(Cytologist) Cytotechnologist

Not all diseases can be diagnosed through a lab test or with medical imaging. There are many diseases and cancers that can only be diagnosed by trained laboratory specialists called cytologists or cytotechnologists. These inquisitive and detail-oriented professionals have the skills and training to prepare cell samples, determine abnormalities in cells, and write detailed reports so pathologists can make a diagnosis. They can also identify bacteria, viruses, and precancerous cells. 

Education for cytologists generally starts with completing an associate or bachelor’s degree. It can be either in cytotechnology or a related field. Students who complete an undergraduate degree in a related field will need to complete a cytotechnology program. As part of a bachelor’s program, cytotechnology studies encompass the last two years. As part of a stand-alone program, a cytotechnology certificate takes between one to two years. Students will learn how to identify different types of cells with hundreds of hours of education behind a microscope and extensive practicum experiences. 

Opportunities for cytologists, who are considered “clinical laboratory technologists and technicians” by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, are growing. There is an anticipated 5 percent increase in jobs in this field between 2022 and 2032, significantly faster than the expected growth among all occupations nationally during the same period (3 percent).  

Cytologists are critical players in disease diagnosis. Continue reading to learn more about what it takes to become one, including top education programs, what certifications are necessary, and how to become licensed.

Cytologist Specializations & Degree Types

Cytologists are required to have completed at least a bachelor’s degree. Aspiring professionals can complete a bachelor’s of science in cytotechnology. Alternatively, they can complete a bachelor’s in a related field such as biology, pre-med, or math and earn a post-baccalaureate certificate. Bachelor’s programs take four years to complete, while certificate programs can be completed in as little as a year.

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Admissions Requirements for Cytologist Programs

Admission requirements for cytotechnology programs can be stringent. Most programs encompass just cytotechnology courses, requiring that students have completed extensive prerequisite coursework before applying for admission. 

Bachelor’s degree programs, which are typically only the last two years of a degree, require students to have completed all their general coursework in addition to prerequisites. 

Required coursework can include math, biology, chemistry, microbiology, and anatomy. Often, students must have a minimum GPA, as well. Other admission requirements can include a statement of intent, letters of recommendation, an application fee, and a completed application. International students must supply proof of English proficiency with either a TOEFL or IELTS exam score.

Cytologist Program Accreditation

Cytologist programs are programmatically accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP). Completing a CAAHEP-accredited program is required for certification and may be required for state licensure. Prospective cytologists should also ensure the bachelor’s degree program they complete is regionally accredited by an accrediting body recognized by the Department of Education as this is required for admission to most cytotechnology programs.

On-Campus Cytologist Degree Programs

Loma Linda University – School of Allied Health Professions

Students can complete a bachelor’s of science in clinical laboratory science at Loma Linda University’s School of Allied Health Professions. This program is just the last two years of a bachelor’s degree—a degree completion program—so the first two years must be completed before applying for admission. The first two years can be completed at Loma Linda or another accredited university. The emphasis of this program is on pathology, laboratory management, and critical thinking. 

During the first year of the program, students participate in lectures and laboratory courses. Students are required to complete clinical practicums during the second year, culminating with an 11-week, full-time intensive internship. Graduates of this program are eligible to sit for the American Society of Clinical Pathology’s Board of Certification (ASCP-BOC) exam. The pass rate for graduates of this program for 2019 to 2022 is 100 percent. 

  • Location: Loma Linda, CA
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
  • Tuition: $48,965 per year

University of Wisconsin Madison – College of Agricultural and Life Sciences

The University of Wisconsin Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences offers a three-semester certificate in cytotechnology for students who have already completed a bachelor’s degree in a related field. This program features small cohorts of less than 12 students guaranteeing lots of individual attention. The first two semesters are classroom and lab-based, with over 400 hours sitting at a microscope. The last semester prepares students to work in a lab with full-time clinical rotations. 

In addition to completing the required coursework, students will also receive help charting a career path. This prestigious program is well connected with cytopathology labs across the country and often recommends students for open positions. Required courses students must complete include the gastrointestinal system, seminar in clinical cytology, and effusions, to name a few. 

Admission requirements include having already completed a bachelor’s degree, having a minimum 2.5 GPA, submitting a letter describing interest in cytotechnology, and providing three letters of recommendation. 

  • Location: Madison, WI
  • Duration: Three semesters
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
  • Tuition: $1,706.28 per credit

Mayo Clinic – College of Medicine & Science

The Mayo Clinic College of Medicine & Science offers a one-year cytologist program that can be completed as a stand-alone program or as the final year of a bachelor’s program. There are currently five affiliated bachelor’s programs where students can complete the first three years of their education prior to enrolling in the cytotechnology program. Regardless of the path chosen, students must complete extensive prerequisites in biology, chemistry, and math. 

Time in this program is divided nearly evenly between classroom settings, labs, and clinical experiences. By the time students graduate, they will have over 750 hours of hands-on experience with a variety of specimens and types of technology. 

More than half of graduates from this prestigious program go on to be employed at numerous Mayo Clinic facilities, while the other half are employed in labs across the country. Due to the reputation of this program, graduates are in high demand. 

