Sonographer (Radiographer)

Sonography is the use of high-frequency sound waves to produce a digital image. This technique is used to image breast tissues, fetuses, internal organs, heart function, and blood vessels. This non-invasive procedure is critical to understanding what is going on in a patient’s body. Without sonography, doctors would have to rely on what they can observe or would have to perform many more exploratory surgeries.

Sonographers are the professionals who perform sonograms. They are required to have specialized education and training to use the equipment, know what they are looking at, summarize findings for doctors, and help patients understand their procedures.

Many sonographers specialize in a particular kind of sonography, such as obstetrics and gynecology, vascular, cardiac, breast, or musculoskeletal. Each type of imagining requires detailed knowledge of anatomy and pathology to obtain the images a physician needs.

Typically, sonographers have earned at least an associate degree in sonography and have completed clinical rotations to gain hands-on experience prior to their first job. Some professionals have earned a bachelor’s or master’s degree for working in a given specialization.

Certification is optional in this career, although it is an industry-standard and required by most employers. The primary certifying bodies are the American Registry of Diagnostic Medical Sonographers (ARDMS), the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (AART), and Cardiovascular Credentialing International (CCI). Certification can be obtained in general sonography or in over 15 different specializations, depending on where the certification is obtained.

Sonography is a growing career field. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (2020) estimates that between 2019 and 2029, there will be a 12 percent increase in employment in this field, translating into 74,300 new jobs. This increase is primarily due to an aging baby boomer population requiring more medical care, including diagnostic imaging. In addition to being a growing field, employment in this career is lucrative, with an average wage of $75,780 per year. These wages are relatively high for a job that only requires an associate’s degree.

Continue reading to learn what it takes to enter this exciting field, including further details about specialization, job duties, and top programs.

Sonographer Specializations & Degree Types

Education is essential to working as a sonographer. Depending on the degree pursued, programs vary in length and can take anywhere from two to four years. There are some one-year programs available; however, they require applicants to already have an associate degree in an allied health field. Many professionals in this field choose to pursue at least an associate degree—if not a bachelor’s—as this can help with job applications and career advancement.

Sonographers can choose to specialize in either cardiac, general, vascular, or musculoskeletal sonography. There are various certifications within those specializations, including ones for breast tissue, pediatrics, obstetrics, fetal, and even neurology. Certificates are earned through a combination of education, hands-on experience, and testing.

Admissions Requirements for Sonography Programs

Admission requirements for sonography programs vary based on the type of program. One-year certificate programs typically require applicants to have completed an associate’s degree in an allied health-related field. Associate degree programs require applicants to graduate from high school or complete a GED. Prerequisite coursework can often be required as well.

Bachelor’s programs have comprehensive admission requirements, including standardized test scores such as the ACT or SAT, personal statements, and graduating from high school. Due to some of the four-year sonography programs’ competitiveness, prerequisite coursework may be required before enrolling in the major.

Sonography Program Accreditation

Students should ensure the sonography program they enroll in is accredited for several reasons. First, it ensures that the program meets minimum standards of quality and content. Second, some certification entities require that students complete an accredited program in order to be eligible to sit for exams. The primary approval body for diagnostic medical sonography programs is the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP).

On-Campus Diagnostic Sonography, Radiography & Medical Imaging Degree Programs

The University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center – College of Allied Health

The University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center College of Allied Health offers a bachelor’s of science in medical imaging and radiation sciences (sonography). This program offers a specialization in either general, cardiac, or vascular sonography. Graduates will have the skills to identify pathology, use instruments, and produce accurate exam results so physicians can make a diagnosis.

To be admitted to this major, students must complete 64 credits of coursework, including foundation and prerequisite classes, with a minimum GPA of 2.5. However, this program is highly competitive, admitting only 19 out of 53 applicants in 2020, and the average GPA of admitted students 3.64. Students can improve their chances of admission by doing well in their interviews, maintaining a high GPA, completing work experience in this field, and writing a compelling Career Goal Statement.

  • Location: Oklahoma City, OK
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
  • Tuition: $512.70 per credit-hour

University of Missouri -School of Health Professions

Students can earn either a bachelor’s of science in diagnostic medical ultrasound or a master of health science in clinical and diagnostic science (MHS CDS) at the University of Missouri School of Health Professions.

Graduates of the bachelor’s program have the necessary skills to work as a sonographer in various workplaces. Graduates of the master’s program have the training to also be educators in this field. In 2020, there was a 100 percent graduation, testing, and job placement rate for the 2019 graduating class.

Students are admitted to the bachelor’s program for their junior year. Students must complete their prerequisite coursework in the first two years of schooling to prepare for the rigorous sonography program. In addition to coursework, students must complete clinical rotations where they gain hands-on experience. These rotations are completed at one of 25 sites located around the state of Missouri.

  • Location: Columbia, MO
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
  • Tuition: $29,302 per year

Online or Hybrid Diagnostic Sonography, Radiography & Medical Imaging Degree Programs

Washburn University

Professionals who already hold an associate’s degree or higher from a healthcare program with a hands-on clinical component can enroll in the one-year sonography certificate program at Washburn University.

