The process of becoming a medical lab scientist or MLS can seem confusing at first. There are many educational requirements in place to ensure only the most capable students enter this profession. The process starts as soon you decide this is the path you wish to pursue.
To be a medical lab scientist you need to complete the required schooling and take an exam to become certified. Medical lab scientists need a baccalaureate degree and training at an accredited institution. You must meet these requirements before you can take the certifying exam. After passing the exam, you are a certified medical laboratory scientist. At this point, you can search for jobs and begin your career. In some states, you will also need to apply for licensure, more about this later.
If you happen to be starting on your path in high school, there are a few things you can do to set yourself apart.
1. Take advanced science classes
These classes will prepare you for the coursework in college. Start building a solid foundation of knowledge in these areas. The rest of your career will continue to stack knowledge on these areas. Having a strong understanding of the basics is crucial.
2. Get good grades
Good grades will open doors for you. It can help you get into MLS programs or colleges. Not only does it demonstrate that you have a solid grasp of the concepts. But it shows you are willing to work hard. This is something MLS programs are looking for.
3. Shadow an MLS
A great way to cement your interest in the field is to shadow an MLS. Reach out to a local medical lab. Ask if you can come in for a few hours to shadow an MLS. This gives you a firsthand understanding of the job. You will get a feel for what you are working towards. If you cannot shadow, reach out to an MLS and ask if they will talk to you. Just for a few minutes about their job. If you know anyone working as an MLS, ask if you can buy them a coffee and talk to them about their career. I don’t know many MLSs that would turn down a free cup of coffee! And most of us would love to help out a fellow scientist on their journey!
Getting a volunteer position in a hospital lab is a great way to explore the field. Lab volunteers often help with small tasks around the lab. You won’t be doing bench work, but you will be able to interact with the lab staff. This is another perfect opportunity to ask questions about the field. It will also make your application to college (or an MLS program) stand out. You have taken actions above and beyond most other high school students. Cementing your interest in the medical science field by volunteering or shadowing will show to admission committees that you are committed.
Choosing the right MLS program for you can be difficult. Tips on finding the best fit for you can be found here. If you are applying right out of high school, find a 4-year program that culminates in a bachelor’s degree and allows you to sit for the certification exam. If you already have a bachelor’s degree, there are post-baccalaureate MLS programs. These are one-year programs that prepare you for the MLS exam and hands-on training in a medical lab. If you plan to complete a BS and then apply for an MLS program – take note of the required coursework. Most 4+1 MLS programs have pre-requisite courses that must be completed before applying.
The MLS program you choose to attend will depend on how much schooling you have completed and other factors like location and cost. The program needs to be NAACLS accredited – this will allow you to sit for the ASCP (American Society for Clinical Pathology) MLS certification exam after you graduate. (2, 4)
Routes to Become an MLS
To become a medical lab scientist, you need to take the certification exam offered by ASCP. You can only take the exam if you have fulfilled the eligibility requirements. Here are routes you can take to meet the requirements for the MLS certification exam. (1)
ROUTE 1: Route 1 is the most common pathway students take to become certified. You need a baccalaureate degree from a regionally accredited college or university. You must complete a NAACLS accredited medical lab scientist program (done within the last 5 years).
ROUTE 2: Route 2 is for those who are medical lab technicians (MLT). You must be a certified MLT (ASCP) with two years of full-time clinical experience (including blood banking, chemistry, hematology, microbiology, immunology, and urinalysis/body fluids). This experience needs to be from a lab in the US or Canada within the last 4 years. You also need a baccalaureate degree including the following courses: 16 semester hours of biological science (with one-semester microbiology), 16 semester hours of chemistry (with one semester organic or biochemistry).
ROUTE 3: Route 3 is only applicable to those certified as CLA (ASCP). This certification was discontinued in 1982.
ROUTE 4: Route 4 applies to those who have worked for 5 years as an MLS in an acceptable clinical lab within the last 10 years. You also need to have a baccalaureate degree for this route. This route is for those who were working as medical lab scientists before certification became mandatory.
To practice as a medical lab scientist in the United States, you need certification from the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP). This requires you pass the MLS ASCP BOC exam which consists of 100 questions and takes 2.5 hours.
To be eligible for the ASCP BOC exam you must meet one of the 4 requirements (meaning, take one of the 4 paths listed above).
Once you have met the requirements you can sign up online to take the exam.
The current cost of the exam is $240 (as of 2018).
Check out this article: Certification, Licensure, and Why they are Important
If you pass the ASCP BOC exam you are a certified MLS. In most states, you will be able to start applying to jobs right away. In a few states though, you must also be licensed. Licensure is permission from a state’s government to practice as an MLS. Currently, only 11 states require licensure (3):
California, Hawaii, Florida, New York, North Dakota, Tennessee, Louisiana, Nevada, West Virginia, Montana, and Georgia (+ Puerto Rico also)
Licensing requirements vary from state to state, but generally, require you to meet minimum education and professional competency requirements. They usually require an annual licensing fee and continuing education. (3)
Medical lab science is a career that demands specific requirements. These are in place to ensure only qualified professionals enter the field. The work a medical lab scientist does is crucial as the data they produce can determine a patient’s diagnosis and treatment.
Becoming a medical lab scientist requires at a minimum a baccalaureate degree. Completion of an accredited MLS program makes you eligible for the certification exam. You are a certified MLS after you pass the ASCP exam and are ready for a career in medical lab science.
I think the rigors of becoming certified are important. These are in place to ensure you can make critical decisions. These tough requirements also make sure you are committed to producing accurate and reliable results for your patients.
This path will prepare you for a rewarding career in medical science, one with incredible importance. MLS is a job for those who desire to make a difference. For those who want to be a crucial part of the health care team. Start on your journey today so you can have a fulfilling career. One you can be proud of.
If you have any questions about the path to becoming a medical lab scientist feel free to reach out to me. Or post a question in the comments below!
1. “Ascp-Boc-Us-Procedures-Book-Final-Web.Pdf.” n.d. Accessed November 23, 2018. https://www.ascp.org/content/docs/default-source/boc-pdfs/exam-content-outlines/ascp-boc-us-procedures-book-final-web.pdf?sfvrsn=22.
2. “Get Credentialed.” n.d. Accessed November 23, 2018. https://www.ascp.org/content/board-of-certification/get-credentialed/#us-certifications.
3. “Licensure.” n.d. Accessed November 23, 2018. https://www.ascls.org/advocacy-issues/licensure.
4. “NAACLS – National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Science – About.” n.d. Accessed November 23, 2018. https://www.naacls.org/about.aspx.
5. “Board of Certification.” n.d. Accessed November 23, 2018. https://www.ascp.org/content/board-of-certification.