  • Location: Rochester, MN
  • Duration: One year
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
  • Tuition: $549 per credit

University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences – College of Health Professions

Only ten students are admitted each year to the bachelor of science in cytotechnology at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences College of Health Professions. This is a 12-month program, and students must have completed at least 80 credits of prerequisite coursework in order to be admitted. Required classes that must be completed prior to enrolling include math, biology, chemistry, English, and social sciences. 

To complete this program, students must earn 40 credits of cytology-specific coursework. Classes are taken as a cohort, so students have the opportunity to develop strong relationships with their peers. Graduates of this program are eligible to sit for the ASCP cytology exam. 

  • Location: Little Rock, AR
  • Duration: 12 months
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
  • Tuition: $28,449 for tuition and fees for the entire program

University of California, Los Angeles – Center for the Health Sciences 

Students who have already completed a bachelor’s of science degree can complete the one-year cytology certificate at the University of California, Los Angeles Center for the Health Sciences. In this program, students will learn how to identify cancers, their precursors, and other medical conditions that can be diagnosed by examining cellular materials. Each year faculty in this program ensure to teach students the latest new techniques in cytology to ensure graduates are ready to excel in this field. 

Each year only six students are admitted to this program. Preference is given to applicants who have graduated from a University of California bachelor’s of science degree program, although candidates from other programs will be considered as long as they demonstrate they have completed the required coursework. The most qualified candidates will be invited to a web-based interview with the admissions committee.   

  • Location: Los Angeles, CA
  • Duration: One year
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
  • Tuition: $11,880 for the entire program

Indiana University – School of Medicine

The cytology program at the Indiana University School of Medicine is a one-year professional program that can be completed during a student’s final year of a bachelor’s degree. Students are expected to complete their general education coursework prior to starting this program. Courses must be taken in the sequence set by the program. To help students prepare for entry-level work in this field they must complete 9 credit hours of internships in labs. 

The curriculum for this program is structured to provide students with the necessary psychomotor, cognitive, and affective skills to excel in this detail-oriented field. This program boasts an 80 percent retention rate ASCP cytology exam pass rate, as well as a 75 percent employment rate within six months of graduation.  

  • Location: Indianapolis, IN 
  • Duration: One year
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
  • Tuition: $15,220.75 for the professional program portion

Central Piedmont Community College

One of the most affordable cytologist programs in the country is found at Central Piedmont Community College. While students do have to complete prerequisite coursework prior to applying to this program, earning a bachelor’s degree is not required to be considered for admission. 

Graduates of this program have the skills to evaluate cells with a high degree of accuracy, as well as demonstrate professionalism and ethical behavior in the workplace. Classes for this certificate must be completed in a specified sequence in order to build on previous coursework. 

  • Location: Charlotte, NC
  • Duration: One year
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
  • Tuition: $76 per credit hour (residents); $268 per credit hour (non-residents)

Online or Hybrid Cytologist Degree Program

Due to the hands-on nature of a cytotechnology degree or certificate, there are currently no fully online programs. Some programs offer satellite learning where students can study at one of many sites across the country or hybrid online and on-campus coursework. Here are two programs that offer these options. 

University of Nebraska – College of Allied Health Professions

While not a completely online program, the University of Nebraska College of Allied Health Professions has eight satellite locations for its master’s of diagnostic cytotechnology program, allowing students to study all across the country. At the satellite locations, classes are delivered online and live. Lab wors is completed through a combination of virtual microscope work and hands-on training. Each site is unique, and training is tailored to the current cohort. Cohorts are small, with only one to six students at each location. 

Required coursework is the same no matter which site a student selects. These classes include an intro to cytotechnology and cytopreparation, cytology of body fluids and cerebrospinal fluid, fine needle aspiration cytology, and more.  

In the final semester of the program, students complete a full-time lab practicum. This program’s admission requirements include at least a 2.8 GPA, a completed bachelor’s degree, completed prerequisite coursework, three letters of recommendation, and a personal essay detailing the motivations for applying for the program. 

  • Location: Omaha, NE
  • Duration: Three semesters
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
  • Tuition: $396 per semester

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey – School of Health Professions

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey’s School of Health Professions offers a master’s in diagnostic cytopathology for students looking for more advanced cytology skills. There are two options to completing this program. The first is an entry-level program for those with no prior cytology experience, and the second is an accelerated program for ASCP-certified cytologists. Both options require students to complete a capstone project.

While there are significant in-person class and lab requirements, students in this program do have the option to complete some classes through distance learning. Supervised clinical practices are required and give students the hands-on skills they need to perform this job. 

  • Location: Newark, NJ
  • Duration: Four semesters
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
  • Tuition: $1,248 per credit

How Long Does it Take to Become a Cytologist?

It takes between four to six years post graduating high school to become a cytologist. The amount of time it takes depends on the type of degree pursued. A bachelor’s in cytotechnology will only take four years, whereas a bachelor’s in a related field and a post-baccalaureate certificate will take between five to six years.

