How to Become a Lab Assistant in 5 Steps

Explore the career requirements for lab assistants. Get the facts about job duties, education requirements, certification, and employment outlook to determine if this is the right career for you. Schools offering Clinical Laboratory Science degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Does a Lab Assistant Do?

Lab assistants, also called lab technicians, perform tests on biological samples, such as blood or urine, to help physicians make patient diagnoses. These professionals are responsible for maintaining lab equipment so it stays sterile and works properly during each test. Additionally, they may prep materials for testing at a later date. Once they complete testing, they share the results with supervising lab staff, such as doctors and scientists. It may be the responsibility of these professionals to train new assistants as needed. Take a look at the following chart for an overview of how to enter this field.

Degree Required Associate's degree, postsecondary certificate
Education Field of Study Medical technology, clinical laboratory science
Key Responsibilities Collect and perform routine tests on biological specimens from patients, record data for medical record and physician use, maintain equipment
Credentials Some states require licensing, registration, and/or certification, most employers prefer certified lab assistants
Job Growth (2014-2024) 18% (for all medical and clinical laboratory technicians)*
Average Salary (2015) $41,420 (for all medical and clinical laboratory technicians)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What Is a Lab Assistant?

A lab assistant is a technician who supports medical treatment and research by performing simple tests on fluid and tissue samples. They calibrate, clean, sterilize, and maintain lab equipment, collect samples from patients, prepare samples for testing, examine samples under a microscope or analyzer to identify infectious agents or abnormalities, consult with physicians about diagnoses, and maintain records on lab activity. Assistants work under the direction and supervision of doctors, scientists, and lab technologists.

Step 1: Earn a High School Diploma

You can begin preparing for work as a lab assistant in high school by emphasizing courses in math and science. Science courses in particular are helpful because they provide an opportunity to work with lab equipment. Useful math courses include algebra, trigonometry, geometry, and calculus. Relevant science course include biology, chemistry, and physics. A diploma or GED is also necessary for admission to an associate's degree program.

Step 2: Earn an Associate's Degree

Relevant associate's degree programs for lab assistants go by such titles as Associate of Science in Clinical Lab Science, Associate of Science in Medical Lab Science, or Associate of Science in Medical Lab Technician. Programs mix classroom lectures and lab courses to teach you how to analyze blood and other fluids, communicate with patients and colleagues, and perform lab duties as part of a healthcare team. Anatomy and physiology, biochemistry, bacteriology, parasitology and lab technology, procedures, and safety are likely course topics.

Step 3: Complete an Internship or Clinical Practicum

An internship allows you to observe and participate in day-to-day operations at a lab. Many colleges and universities partner with research laboratories to provide internship opportunities. Your associate's degree program might even include a clinical practicum as a scheduled part of the curriculum. If neither is the case at your school, you could try to arrange your own internship by contacting medical labs and private research firms directly.

Step 4: Obtain Certification

Certification is voluntary, but many employers prefer to hire lab assistants who are certified. The American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) and American Medical Technologists (AMT) both offer certifications for lab assistants. As of 2016, the ASCP certification exam consisted of 100 multiple-choice questions and the AMT exam consisted of 200-230 questions. Exams test your knowledge in such areas as chemistry, hematology, immunology, and microbiology.

Step 5: Obtain Employment

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in May 2015, hospitals, medical/diagnostic labs, and physician offices were the major employers of the 157,610 medical and clinical lab technicians working in the U.S.

In addition, employment for medical and clinical lab technicians was projected to increase 18% during the 2014-2024 decade, which is much faster than the average for all U.S. occupations. The BLS also reported that the average salary for medical and clinical lab technicians was $41,420 as of May 2015.

What Are Some Similar Careers?

Both chemical and veterinary technicians perform a similar job to lab technicians and also both require an associate's degree. These professionals perform rudimentary lab tests on different materials (chemical compounds and animal samples) to assist chemists and veterinarians, respectively, in their work. Chemical technicians generally test, research, or create chemical products, while veterinary technicians test bodily fluids and materials to help diagnose an animal's ailments and check their overall physical condition.

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