To close out this year's edition of National Medical Laboratory Professionals Week, I want to step away from the hospital lab.
I left the hospital life a year and a half ago to move into an entirely different sort of laboratory work, but I still talk about the hospital every time I'm asked questions about the profession. I do it because it's the world I worked in the longest (so far) and so I know it very well, and because the majority of graduates from medical laboratory science programs will find employment in hospital labs. My information about working as a hospital med tech is relevant and well informed, but it's not the entire picture.
You can do a lot more than hospital work with a MLT or MLS degree. There are also positions available in walk-in medical clinics like LabCorp or Quest, and in some large medical practices. Some specialty medical practices, like endocrinology centers and fertility clinics, will also have their own small laboratory in-house to run some of the simpler tests. Often, in those places, a lab tech will end up doing more outside-the-lab work, like bringing patients into exam rooms, and taking blood pressure and other vital signs. Some of them are 24-hour places with shift work, and some are a 9-to-5 weekday job.
There are specialty laboratories that run all the weird complicated testing that other labs aren't equipped to do, like genetic testing. There are veterinary labs. Most manufacturers of food, cosmetics, and drugs will have laboratory staff to test their products for quality. There are labs that specialize in drug testing, for pre-employment screens or for athletes.
Depending on your interests, you can get yourself into a research laboratory at a university, or a place like NIH or the CDC. There are plenty of laboratories at the county, state, and federal level, also. Public health labs are the most obvious ones, but what about the FDA? EPA? Even the U.S. Geological Survey does a ton of microbiological research.
You can teach. You can travel and be a tech in other countries. You can get more technical and work for the instrumentation giants like Beckman Coulter or Siemens, either in tech support, sales, or research and development of new assays. If you like computers, you can get into programming and work with laboratory information systems.
And working for these companies doesn't necessarily mean you need to be sitting at a lab bench. Someone who's got a laboratory background can do very well in tech support, customer service and education, quality assurance, or regulatory compliance.
That's another area lab techs can move into - there are several regulatory bodies who oversee laboratories of different types. The American Association of Blood Banks, The Joint Commission, The College of American Pathologists - all of these organizations inspect laboratories for compliance and hand out accreditation, and need inspectors who understand laboratories.
Yes, when you graduate from a medical laboratory science program, you'll probably start out in a hospital lab, doing the shifts that the seasoned techs don't want. But you're not stuck there if you don't like it. It's been my experience that the school programs aren't very good at showing students all the other options that are out there, and how they can work towards them. Hopefully this post helps a few folks who are hating their night shift hematology job but don't know what else they can do with a medical laboratory degree.