Be a Cytologist: Education Requirements and Career Information

Sep 20, 2019

The job of a cytologist is to study how diseases, infections, and cancers affect cells. To embark on a career in cytology, a bachelor's degree in cytology is required at minimum, but most in this field have a master's degree or higher.

Essential Information

Cytologists, or cytotechnologists, study and identify cells of diseases, such as cancer and bacterial infections, including the Pap test for cervical cancer. They must earn a bachelor's degree, but master's degrees are common in this field. These degree programs include classroom and hands-on work. All states require that cytotechnologists be licensed, but requirements vary. Cytologists may also become professionally certified if they choose.

Required Education Bachelor's degree in cytotechnology or other relevant field at minimum; master's degrees are common
Licensing and Certification State license required; voluntary certification
Projected Job Outlook (2018-2028) 14% for all clinical laboratory technologists and technicians*
Median Salary (2019) $70,000 for cytologists**

Sources: * U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), **

Education Requirements to Become a Cytologist

A bachelor's degree is mandatory to become a cytologist, though many prospective cytotechnologists also earn a master's degree. Typically, potential cytologists earn a degree in cytology or cytotechnology; however, students may also study other science-related disciplines, such as biology, at the undergraduate level and go on to a cytology graduate program. Students learn how to use microscopes and other cytology equipment to identify diseases and screen specimens. Most programs include both classroom lectures and clinical training.

Career Information for Cytologists

Job Description

Cytologists evaluate cell samples for any variations that may have been caused by disease. For example, they use a Pap test to secure cells from the uterine cervix to determine if a patient has an infection like meningitis. They do this through meticulous inspection under a microscope, which enables them to diagnose things such as benign or malignant tumors, cancer, pre-cancerous cells and other infectious or inflammatory agents. Cytologists typically work in laboratories at a hospital, university or private institution. They may work in the pathology department, under the supervision of a pathologist.

Licensure and Certification

Cytologists must be licensed by the state in which they intend to practice. Requirements for licensure differ by state, so applicants should inquire to their state's Board of Health to be sure that all requirements are met.

While certification is not necessarily required, many cytologists opt to earn certification. Cytologist certification is offered by the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP). Students must graduate from an education program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) in order to sit for the certification exam. If they pass the exam, applicants earn the certified cytotechnologist designation - CT (ASCP).

Salary Information

According to, cytologists earned between $40,000 and $98,000 annually as of August 2019. The median pay for all cytologists was $70,000 at that time.

Cytologists examine cells looking for abnormal activity. For example, they examine slides taken from pap tests to test for cervical cancer. Considerable formal education is required and graduate level education is preferred. Certification is optional, but a license is required for all cytologists. Job growth is rapid at 14 percent due to the aging population and increasing demand for laboratory technicians and technologists.

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