How To Become a Cytologist – Step-by-Step Guide

Step 1: Graduate from High School or Complete a GED (Four Years)

Aspiring cytotechnologists will need to first complete high school or obtain a GED. Having a high school diploma or GED demonstrates a minimum level of education and prepares students for further education. Students who want to become cytologists should focus on classes such as biology, math, and chemistry. 

Step 2: Complete Cytologist Education (Four to Six Years) 

Cytologists must earn a bachelor’s degree in cytotechnology. Alternatively, students who complete a bachelor’s of science in a related field such as math, chemistry, biology, or pre-med can complete a post-baccalaureate cytotechnology program. 

Programs completed after earning a bachelor’s degree typically take one to two years to complete. Students will be required to complete classroom and lab work and complete intensive practicums that will give them hands-on experience in a lab. 

Step 3: Earn a Cytologist Certification (Timeline Varies)

Certification is optional for cytologists; however, it is an industry standard and required by most employers. Professionals are certified by the American Society of Clinical Pathology’s Board of Certification (ASCP-BOC) as either Certified Cytotechnologists (CT) or Specialist in Cytotechnology (SCT). 

Details on how to obtain certification are listed below. 

Step 4: Obtain State Licensure (Timeline Varies)

Only a handful of states require cytologists to be licensed. However, legislation can change at any time, so aspiring professionals should check with local licensing boards to get the most up-to-date information. 

Licensing requirements vary by state and can include completing education, passing a national exam, paying a licensing fee, and completing an application. More details about state licensing can be found below. 

What Do Cytologists Do?

Cytologists work in hospitals, labs, and universities. They typically work under the supervision of a pathologist. Day-to-day duties vary based on place of employment, but typical responsibilities include:

  • Preparing slides with samples using standard scientific practices
  • Using a microscope to examine cells on slides
  • Identifying abnormal cells in the samples
  • Writing detailed reports about the cells examined
  • Comparing cells to determine if there have been changes over time
  • Working closely with fellow lab workers and pathologists

Cytologist Certifications & Licensure

The American Society for Clinical Pathology Board of Certification (ASCP BOC) is the primary organization that offers certification examinations to laboratory professionals upon completion of an accredited cytology program, as required by CLIA personnel standards. The ASCP BOC also credentials cytologists outside the US and around the world with their ASCP cytology certification examinations. State licensure rules vary.

To be eligible for the CT exam, candidates must complete a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited institution and a cytotechnology program from a CAAHEP-accredited institution. 

The CT exam costs $250. The exam is 2.5 hours long and consists of 100 multiple-choice questions. 

Cytologists are required to be licensed in Alabama, Alaska, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, New York, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and West Virginia. Licensing requirements vary by state, so candidates should check with their local boards to ensure they have the necessary qualifications. In New York, for example, the requirements are:

  • Complete an application
  • Pay $250 application fee
  • Complete an educational program registered with the department
  • Pass an exam approved by the board
  • Be 18 years old
  • Be of good moral character

How Much Do Cytologists Make?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies cytologists as “clinical laboratory technologists and technicians,” who earn $59,130 per year on average. Because of the specialized education and training required for cytotechnologists, they tend to make a bit more than general laboratory technicians. According to Salary.com (2023), the median wage for cytologists is $86,428 per year. 

The percentiles for wages for clinical laboratory technologists and technicians, according to the BLS (May 2022), are:

  • 10th percentile: $35,220
  • 25th percentile: $40,440
  • 50th percentile (median): $57,380
  • 75th percentile: $74,920
  • 90th percentile: $84,670

Cytologist Career Alternatives

Here are a few alternatives to a career as a cytologist. 

Become a Surgical Technologist

Surgical technologists are the professionals responsible for establishing and maintaining a sterile field in an operating room. They are also responsible for preparing equipment for surgery, providing the necessary tools during surgery, and managing inventory.  

  • Typical Education: Certificate
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA) or the National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT).

Become a Pharmacy Technician

Efficient pharmacies are staffed not only by pharmacists but also by skilled pharmacy technicians. These indispensable skilled professionals can do many of the day-to-day pharmacy tasks, including dispensing medications, checking for errors, and assisting clients, leaving the pharmacists free to attend to more complicated matters. 

  • Typical Education: Associate’s 
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: Pharmacy Technician Certification Board (PCTB)

Become a Radiologic and MRI Technologist

Radiologic and MRI technologists are trained to use complex x-ray and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) equipment to produce high-quality diagnostic images. Not only do they have to be experts on the technology, but they also have to have a good bedside manner to calm patients during the process. 

  • Typical Education: Associate’s degree
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Society of Radiologic Technologists (ARST)
Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson

Writer

At HealthcareDegree.com, Kimmy Gustafson has delivered in-depth and insightful articles since 2019, aiding prospective students to navigate the complexities of choosing the right healthcare degree. Her recent work includes topics such as the ethics of gene editing and physician assistant’s fight for autonomy.

Kimmy has been a freelance writer for more than a decade, writing hundreds of articles on a wide variety of topics such as startups, nonprofits, healthcare, kiteboarding, the outdoors, and higher education. She is passionate about seeing the world and has traveled to over 27 countries. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Oregon. When not working, she can be found outdoors, parenting, kiteboarding, or cooking.

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