How to become a sonographer
What is a sonographer?
Sonographers, also called ultrasound technicians, use technology to take pictures of the human body. They can be found in hospitals and clinics, helping health professionals diagnose conditions. Because ultrasounds are non-invasive, they are often among the first tests a doctor requests, which places sonographers at the center of the medical team.
Sonographers receive referrals from all medical specializations – from pediatrics to neurology. They work with inpatients and outpatients. Common workplace settings include hospitals, physicians’ offices, diagnostic laboratories, fetal medicine clinics, or standalone sonography clinics. Some have a flexible working schedule, which is a rare perk in healthcare.
Is sonography a good career?
The role of sonographer only requires an associate degree, yet it commands a relatively high salary due to the technical skills required. With further training, sonographers can move into other roles, such as managerial or systems administration.
The job outlook for sonographers is promising, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting that demand will grow by 14% from 2020 to 2030. This is higher than average and indicates a career in sonography can lead to job stability.
If you want an important healthcare position with a relatively low entry barrier and excellent job prospects, a career in sonography may appeal to you.
What do sonographers do?
During an ultrasound, the sonographer uses a special probe to send a burst of sound waves into the body. These bounce off tissues and create an image of what is inside. Although sonographers need to be able to determine what is abnormal, they are not responsible for making a diagnosis or treatment plan.
People often think about ultrasounds in the context of pregnancy. While this is a key area for ultrasounds, doctors also use them to look at the following body systems:
- liver, including blood flow through the hepatic veins
- heart and blood vessels, including valve problems and congestive heart failure
- bladder and kidneys
- thyroid and parathyroid glands
- uterus and ovaries
- brain, hips, and spine in infants
In many cases, sonographers are called upon to evaluate the cause of pain or swelling in an affected area. Their skills help to screen for major medical problems. For example, ultrasound is often used in addition to mammography to detect breast cancer.
A special technique called Doppler ultrasound can also detect blood flow to tissues. Doppler ultrasound is used to identify blockages to blood flow, areas of increased blood flow (a sign of infection), narrowing arteries, or malformations of blood vessels.
Finally, sonographers may help physicians with medical procedures. For example, taking images to guide needle biopsies to remove cells from a mass that is suspected to be cancerous. A sonographer may also be called upon to work in the operating room during organ transplant procedures to detect rates of blood flow to the new organ. Given the variety of roles sonographers play, they can be found in most medical settings.
Is it hard to become a sonographer?
Compared to other allied health professions, becoming a sonographer requires less education. Most sonographers have an associate degree in ultrasound technology. This typically takes 2 years to complete and includes an internship to give students on-the-job training.
How long does it take to become a sonographer?
Typically, becoming a sonographer takes 2 years of additional education after high school. After earning an associate degree, students need to become certified. This involves taking 1 or more certification exams.
3 steps to becoming a sonographer
Step 1: Study relevant subjects in high school
Focusing on science coursework in high school can give students a better chance of acceptance into an associate degree program. If Advanced Placement (AP) coursework is available, this can be excellent preparation for a sonography program.
The following high school courses can help you to meet the prerequisites for admission:
- biology, preferably with a lab component
- chemistry, also with a lab component
- 3-4 years of math coursework
- at least 2 years of social sciences
Step 2: Earn an associate degree in sonography
The typical education required to become a sonographer is a 2-year associate’s degree. Look for those accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP). If you do not attend an accredited program, you may be ineligible to sit for the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS) exam.
Associate’s degree programs generally incorporate clinical rotations, which are supervised by qualified sonographers. During clinical rotations, students rotate through different departments to gain experience in imaging patients with a variety of medical problems.
An associate’s degree prepares students for entry level jobs in sonography. This can be scanning pregnant women in an OB/GYN office, vascular exams at a cardiology office, or inpatient work at a hospital.
Step 3: Become a certified sonographer (optional)
Although most states do not require sonographers to have licenses or certification, healthcare facilities often stipulate certification before hiring. The most common certification follows the sonography principles and instrumentation (SPI) exam, administered by the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS). This focuses on knowledge of physical principles, pulsed echo (ultrasound) instrumentation, and clinical patient care.
After completing the SPI exam, sonographers can pursue a specialty examination that focuses on a specific body part or system, for example abdomen, breast, fetal echocardiography, obstetrics and gynecology, and pediatric sonography. After passing the SPI and specialty exams, sonographers receive the Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonography (RDMS) credential.
Some sonographers choose to take other specialty certification exams:, e.g., certificates to become a Registered Diagnostic Cardiac Sonographer (RDCS), Registered Musculoskeletal Sonographer (RMSKS), Registered Vascular Technologist (RVT), or Midwife Sonographer.
Ultrasound waves aren’t only found in medical settings. Whales, bats, and dolphins use them to navigate and communicate.
How to find your first job as a sonographer
When looking for an entry-level sonography job, your college career center is a good place to start because many programs have a relationship with local clinics and hospitals. Some students are offered positions where they have completed their clinical rotations during training. Former supervisors or colleagues can also help with leads to employment openings.
» Read: How to prepare for an interview
FAQs about becoming a sonographer
Do you need a bachelor’s for sonography?
Although a bachelor’s degree is not required to become a sonographer, it may lead to additional career options. Most bachelor’s degree programs are called diagnostic medical sonography (DMS). Coursework focuses on biology, anatomy and physiology, medical practice, math, and physics. A 1-year clinical internship is often included.
What is the difference between sonography and ultrasound tech?
Sonography is the use of ultrasound technology in a medical environment. Sonographers are also known as ultrasound technicians.
Can you get a master’s in sonography?
A master’s degree in diagnostic medical sonography prepares students for a career in education or research. It may also help you pursue certification as a Registered Vascular Technologist or Registered Diagnostic Cardiac Sonographer, as these are more specialized roles. A master’s degree is also required to teach sonography at the college level.
The American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography
This organization administers examinations and oversees credentials in the field. They have a variety of resources for students and educators.
The Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonography
The largest professional organization of sonographers. It has an international presence and promotes the science of diagnostic medical sonography.
The Society for Vascular Ultrasound
This society is dedicated to the use of ultrasound to diagnose vascular disease.
The Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs
Oversees the accreditation of sonography programs. It is a good resource for students hoping to begin a career in sonography.