What is an ultrasound technician?
The word “ultrasound” is typically associated with images of a pregnant woman’s unborn child. But ultrasound technicians use sonography to examine a wide range of internal parts of the human body. Also known as diagnostic ultrasound technicians or sonographers, these professionals use specialized sound wave-imaging equipment to examine the abdomen, reproductive systems, prostate, breasts, heart, blood vessels, and more. They may specialize in obstetric and gynecologic, abdominal, breast, vascular, or cardiac sonography.
Ultrasound technicians work directly with patients and doctors and provide valuable information to physicians concerning patient diseases and other medical conditions. The ultrasound equipment produces high-frequency sound waves to record images of internal organs and tissues. These technicians deliver the images to a physician for diagnosis. They manage the ultrasound equipment settings as needed, ensure that it is in good working order, and report any issues.
Qualifications and eligibility
An ultrasound technician should be compassionate and caring, have excellent communication and interpersonal skills, and be skilled at operating a sonographic scanner. Requirements will vary depending on the state, but may include:
- A health-related associate’s or bachelor’s degree and a certificate from an accredited vocational school or an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in sonography
- Certification in the specialty you are working in (not mandatory, but most employers do require it)
- A state license in states that require it
- The ability to work in a fast-paced environment
- Physical stamina to lift heavy equipment and remain on your feet for long shifts
- Availability to work nights, weekends, and holidays
- Sensitivity to patients’ problems
Ultrasound technicians work in a wide range of environments, including hospitals, long-term care facilities, clinics, diagnostic laboratories, and doctor’s offices. They typically choose where they work depending on their interests, such as prenatal care, cardiology, or pediatrics. They operate an ultrasound machine to produce images for physicians to examine and diagnose a patient’s condition.
Ultrasound technicians spend much of their day working with patients and not sitting behind a desk. They might have to stand for long periods and may have to work extended hours of shift work, including 12-hour shifts. They typically escort patients to exam rooms, run ultrasound exams, record patient results, and consult with physicians.
Typical work hours
The hours you work as an ultrasound technician will depend greatly on where you work. In a hospital, you’ll typically work days, evenings, weekends, and holidays. You may also be on-call during your off time. The work is usually fast-paced and unpredictable. In doctors’ offices, medical clinics, and diagnostic imaging centers, the hours are generally 8:00 to 5:00. The work is much more predictable as patients often schedule their appointments in advance.
Types of ultrasound technicians
There are several different types of ultrasound technicians, each one specializing in a specific part of the body. Common types include:
Diagnostic cardiovascular sonographers
Take images of the heart to help doctors find abnormalities, such as blockages or deterioration, in heart valves and heart chambers.
Take images of the liver, kidneys, pancreas, gallbladder, and spleen to detect stones, tissue damage, enlarged organs, and tumors.
Typically work in emergency rooms where they take images of muscles, bones, joints, tendons, ligaments, and nerves to detect broken bones, sprains, tears, arthritis, cysts, and more.
Use special transcranial Doppler (TCD) machines to examine the brain and nervous system that neurosurgeons and neurologists use to diagnose conditions such as strokes, brain tumors, aneurysms, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, and more.
Obstetric and gynecologic sonographers
Take images of the female reproductive system, documenting a baby’s growth throughout a woman’s pregnancy and checking for abnormalities or pregnancy complications.
Take images of the breast. Typically as a result of an abnormal mammogram or clinical exam. The images detect lumps, cysts, and tumors, as well as anything unusual with the lymph nodes.
Take images of fetuses, infants, and children to detect fetal abnormalities and birth defects.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average salary for diagnostic medical sonographers was $77,740 in May 2021. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $59,640, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $101,650.
The BLS lists the states with the highest average pay for ultrasound technicians as California ($86,000), Oregon ($84,800), and Alaska ($82,400). The three states with the lowest average pay are West Virginia ($54,100), South Dakota ($53,500), and Alabama ($49,800).
The average annual salary for an ultrasound technologist was $81,145 as of June 2022, with a typical range of $68,853 and $92,427. The average salary for an ultrasound technician II was $83,864 as of June 2022. The salary range was between $75,953 and $91,980.
If you’re looking to make the most money, the highest-paying cities for ultrasound technicians are Sunnyvale, CA ($84,705), Santa Rosa, CA ($82,147), and Manhattan, NY ($81,958).
Here are some salary averages per specialty:
- Neurosonology Sonography- $98,554
- Breast Sonographer – $82,697
- OB/GYN Sonographer – $62,459
- Musculoskeletal Sonographer – $119,699
The job employment opportunities outlook for medical sonographers is projected to grow 19 percent from 2020 to 2030, faster than the average for all occupations per the BLS. The projected increase in the number of jobs is largely related to the aging population of baby boomers. More ultrasound technicians will be needed as imaging technology will be used as a major tool in making diagnoses of cardiovascular disease and more.
