A cytotechnologist could...

Quickly prepare slides from surgical patients to determine if all the tumor cells have been removed. Slide Save a child's life by detecting a serious infection in his blood samples and informing the doctors. Boy in hospital
Examine a patient's biopsy under a microscope to determine whether he or she has colon cancer. Microscope and biopsy on screen Evaluate spinal fluid samples from college students to determine if meningitis is making them sick. test tube with sample fluid
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Key Facts & Information

Overview When a patient gets sick, his or her doctor will take sample cells from the affected part of his or her body and send them to a lab for testing to figure out what is wrong. This is where the cytotechnologist steps in. The cytotechnologist will take the sample cells, make slides from them, and examine the slides under a microscope. Cytotechnologists are trained to detect abnormalities in cells that come from all body sites in order to to make a diagnosis of cancer or other diseases. These professionals help pathologists and doctors diagnose diseases early, thus saving lives.
Key Requirements Problem-solving skills, ability to focus on tasks, detail-oriented, good judgement capabilities, strong communication skills
Minimum Degree Bachelor's degree
Subjects to Study in High School Biology, chemistry, physics, algebra, geometry; if available, biotechnology
Median Salary
U.S. Mean Annual Wage
Min Wage
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024) Average (7% to 13%) In Demand!
  • In this interview, Christine McCully describes, in depth, her career as a cytotechnologist.
  • Cytotechnology students at the University of Nebraska Medical Center discuss how they decided to pursue a career in this field
Related Occupations
Source: O*Net

Training, Other Qualifications

Upon successful completion of a degree program, graduates are eligible to take the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) Board of Certification exam. Most employers require cytotechnologists to be ASCP certified. Individuals interested in becoming supervisors, lab managers, and educators might also pursue ASCP Specialist Certification in Cytotechnology. Certain states also require cytotechnologists to be licensed to work in that state.

Education and Training

The minimum degree required for an entry-level position in this field is a bachelor's degree. In order to become a cytotechnologist, interested individuals must attend an accredited program in cytotechnology. Educational programs are either university-based or hospital-based and involve 1 or 2 years of instruction. All individuals must possess a bachelor's degree upon completion of the program. Minimum academic requirements are 28 semester credits of combined biology and chemistry and three semester credits of mathematics or statistics. Requirements may vary, depending on each individual program.

For positions as lab managers or educators, employers usually require a graduate degree.

Kelly is a cytotechnologist, and in this video, she describes her first experience looking at a sample slide and how she gets "lost" in a slide.

Nature of the Work

Cytotechnology is the study of the structure, formation, and function of cells. Cytotechnologists study cells that have been shed normally, scraped from the body, or aspirated with a fine needle. The cytotechnologist makes a judgment decision as to what is normal and abnormal by analyzing cellular patterns and subtle changes in the nucleus, cytoplasm, shape, color, and size of cells while correlating the patient's clinical history. This is a highly specialized and technical field of study.

Cytotechnologists work independently doing meticulous microscopic work. They must be comfortable making decisions and must assume a great deal of responsibility. Cytotechnologists are responsible for the preliminary interpretation of specimens from body sites, such as the lung, bladder, body cavities, central nervous system, gastrointestinal tract, female reproductive tract, liver, lymph nodes, thyroid, salivary glands and breast. As part of the job, the cytotechnologist will stain the cells in order to make it easier to differentiate from surrounding tissue. Cytotechnologists work in collaboration with pathologists to diagnose benign and infectious processes, precancerous lesions, and malignant disease. Providing a definitive diagnosis in a timely, safe, and cost-effective manner helps save patients' lives by allowing clinicians to provide necessary and appropriate treatment to patients as quickly as possible.

Cytotechnologists work with various technologies to aid in diagnoses. These technologies include image analysis, flow cytometry, immunohistochemistry, electron microscopy, molecular diagnostic procedures, and automated equipment.

Work Environment

Cytotechnologists usually work in hospitals, clinics, and private laboratories. Other places of employment are research laboratories, educational institutions, and government facilities. They work with a variety of lab equipment and are often seated for long periods of time while they perform their duties. The work environment is fast paced, requires efficiency and accuracy, and can be stressful.

On the Job

  • Examine cell samples to detect abnormalities in the color, shape, or size of cellular components and patterns.
  • Examine specimens using microscopes to evaluate specimen quality.
  • Prepare and analyze samples, such as Papanicolaou (PAP) smear body fluids and fine needle aspirations (FNAs), to detect abnormal conditions.
  • Provide patient clinical data or microscopic findings to assist pathologists in the preparation of pathology reports.
  • Assist pathologists or other physicians to collect cell samples such as by fine needle aspiration (FNA) biopsies.
  • Examine specimens to detect abnormal hormone conditions.
  • Document specimens by verifying patients' and specimens' information.
  • Maintain effective laboratory operations by adhering to standards of specimen collection, preparation, or laboratory safety.
  • Perform karyotyping or organizing of chromosomes according to standardized ideograms.
  • Prepare cell samples by applying special staining techniques, such as chromosomal staining, to differentiate cells or cell components.
  • Submit slides with abnormal cell structures to pathologists for further examination.
  • Adjust, maintain, or repair laboratory equipment such as microscopes.
  • Assign tasks or coordinate task assignments to ensure adequate performance of laboratory activities.
  • Attend continuing education programs that address laboratory issues.

Companies That Hire Cytotechnologists

Explore what you might do on the job with one of these projects...

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First came the Human Genome Project and now (drum roll please) the Human Proteome Project. Confused? Not surprising as the Human Proteome Project has not received the kind of press that the Human Genome Project did. Nonetheless it is a major, and potentially important, scientific undertaking. Just as the genome is the complete set of an organism's DNA, the proteome is all the proteins expressed in an organism. Why study the proteome? It is because proteins are the work horses of biological… Read more
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In order to study individual biochemical compounds like proteins, DNA, or RNA, biochemists need to know how to purify these components from a complex mixture. This is especially important for biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries, which sell purified biochemicals as reagents or drugs to consumers. Do an experiment to purify DNA, RNA, or protein from a complex mixture (for purifying DNA, see the Science Buddies project Extracting Onion DNA). The source of the material can be a cell… Read more
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Some sequences of RNA can catalyze biochemical reactions, much like protein enzymes. These catalytic RNA sequences are called ribozymes. The function of a ribozyme depends upon the primary sequence of the RNA which folds into a 3-D structure. How do different ribozyme sequences fold? You can search for ribozyme sequences using Entrez BLAST (NCBI, 2006). Then you can use a program like MFOLD (http://bioweb.pasteur.fr/seqanal/interfaces/mfold-simple.html) to submit your sequence for an… Read more

Ask Questions

Do you have a specific question about a career as a Cytotechnologist that isn't answered on this page? Post your question on the Science Buddies Ask an Expert Forum.

Additional Information

For additional information about cytotechnology, visit the following websites:


Additional Support

We'd like to acknowledge the additional support of:

  • Abbott Fund
  • Bio-Rad
  • MedImmune
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