she explained. “All my earlier jobs prepared me for this. I use my medical terminology every day. It would be so much harder to do this job without medical technology certification.”
Banning advises new CLS professionals to broaden their horizons, keep up with technology changes, and be involved online. “Seek out opportunities to be in cross-department teams, to see how other departments work,” she said. “Learn to see things from a different point of view.”
From Bench to Research
Nadia Ayala-Lopez, PhD, MLS(ASCP), initially saw a clinical laboratory science degree as a stepping-stone to medical school, but after discussions with several mentors, she decided to continue pursuing laboratory medicine. It took Ayala-Lopez 7 years to graduate from the program at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, because she was working full-time and going to school part-time. After graduating, she got a job at St. Rose Dominican Hospital in Las Vegas, where she was a generalist, rotating throughout the lab.
Ultimately, Ayala-Lopez decided to pursue research and moved to the University of Washington so that she could get academic medical laboratory experience. Following that, she attended Michigan State University, where she earned her graduate degree in pharmacology and toxicology.
“My research was on how adipose tissue affects blood vessels,” she explained. “I graduated in 2016 and did a research post-doc fellowship at Yale University, where I was in lab medicine studying leukemia. My plan was to do a clinical chemistry fellowship after my research fellowship, and that’s what I am doing now at Vanderbilt. I’m four months into a two-year fellowship to prepare fellows to be lab directors.”
“I love being a CLS. Being a CLS requires that you have analytic skills, that you can interpret data and trends, that you can communicate those, both written and orally,” she said. “As a CLS, you must be able to adjust to new procedures since science is always changing. There is a lot of room for growth, especially in molecular and informatics.”
Ayala-Lopez recommends that CLS students find mentors in their programs who can guide them along their career paths. She also suggests reaching out to people on LinkedIn or through professional organizations to find out more about jobs they find interesting. “Just ask them if they would be willing to talk to you for 20 minutes. I’ve never had anybody turn me away,” she said. “There are so many options for a CLS professional. You can work in a government lab, forensics, public health. Find what interests you and then pursue it!”
Kimberly Scott is a freelance writer who lives in Lewes, Delaware. +Email: [email protected]