The career path options for an ultrasound technician depend on your interests. Many technicians train in two or three specialties while obtaining their Diagnostic Medical Sonographer certification. From there, you can train in a subspecialty or gain other specialty certifications, such as an OB/GYN ultrasound technician training and obtaining certification in vascular technology. Diversification can help you become more well-rounded and open up more opportunities for advancement.
Here are some common career paths that require experience, leadership skills, and possibly advanced education:
- Lead Sonographer
- Chief Sonographer
- Supervising Sonographer
- Technical Director
- Department Manager (typically requires a master’s degree in health, business, or public administration)
- Department Director (typically requires a master’s degree in health, business, or public administration)
- Sonography Teacher (in a clinical, laboratory, or university setting. Most jobs as university instructors require a master’s degree)
- Ultrasound Applications Specialist (educates sonographers and providers on different or new ultrasound equipment, a strong understanding of new and emerging equipment is needed)
- Research Sonographer (may work for private research firms, universities, and private companies)
- Ultrasound System Sales
Ultrasound technicians can also transition into other roles in the medical field, which include:
- Physician Assistant
- Nurse Practitioner
- Physical Therapist
- Occupational Therapist
Steps to becoming an ultrasound technician
1. Earn a high school diploma
The first step in becoming an ultrasound technician is to get your high school diploma or GED.
2. Post-high school education
There are several educational paths you can take to become an ultrasound technician depending on your time and educational level:
- If you’ve earned a science degree
If you’ve earned an associate’s degree in applied science (or a related field) or a Bachelor of Science degree in a health-related field, you can generally enroll in an ultrasound certificate program. An associate’s degree will take about 2 years, and a bachelor’s would be 4 years. The certificate program usually takes 1 to 2 years to complete.
- If you haven’t earned a degree
If you haven’t been to college yet, you can bypass the certificate program by earning an associate’s degree in sonography or a bachelor’s degree in diagnostic medical sonography in a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP).
3. Get certified
Ultrasound technician certification programs typically take 18-24 months to complete and can vary depending on specific program requirements.
Although certification isn’t required, most employers will not hire you without it. You can obtain certification through one of these certifying bodies:
- American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) offers a variety of certification programs, including:
- American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS) offers these certificate programs:
- Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer (RDMS) – which includes specialties in Abdomen, Breast, Fetal Echocardiography, Obstetrics and Gynecology (OB/GYN), and Pediatric Sonography
- Registered Diagnostic Cardiac Sonographer (RDCS) – includes specialties in Adult Echocardiography, Pediatric Echocardiography, and Fetal Echocardiography
- Registered Vascular Technologist (RVT)
- Registered Musculoskeletal Sonographer (RMSKS)
- Midwife Sonography Certificate
4. Get clinical training
While you’re enrolled in a certification program, take advantage of opportunities to gain valuable hands-on clinical experience through internships. This is a great way to put the knowledge and skills you’re learning into practice.
5. Get your state license
Some states, including Oregon, North Dakota, New Hampshire, and New Mexico, require ultrasound technicians to be licensed. Check in the state you live to find out if your state requires a license.
6. Continuing education
Typically you’ll need to complete a certain amount of continuing education to maintain your certification. You can also work towards a master’s degree in Diagnostic Medical Sonography.
Tips for becoming an ultrasound technician
Sonography is one of the fastest-growing fields in healthcare and an exciting, high-paying career with many opportunities. If you are interested in becoming an ultrasound technician, you’ll need education and work. Here are some tips:
Do your research
Look into what an ultrasound technician does, what the prerequisites are, and what opportunities are available, so you will have to make sure that this is the field you want to go into.
Have excellent communication skills
This is essential for any job in the healthcare industry, and that applies to an ultrasound technician as well as you will interact with patients and other medical professionals every day.
Have a desire to put the patient first
If you’re planning a career in healthcare, your number one goal should be patient care.
Complete your educational requirements
You have a variety of routes to completing your educational requirements. First of all, get your high school diploma or GED. Then you can either go for an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree in an accredited ultrasound technician program or enroll in a certificate program if you already have a health or science degree. Either way, you’ll need to meet the educational requirements to work as an ultrasound technician.
Choose an ultrasound technician program
With many different programs available, pick the one that most interests you, whether that’s OB/GYN, cardiovascular, or pediatrics. If time is a factor, you might also want to choose a program that takes less time to complete. Some might take 6 months and others 2 years. The highest-paying jobs are the ones that require more time, though, and give you more training, which opens up more opportunities for jobs, career advancement, and higher pay.
Take the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography exam
The test is administered by the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS). Although not required for some types of sonography technicians, it will give you an advantage over your competition regardless of your specialty. If you pass the test, you become a Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer (RDMS). This will look very good on your resume when looking for jobs. The exam has two parts. One covers sonography principles and instrumentation, and the other covers one of 5 specialties of your choice: abdominal, breast, OB/GYN, fetal echocardiography, or pediatric. The test isn’t easy, but you have up to 5 years to pass both parts. So if you fail one part, you have plenty of time to retake it and pass.
The field of sonography is dynamic and ever-changing. Keep abreast of emerging technologies and new advancements in sonography.