What Is a Clinical Lab Technician? A Closer Look at Those Behind the Microscope

illustration of clinical lab technician looking through microscope

When you watch shows like CSI, you are always more interested in the forensic side than the criminal side. You eagerly wait for the lab scenes—when they peer into microscopes and identify DNA clues from the smallest sample. The world of chemistry and microbiology are fascinating, and you want in on it.

While you don’t exactly want to be a bigshot scientist, working in a lab appeals to you. A career as a clinical laboratory technician could be right up your alley. If you’re not quite sure of what these lab techs do, then you’ve come to the right place. The short answer is that clinical lab technicians work in labs to analyze human samples—from blood to tissue and everything in between. But that’s not the full picture.

We examined this career from all angles to provide you with a comprehensive overview of this intriguing healthcare field. So what is a clinical lab technician, exactly? Read on to find your answer to this question and more.

What is a clinical lab technician?

Clinical lab technicians are also commonly known as medical lab technicians, clinical lab assistants, laboratory assistants or simply lab techs. Professionals in this role work in a lab to help study and test different samples—whether it’s blood, tissue, urine or other cellular matter.

This is a great job for those who want to be involved in healthcare but aren’t as comfortable working with patients. There’s no worrying about running around the floor tending to every patient. As a clinical lab tech, you can concentrate on the task at hand to provide timely and accurate results that help doctors determine diagnoses and determine treatment plans. You will make a difference through your attention to detail and ability to help identify and report abnormalities and diseases.

What does a clinical lab technician do?

Let’s start with the daily duties of a clinical lab tech. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), clinical lab techs are responsible for many duties including:1

  • Performing tests and analyses on human blood, urine, spinal fluid or tissue
  • Collecting and reporting data regarding the test results
  • Operating lab equipment, such as microscopes and cell counters

In addition to these common responsibilities, clinical lab technicians may also choose to pursue specialties. Here’s an example of some types of specialists in this field:

  • Cytotechnologist: studies cells and cellular anomalies
  • Phlebotomist: collects blood for testing
  • Histotechnician: works with tissue samples
  • Microbiology technician: studies bacteria and other microscopic organisms

Where do clinical lab technicians work?

It’s clear that these healthcare professionals work in a laboratory environment, but these labs can be found in various settings. The BLS states that nearly half of all clinical lab technicians are employed in medical and surgical hospitals.1

But there are other facilities that employ these lab techs. Other work environments include: medical and diagnostic labs, physician’s offices, outpatient care centers and colleges and universities. Work schedules will vary depending on the facility, with some requiring overnight, weekend or holiday shifts. Regardless of the setting, lab techs can expect to be on their feet for long periods of time.

What skills do you need to be a clinical lab technician?

An interest in science is certainly important, but that’s not all you will need if you are thinking of becoming a clinical lab technician. We used real-time job analysis software to examine more than 90,000 clinical lab technician job postings from the past year.2

Top technical skills:

  • Quality assurance and control
  • Chemistry
  • Laboratory testing
  • Customer service
  • Data entry

Top transferable skills:

  • Communication
  • Organization
  • Computer literacy
  • Attention to detail
  • Research

So while you should have a proclivity towards science, you will learn the majority of those technical skills through formal education.

What is the career outlook for clinical lab technicians?

If you’re intrigued by the idea of becoming a clinical lab technician, you’re likely curious about what your job prospects might be. You’ll be happy to hear the BLS projects employment of clinical lab technicians to grow 11 percent through 2028.1 This is more than twice the average rate of employment growth for all occupations.

Clinical and medical lab technicians will be in demand for several reasons. First, healthcare reform has allowed access to affordable medical testing for more patients. Second, with an aging US population comes a spike in patients who need lab work done. Last, the BLS predicts an increase in prenatal testing for genetic conditions.

How much do clinical lab technicians make?

Now you know this career has a favorable job outlook, but what can you expect from a typical clinical lab technician salary? According to the BLS, the median annual salary for clinical lab technicians in 2018 was $52,330.1 Compare this to the $38,640 median annual salary average for all occupations and you should feel good about your earning potential in this field.1

It should be noted that the clinical lab technician salary will vary based on your employer. For example, those working in medical and surgical hospitals typically have the highest compensation, while those employed in physician’s offices tend to fall on the lower end of the salary scale.1

How do you become a clinical lab technician?

Clinical lab technicians typically need an associate’s degree or postsecondary certificate, according to the BLS.1 Some states also require lab techs to be licensed.

Aspiring clinical lab technicians can earn a Medical Laboratory Technician Associate’s degree in as few as 21 months.3 Students can expect to acquire practical training in the following areas:

  • Diagnostic testing
  • Blood work
  • Equipment and technology
  • Safety standards

Curious about what courses are included in the clinical lab technician curriculum? Here are a few common ones to expect:

  • Clinical Chemistry
  • Phlebotomy
  • Hematology
  • Immunology
  • Clinical Microbiology

Programs like the one at Rasmussen College also ensure students get hands-on experience working in a student laboratory. So once you graduate, you will not only have the book knowledge but also the clinical skills to match.

Launch your lab career

Clinical lab technicians do much more than just stare into a microscope all day. They may not be front and center working in healthcare facilities, but their work plays a vital role in determining medical diagnoses.

If you’re interested in working behind the scenes to help support the greater medical team, a career as a clinical lab technician may be the perfect fit. Find out if you have the natural qualities to succeed in this position by reading our article, “6 Signs a Medical Lab Tech Career Is Right for You.”

1 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [accessed November 2019]. Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and include workers at all levels of education and experience. The data does not represent starting salaries. Employment conditions in your area may vary.
2Burning-Glass.com (Analysis of 94,302 clinical and medical lab technician job postings, Nov. 01, 2018 – Oct. 31, 2019).
3Time to completion is dependent on accepted transfer credits and courses completed each quarter.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in 2017. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2019.

Callie Malvik

Callie is the Content Manager at Collegis Education, overseeing blog content on behalf of Rasmussen University. She is passionate about creating quality resources that empower others to improve their lives through education.

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