Students can complete the required coursework entirely online and perform their clinical education at a facility near them. This flexibility allows professionals to advance into a new field without having to relocate. Often the clinical education can even be completed as part of a student’s job if they can gain employment in a sonography department.

Graduates of this program are eligible to sit for the ARDMS or CCI certification exams. Students can choose to specialize in general, vascular, or cardiac sonography. Required coursework students must complete includes an introduction to diagnostic medical sonography, sonography principles and instrumentation, abdomen sonography procedures, and obstetrics sonography procedures.

  • Location: Topeka, KS
  • Duration: 12 months
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
  • Tuition: $16,899 for the general program

State Fair Community College

At State Fair Community College, students can earn an associate of applied science (AAS) in diagnostic medical sonography. This 22-month program consists of both online theory courses and hands-on clinical experiences. Graduates have entry-level experience to find jobs in this field. For the past four years, this program has boasted 100 percent job placement rates for its graduates.

Admission to this program is highly competitive. Before applying, students must complete or be enrolled in prerequisite coursework, including writing, history, biology, anatomy, and math. Other admission requirements include passing an entrance exam, having a 2.75 GPA or higher, and completing eight hours of sonography observation. Once enrolled, students can choose to complete a general or cardiac sonography path.

  • Location: Sedalia, MO
  • Duration: 22 months
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
  • Tuition: $152 per credit-hour

How Long Does it Take to Become a Sonographer?

It takes anywhere from two to four years after high school to complete the necessary education to enter this field. This timeline varies based on the level of education achieved and if certification is pursued or not.

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

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

Completing high school or obtaining a GED is the first step towards becoming a sonographer. Not only does it show dedication to completing a course of study, but it also demonstrates a minimum level of education.

Students who wish to pursue this career should focus on classes such as biology, physics, math, anatomy, and psychology. Shadowing in a sonography lab can also provide valuable insight into this career and give students an advantage when applying to a sonography program.

Step 2: Complete a Sonography Program (Two to Four Years)

A sonography program can be completed in two years if pursuing an associate degree or four years if pursuing a bachelor’s. Professionals who already have an associate degree in an allied health field can complete a certificate program that can take as little as a year. As part of these studies, students will not only learn the theory and methodology or sonography in a classroom but will also participate in clinical rotations to gain hands-on experience. Students who complete an accredited or approved course will be eligible to sit for a certification exam.

Step 3: Obtain Certification or Licensure (Optional, Timeline Varies)

While certification is not required, it has become an industry standard and may be necessary to seek employment or advance in this field. The primary certifying bodies are the American Registry of Diagnostic Medical Sonographers (ARDMS), the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (AART), and Cardiovascular Credentialing International (CCI).

Currently, only four states require licensure for medical sonographers. Aspiring professionals in this field should check with their local state licensing boards to ensure they meet all the requirements.

What Do Sonographers Do?

Sonographers work in hospitals, clinics, diagnostic labs, physicians’ offices, imaging services, universities, and even veterinary clinics. Job duties can vary based on specialization and place of employment, but typical day to day responsibilities of sonographers include:

  • Preparing patients for diagnostic sonogram tests
  • Explaining procedures to patients
  • Taking patients’ medical history
  • Preparing and maintaining sonogram equipment
  • Operating equipment to obtain diagnostic images
  • Reviewing images gathered to ensure they are clear
  • Summarizing findings to help physicians make a diagnosis
  • Maintaining client files and recording findings of the images collected

Diagnostic Medical Sonographer Certifications & State Licensure

Certification for sonographers is not required, although it is highly recommended. It informs employers that they have met a minimum standard of education and knowledge measured through examination. The three primary certification bodies are the American Registry of Diagnostic Medical Sonographers (ARDMS), the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (AART), and Cardiovascular Credentialing International (CCI).

The ARDMS offers five categories of certification with a total of 15 specializations. Earning an ARDMS certification is an excellent way to demonstrate proficiency in a specific area such as fetal echocardiography, vascular technology, or musculoskeletal sonography. A combination of education and work experience is required to qualify to sit for these exams.

The AART requires applicants to have completed at least an associate’s degree in sonography to be eligible for certification. Candidates for this certification will also need to pass an exam in either sonography or vascular sonography.

Professionals working in cardiac sonography can earn a certification from the CCI. A combination of work experience and education is required to earn certification in cardiac, congenital cardiac, vascular, or phlebology sonography.

State licensing is currently only required in New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Oregon. Requirements vary by state but typically include testing, education, a background check, and paying a licensing fee. Candidates should check with this state’s board to ensure they meet all the licensing requirements.

How Much Do Sonographers Make?

Sonographers earn an average of $74,320 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2019). Pay varies based on place of employment, level of education, years of work experience, and specializations. The percentiles are:

  • 10th percentile: $52,770
  • 25th percentile: $61,830
  • 50th percentile (median): $74,320
  • 75th percentile: $89,130
  • 90th percentile: $102,060
Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson

Writer

Kimmy is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about healthcare careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.

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