How to Become an Ultrasound Technician: Schools, Degrees & Certificates
Read five good reasons why you should get an education to prep for your ultrasound technician career.
Five Reasons to Get an Ultrasound Technician Education
If you’re considering whether or not to enroll in ultrasound technician training but are still on the fence, here are five good reasons to take that first step:
1. Enter the job field in a short time. A 2-year associates degree is the most popular option for students getting their ultrasound training, but if you have previous experience in a health profession you may be able complete your ultrasound certificate program in about a year.
2. Be a part of a cutting-edge career field. While ultrasound is most often associated with pregnancy, ultrasound imaging is used in a growing number of ways, which translates to good job opportunities for the future.
3. Earn a great salary. Your ultrasound technician education will qualify you for a job with great salary potential. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual pay for diagnostic medical sonographers is $73,860.
4. Use your skills to help people. You’ll be preparing for a job you can feel good about. Being able to use your knowledge and skills to help people is a reward that goes beyond earning a paycheck.
5. Lots of job opportunities. Healthcare careers are some of the fastest growing jobs in the U.S.—and ultrasound is no exception. After graduating from your program, you’ll be ready to enter a career field that the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts will grow a whopping 19% over the next decade.
Ultrasound Technician: What You’ll Do
Ultrasound technicians, also known as diagnostic medical sonographers, are responsible for operating equipment that produce and record images or conduct tests. These images are then used by physicians to make a diagnosis.
Most people are familiar with the role of an ultrasound technician as it relates to pregnancy, but sonograms are also used to examine breast tissue, brain and spinal cord and muscles, ligaments, tendons and joints and organs in the abdominal cavity.
Like other allied health careers, specialization is a possibility with sonography. Cardiac sonographers produce imaging of a patient’s heart, heart chambers, valves and vessels. A vascular sonographer is similar to a cardiac sonographer, but they focus primarily on blood vessels and blood flow.
An ultrasound technician’s job requires more than just producing an image. You’ll interact with patients by preparing them for the procedure. You’ll also need a keen eye; ultrasound technicians must be able to recognize normal and abnormal images. Analyzing diagnostic information and providing it to the physician is a regular job task.
Ultrasound technicians work primarily in hospitals, physician’s offices and laboratories, but before you can get there, you’ll need to earn an ultrasound technician education.
What You’ll Study
You’ll need to pass courses in the core sciences—biology, chemistry, anatomy, physiology, physics—as a prerequisite for ultrasound tech programs. Some programs prefer applicants with a background in science or experience in other healthcare professions, but also will consider high school graduates with courses in mathematics and science, as well as applicants with liberal arts backgrounds.
Ultrasound tech program options include:
- 1-year certificate or diploma
- 2-year associate’s degree
- 4-year bachelor’s degree
Depending on your area of specialty, diagnostic ultrasound programs may offer courses in:
- Abdominal Ultrasound & Small Parts
- Obstetric and Gynecology Ultrasound
- Vascular Ultrasound
- Physics and Instrumentation
- Sectional Anatomy
- Medical Terminology
- Anatomy of the Heart
- Physiology of the Heart
- Pathophysiology of the Heart
- Vascular Ultrasound
- Ultrasound Physics
You’ll also gain plenty of clinical, supervised hands-on practical experience in a 3-6 month internship during your ultrasound technician school program.
Ultrasound Technician Schools
Ultrasound technician schools are located throughout the country, but how do you know if the one you choose will give you the education you need? Consider some of the following criteria when comparing colleges:
Accreditation: Look for ultrasound technician schools that are accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP), the Joint Review Committee on Education in Diagnostic Medical Sonography (JRC-DMS) or regional accrediting agencies. Without accreditation, students are unable to apply for federal financial aid or earn professional certification.
High-tech facilities: As an ultrasound technician, you’ll work with technology and state-of-the-art equipment every day. This is why it’s important to find a school that offers instruction in high-tech facilities. Once you’ve gained knowledge in the classroom, you’ll want to put your skills to the test with hands-on training. Be sure to tour a school’s facility and learn what type of access you’ll have to the labs on campus.
Externship opportunities: One of the best ways to understand a day-in-the-life of an ultrasound technician is to get out in the field. Look for a school that partners with local medical facilities or labs for externships. Real-life experience is invaluable; you’ll be able to shadow a sonographer, ask questions and learn about the challenges and rewards of the job. No textbook can offer that type of experience.
Ultrasound Technician School: Degrees
With several options to choose from, which ultrasound degree is best? Here’s a look at what each level offers.
An associate’s degree in diagnostic medical sonography can open the door to entry-level positions in the field. Most programs last between 18 and 24 months.
In addition to learning about equipment, ultrasound technician students can expect to receive a heavy dose of patient care education. Since sonographers interact closely with people all day, they need a strong grasp on how to interact with a diverse group of patients.
Mastering legal, ethical and regulatory topics will also be necessary.
Most ultrasound technicians hold an associate’s degree, but if you’re looking to advance your education earning a bachelor’s degree in diagnostic medical sonography can offer great rewards.
The additional schooling will allow you to strengthen your problem-solving skills and get involved with research and projects. Some ultrasound technicians with BS degrees go on to pursue careers in medicine.
If a bachelor’s degree sounds like a logical step on your way to an ultrasound career, take note of the two options most schools offer.
Degree completion: These programs are specifically designed for sonographers who are part of a professional registry, such as the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS) or those who have previous college credit. Most programs will also require that you are currently employed in the field.
If you haven’t taken certain general education courses, such as college algebra, social sciences and English composition, you’ll be required to complete these courses during ultrasound technician school. The professional courses will typically include:
- Healthcare systems
- Healthcare management
- Fetal echo, neonatal and pediatric sonography
- Musculoskeletal sonography
- Breast sonography
You’ll spend much of your time in laboratory settings and most schools also require an externship at a local medical facility or lab.
If you already have your associate’s degree in sonography, there are bachelor’s degree completion options that allow you to specialize in areas like vascular sonography. Your time will be devoted to learning the intricacies of this specific track.
Four-year degree: Just starting out? For those without a previous degree or college credits, a four-year BS in diagnostic medical sonography is available. Like other BS degrees, you’ll take a combination of general education courses and classes specific to your major. The latter usually occurs in the last two years of the program, however, your initial coursework will prepare you with introduction science courses.
Aspiring ultrasound technicians can also opt to earn a certificate instead of a degree in the field. Unlike other certificates, however, a diagnostic medical sonography certificate program is intended for people who already have a college education. Program length ranges between 12 to 18 months, depending on the school.
In order to enroll in a certificate program, you typically need one of the two:
- Bachelor’s degree in any major
- Associate’s degree in allied health program, such as occupational therapy assistant or registered nurse
Even though a certificate program is shorter than degree programs, you can still expect to gain hands-on experience in the form of a clinical practicum.
No matter which education path you choose, most programs will require that you take courses in a specific order. The curriculums are designed to build on previous lessons, especially as the topics become more complex in the later part of the program.
Since diagnostic medical sonography is expected to grow at such a rapid pace, now is a great time to get an education and become part of a thriving healthcare field.
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook