Lab Technician Career Overview

Jan 31, 2023
Amanda Lundberg, RN, BSN

What is a Lab Technician?

A laboratory technician, commonly called a medical or clinical laboratory technician, is a medical professional who works behind the scenes. Their main job is to study and test samples from patients, including blood, urine, cell, and tissue samples. Lab technicians have an important job because accurate test results are vital for quality patient care.

Most lab technicians work in hospitals, doctor’s offices, or diagnostic laboratories. Some laboratories, like labs located inside hospitals, must run 24 hours a day, which requires lab technicians to work nights and weekends. They are trained to use sophisticated equipment in the lab to run tests on patient samples. Some of the samples they test may be infectious, so they wear protective clothing.

There is a difference between a lab technician and a lab technologist, though the words are often used to mean the same thing. A laboratory technician usually holds an associate’s degree or a postsecondary certificate from a vocational school. A laboratory technologist has earned a bachelor’s degree in the field. Both titles are often shortened and referred to as “lab tech”.

What Does a Lab Technician Do?

When a physician orders a test for their patient, lab techs run the tests. Technologists run more complex tests that require specimen preparation or manual procedures. Technicians are usually in charge of running tests that are routine or automated. 

Throughout the day, lab techs will typically spend time doing the following work:

  • Operate sophisticated equipment such as cell counters and microscopes
  • Analyze bodily fluids and record findings
  • Record test results and other lab data in the patient’s medical record
  • Use computerized and automated equipment to run different tests at the same time
  • Discuss the results of laboratory tests with the patient’s physician

In small laboratories, lab techs will run many different types of tests throughout the day. In bigger laboratories, they often specialize. Ways to specialize include:

  • Immunology technologists: examine the immune system and how it reacts to foreign substances
  • Cytotechnologists: examine body cells under a microscope to look for cancerous growth
  • Microbiology technologists: examine bacteria or other microorganisms
  • Blood bank technologists: classify blood by its type and prepare it for transfusions
  • Molecular biology technologists: conduct complex nucleic acid and protein tests on cell samples
  • Clinical chemistry technologists: examine and analyze the hormones and chemicals in body fluids

What Skills Does a Lab Technician Need?

The main skills a lab technician needs revolve around the ability to perform tests accurately each time. It is essential to become familiar with the different types of laboratory equipment used to perform tests and procedures. Important skills for lab techs include:

  • Being detail-oriented: The instructions must be followed perfectly in order for test results to be accurate.
  • Being comfortable with technology: Lab techs must fully understand the computerized laboratory equipment they are using.
  • Dexterity: Lab techs work closely with needles and other precision equipment. They must be able to handle them effectively.
  • Physical stamina: Lab techs typically work on their feet for long hours.

Work Settings For Lab Technicians

Most lab techs work in hospitals, diagnostic laboratories, outpatient care centers, or the offices of physicians. Wherever laboratory tests are being done, lab techs are needed. Most lab techs work full-time hours. Some work nights and weekends, depending on the hours the laboratory keeps. Lab techs commonly work on their feet all day and suit up in protective equipment such as goggles, gloves, and masks.

Common Cases Lab Technicians Encounter

Lab technicians test for many different types of health issues. These can include:

  • Testing blood, urine, or tissue samples for abnormalities
  • Testing urine or blood for the presence of drugs
  • Testing blood to ensure it’s a good match for a transfusion
  • Testing blood, sputum, urine, or samples from a wound for bacteria or other infections
  • Testing body fluids for cell counts, glucose, cholesterol, or other markers

Education Requirements & Helpful Certifications

Lab techs need a college degree or certification. Laboratory technicians usually hold a certificate or associate’s degree in medical laboratory science. Lab technologists typically hold a bachelor’s degree in clinical laboratory science or a similar area.

These certifications and college degrees require classes in chemistry, math, biology, statistics, and microbiology. Most degrees also require the student complete hands-on clinical training in a laboratory. 

Some states require lab techs to be licensed. Lab techs can obtain a general or a specialty certification after completing an educational program and exam. Becoming certified and licensed will increase marketability and potential pay. 

How to Become a Lab Technician

A lab tech needs formal education in laboratory science. The American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science specifies the latest requirements. Many employers prefer to hire a licensed lab tech, even if it is not required.

To become a lab tech, the following steps are encouraged:

  1. Complete an accredited education program.
  2. Take a certification exam.
  3. Maintain certification by completing continuing education requirements.

For certification information, visit the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences, American Medical Technologists, and the American Society for Clinical Pathology.

How to Advance Your Career as a Lab Technician

Some lab techs advance their careers by specializing in an area of laboratory science, like immunology or cytotechnology. Work experience or additional education or certifications can prepare the way to specialize in one area. Lab technicians can advance to become lab technologists by continuing their education and gaining more experience.

Average Salary For Lab Technicians

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, lab techs earn an average of $57,800 per year or $27.80 per hour. Lab techs working in outpatient care centers earned the most, with the lowest wage earned by lab techs working in doctor’s offices. New York and Rhode Island pay lab techs the highest wage, between $70,500 and $72,500. Georgia and North Carolina are the lowest-paying states, with wages between $57,000 and $59,000.

The Pros of Being a Lab Technician

  • No shortage of jobs available
  • Increased need for techs in the future due to an aging population
  • Good starting wage 
  • Ability to specialize in an area of interest

The Cons of Being a Lab Technician

  • Long shifts standing most of the time
  • Possibility of performing the same repetitive tests every day
  • Possible weekend and night shifts
  • Working with infectious substances

Specialty Organizations & Communities

Ideal Personality Traits

  • Attention to detail
  • Ability to multitask
  • Compassion for patients
  • Comfortable with bodily fluids and needles
  • Proficient with computerized equipment
  • Ability to think critically and analytically
  • A focus on creating a safe environment

Final Thoughts

Lab technicians play an important role in the medical field by running tests and performing analyses. There are many pros to being a lab technician, such as a good starting wage and the ability to specialize in an area of interest. If you are interested in finding a lab tech position, check out Trusted Health’s new allied health positions around the country.