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Two main educational routes can lead you to a career as a sonographer: an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree. Which path you choose can depend on how fast you want to enter the job market, finances, career goals, and your other life responsibilities. In this guide the terms sonographer and ultrasound technician are interchangeable.
Overview of Ultrasound Tech Programs
An associate degree to become a sonographer is the fastest—and most common—educational option for someone who doesn’t already have a degree and a career in clinical healthcare. It takes an average of two years to complete.
Some students choose a bachelor’s degree, which generally takes four years to complete.
People who already have a healthcare-related degree and are working in a clinical healthcare profession have a third, less common option. They can take a one- to two-year certificate program to add sonography to their existing training.
You’ll learn the science behind ultrasound technology as well as the practical skills of how to perform a sonographer’s duties. Generally, you’ll learn the foundational principles of sonography, plus take specific courses in abdominal and OB/GYN imaging.
“We look at everything in the body, knowing what’s normal and looking for anything that’s abnormal,” says Kate Scrivens, a sonographer in Central Oregon. “The information we get can help in many, many scenarios: pediatric, vascular, breast, obstetric, gynecological, even as a guide during surgery. It’s important work.”
To start, you’ll need to decide which educational option is best for you: associate degree, bachelor’s degree, or certificate program.
Prerequisites can differ, depending on schools and programs. But whatever they are, says Scrivens, “work hard on your prerequisites. Do as well as you can because it’s competitive to get into a sonography school.”
An associate degree in sonography is the most common path to working in the field. It takes two years to complete and prepares you for an entry-level sonographer position. An associate program is streamlined and rigorous.
People who want to earn a bachelor’s degree in sonography don’t necessarily have to complete it before beginning their career. Sonographers can start by earning an associate degree, then transfer many of those credits to gradually complete a bachelor’s while working.
A certificate program in sonography isn’t an option for someone first setting out on their career. Certificate programs don’t accept students straight out of high school or people transitioning from a field outside of healthcare.
Rather, certificate programs train people who are already working in a clinical healthcare profession and have an associate or bachelor’s degree in a health field.
Clinical work is a vital part of a sonographer’s education. It provides a chance to put into practice everything students have learned in the classroom, school labs, and simulations.
Clinicals vary from school to school, so it’s important to look into the programs of the schools you’re interested in. Some assign you one rotation, or round of work, at a local hospital. Others assign you to multiple rotations, and still others might send you far afield.
“Some schools will send you to different states for clinicals,” Scrivens says. “Take that into account when you’re applying. Are you willing to move? Will that work for your family?”
Once you begin this stretch of your sonography education, “treat clinicals like a job interview,” Scrivens says. “Show you’re a good candidate for a job. Your clinicals can actually get you a foot in the door.”
If you do well, it’s fairly common for the healthcare facility to bring you on at a per diem rate after you graduate and earn a certification. This can be a terrific stepping stone as you look for a full-time job.
Online Ultrasound Tech Programs
To become a sonographer, you’ll need plenty of hands-on practice. That means you’ll need to do at least some of your education and training in person.
So, while fully online programs for sonography don’t exist, there are hybrid programs. These provide some classes, such as physiology and ethics, online. You’ll complete your hands-on learning in person.
A hybrid sonography program isn’t a good fit for everyone. Learning on your own, rather than in a group environment in person, requires discipline, organization, and self-motivation.
What to Look for in a Sonography School
When you research a sonography school or program, the first qualification to look for is accreditation. Accreditation signals that the school has met education standards for the field, so employers know you’ll graduate with the necessary skills to enter the profession.
“It’s very important to go to an accredited school,” Scrivens says. “That way, you know you’re getting the best education.”
In addition, she says, “graduating from an accredited program means you’re more likely to get a job.”
If you’re looking for funding for your education, attending an accredited school is even more important. Federal financial aid is awarded only to students in accredited programs.
Another reason to apply to accredited schools: Some states require that sonographers be credentialed, and you’ll need to attend an accredited program to be eligible to earn a credential.
In sum, “making sure you attend an accredited school benefits your entire career,” Scrivens says.
Licensure and Certification
Currently, only four states mandate licensure before practicing as a sonographer: New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Oregon. Licensure requirements may include certification, a background check, or an interview.
Becoming certified as a sonographer is not the same as licensing. Certification involves studying an area of your profession to build on your knowledge and then passing an exam. The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) and the American Registry of Diagnostic Medical Sonographers (ARDMS) award credentials for sonographers.
A certification demonstrates your expertise and can benefit your career no matter which state you live in. That’s because employers often look for—or even require—professional credentials in their hires.
“There are a lot of exams you can take, but the initial ones you should sit for are OB/GYN and abdomen,” Scrivens says.
A certification demonstrates your expertise, and employers often look for—or require—professional credentials in their hires.
Ultrasound Techn Salary and Job Outlook
Your salary as a sonographer will depend on your experience, where you work, your credentials, and other factors.
In general, you’ll receive a solid salary in a field where jobs are expected to grow by 14.3%, faster than average, through 2032. As the U.S. population continues to age and live longer, demand for healthcare will continue to grow.
“Employers everywhere are looking for strong sonographers,” Scrivens says.
As you research sonography programs, consider education costs. If you plan to seek federal financial aid, you’ll need to attend an accredited school.
In addition, some schools and programs offer financial aid, and scholarships may be available as well. Funding may be awarded based on need or merit. To learn more, talk to the schools or programs to which you apply.