How to Become a Histologist: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a histologist. Research the job description and the education and licensing requirements, and find out how to start a career in laboratory sciences.

Should I Become a Histologist?

The study of histology involves examining thin slices of tissue samples to determine medical illnesses or abnormalities. Histotechnicians and histotechnologists work in medical laboratories with pathologists and other laboratory experts. They obtain tissue samples, place them on microscope slides, stain samples with specific chemicals and record how tissue samples react. Most histologists have very little contact with patients. Those who work for surgical departments may have to examine tissue samples quickly to provide surgeons with immediate test results, possibly causing some stress related to deadlines.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Associate degree or certificate (technician), bachelor's degree (technologist)
Degree Field Histology or histotechnology
Licensure and Certification Licenses required in some states; histology technician and technologist certification recommended
Experience Recent laboratory experience with staining, microtomy, fixation and tissue sample processing
Key Skills Able to manage time efficiently, capable of meeting deadlines, strong communication skills, familiar with analyzing difficult problems and able to make sound decisions; able to manipulate delicate histology tools, knowledgeable with sample gathering techniques and familiar with tissue staining protocols.
Salary $53,393 (median annual salary as of August 2015)

Sources: National Institute of Health (NIH), The American Society of Clinical Pathology (ASCP) Board of Certification (BOC), Salary.com, The National Society for Histotechnology (NSH).

Step 1: Complete Histology Degree or Certificate Programs

Individuals who want to become histotechnicians must complete histology associate degree or certificate programs, and these programs must be accredited through the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS), according to the NIH. Coursework in either certificate or associate degree programs may include cell biology, microanatomy, human anatomy, molecular biology and chemistry. Students will also learn about histological techniques, which include collecting tissue samples, preparing samples for examination, cutting samples into appropriate sections, applying stains to samples and mounting samples onto slides.

Histotechnologists usually earn bachelor's degrees in either clinical or medical laboratory sciences, and most of these programs offer concentrations or field emphases in histotechnology. Histology students participate in several internships and clinical rotations. Depending on the university, students may take part in clinical rotations at cancer research centers, pediatric hospitals or general medical facilities. Histotechnology classes cover human anatomy and physiology, pathology, immunology, microanatomy, bodily fluids and cytochemistry. Programs also require students to learn basic and advanced histological techniques, as discussed above.

Success Tip:

  • Participate in an internship experience. Many states require histology workers to have suitable laboratory experience prior to licensing. Additionally, professionals also need experience before becoming certified in histology. Bachelor's degree programs usually have more internship opportunities available, especially at research laboratories and medical university hospitals. Students in associate degree programs may have to talk with professors and academic advisers about finding technician internship positions.

Step 2: Obtain Necessary Licenses

Information from the NHS shows that license requirements are significantly different from state to state. Some states have specific license requirements for technologists but not for technicians, whereas other states have licenses for both types of histology workers. License eligibility requirements often include completing the necessary academic training, such as associate degrees for technicians or bachelor's degrees for technologists. However, some states may also require license applicants to show proof of experience, which can include experience from undergraduate clinical rotations or experience from supervised medical laboratory internships. Most states have histology societies that individuals can contact for information on license requirements. The contact information for these societies is available on the NHS website.

Success Tip:

  • Maintain licenses. To stay legally employed, histologists must maintain their licenses in accordance with state regulations. Some states may only require professionals to show proof of current employment and pay the necessary license renewal fees. Other states, such as Rhode Island, require histology technicians to participate in at least 30 hours' worth of continuing education every two years, which can include formal lectures, histology seminars and approved clinical laboratory retraining sessions.

Step 3: Become Certified

The American Society of Clinical Pathology (ASCP) Board of Certification provides voluntary certification programs for both histology technicians and technologists. To be eligible for certification, professionals must meet the necessary education requirements and have histology-specific laboratory experience. Upon meeting eligibility requirements, certification applicants must pass exams to become certified.

Success Tip:

  • Keep certification active. Histology workers who obtain their certifications through the ASCP must keep their certification active by participating in a certification maintenance program (CMP). As of November 2012, the CMP requires histology workers to complete 36 units of continuing education coursework. Out of the 36 units, two units have to be related directly to histology, and one unit has to be related to laboratory safety or safety with patients.

Step 4: Opportunities for Career Advancement

A histologist has a wide variety of options to consider when thinking about advancing their career. Some histologists transition from lab workers to supervisors where they must oversee working laboratories, direct the staff, and manage the business aspects of the research. A histologist can also opt to pursue related jobs in the sales/technical support realm. These positions are fairly different than laboratory histologist jobs, but the experience gained during years of histological work can be critical in succeeding in the sales field. Moreover, additional knowledge about the various technologies can be of monetary advantage to a histologist who has transitioned to sales.

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