How to Become a Sonographer: A Well-Paying Job With Just an Associate's Degree
March 10, 2021
Sonography is usually associated with prenatal care, but sonographers perform diagnostic scans for all kinds of patients. These high-tech healthcare professionals specialize in everything from heart and blood issues to musculoskeletal problems. The barrier to entry is surprisingly low.
Believe it or not, there are good-paying jobs in the healthcare sector that require nothing more than an associate's degree. Registered nursing is probably the most popular example, but there are others as well.
Sonography is another well-paying (average annual income: $72,510) healthcare field for which an associate's degree is sufficient. Sonographers are medical professionals trained to use ultrasound diagnostic imaging technology to capture detailed images of different areas of patients' bodies.
Most people associate sonography with prenatal checkups, and for good reason: checking up on pregnancies to make sure that babies in utero are developing normally is something many sonographers do. That's hardly all that's involved in their practice, however. Sonographers also help doctors diagnose cancers, heart defects, injuries, and even neurological conditions.
Becoming a sonographer takes more than curiosity and an interest in technology. Like a doctor, you'll need an excellent bedside manner to be an effective sonographer. Sonographers have to be able to explain procedures to patients and guide them into the positions necessary to capture particular images. A sonographer may be the first healthcare provider a frightened or grieving patient sees.
Because modern diagnostic imaging is less expensive and often just as accurate as more invasive procedures, providers are sending more patients to sonographers. No wonder the profession is poised to grow at a healthy 14 percent clip (more than twice the rate of the overall job market) between 2018 and 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And you can enter this profession without having to attend medical school or even earn a bachelor's degree.
Ready to learn more? In this guide to how to become a sonographer, we'll cover:
- The difference between sonography and ultrasound
- What is a diagnostic medical sonographer?
- What career opportunities do diagnostic medical sonographers have?
- What are the education requirements to enter the sonography field?
- Licensing and certification for sonographers
- The employment outlook for sonographers
- Is sonography a good career?
The difference between sonography and ultrasound
Sonographers use ultrasound machines to create images of organs, blood vessels, and other internal areas of the body. Simply put: sonography is the technique, ultrasound is the technology. The sonogram is the image generated by the ultrasound.
That said, the terms sonography and ultrasound are sometimes used interchangeably. Sonographers are also called ultrasound technicians, ultrasonographers, and registered diagnostic medical sonographers.
What is a diagnostic medical sonographer?
Even if you've never had an ultrasound, you've probably seen someone (usually a pregnant someone) get one on TV or in a movie. The sonographer uses a handheld device called a transducer, which is attached to an ultrasound machine to direct high-frequency sound waves into a patient's body. Those sound waves echo off of different parts of the body in different ways, enabling the machine to determine the position and density of various kinds of tissues. A sonographer might pinpoint the location of a tumor, find the break in a bone, or help diagnose a kidney infection.
The day-to-day duties of ultrasound technicians include:
- Taking or confirming medical histories
- Preparing and calibrating equipment
- Preparing patients for tests
- Generating, capturing, and labeling diagnostic images
- Creating reports for doctors and advanced practice nurses
All sonographers are qualified to perform most ultrasound tests, but some types of diagnostic imaging require specialized anatomical or technical knowledge. Ultrasound technicians can specialize in:
- General sonography
- Pediatric sonography (there are also subspecialties in pediatrics)
- Cardiac sonography
- Vascular sonography
- OB/GYN sonography
- Abdominal sonography
- Breast sonography
- Echocardiography (heart imaging specialists)
- Musculoskeletal sonography
- Ophthalmology sonographers
What career opportunities do diagnostic medical sonographers have?
Sonographers work in a wide variety of settings, from outpatient surgical centers to emergency rooms. Your specialization will very likely determine where you work:
- If you specialize in general diagnostic imaging, you might work in a hospital, physician's office, or a medical imaging center.
- Sonographers who specialize in__ OB/GYN sonography__ or breast sonography might work in hospitals that offer prenatal care or women's health centers.
- Pediatric ultrasound technicians frequently work in hospitals or for large health systems traveling to different facilities.
- If you'd like to work in a sports medicine facility, you should specialize in musculoskeletal sonography.
Because there are so many settings in which sonographers can work, it's worth putting some time into planning out your medical career. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 50 percent of sonographers work in hospitals.
Think about what types of patients you want to work with. Is the idea of working with kids appealing, or do you think you'd prefer working with geriatric patients? Are you interested in breast health, or were you inspired to look into this career by scenes of pregnant women receiving ultrasounds on TV (in which case obstetrics may be the place for you)?
Maybe you're not sure what specialty area to explore. Try imagining yourself working as an ultrasound technician five years from now. Make a note of where you're working and who your patients are in your hypothetical future. What you see in your mind's eye can help you zero in on the specialization or specializations you'll enjoy most.
What are the education requirements to enter the sonography field?
There is no one educational path for aspiring sonographers. Some schools—usually technical or vocational schools—offer one-year and 18-month certificate programs for students (often nurses or medical assistants) who have a degree in another healthcare field. There are also two-year associate's degree programs focused on diagnostic medical sonography and four-year bachelor's degree programs that let students choose concentrations like cardiovascular sonography or neurosonography.
All of these educational options include classroom study, clinical rotations, and internship hours in a medical setting like an imaging lab or hospital. All of them qualify you to work as an ultrasound technician.
Although it isn't required, here is a compelling reason to get your bachelor's degree. This is a competitive field, and having a bachelor's degree—such as a Bachelor of Science in Diagnostic Medical Sonography or Bachelor of Science in Health Science program with a sonography concentration—will make you a more attractive job candidate.
You may also be required to have a bachelor's degree to pursue specific certifications or to work in some specialties. More importantly, getting a four-year degree will give you more time to practice your skills, broaden your medical knowledge, and dive into a specialty area like abdominal, breast, OB/GYN, fetal echocardiography, cardiac, or pediatric sonography.
You can find bachelor's programs for sonographers at:
- George Washington University
- Seattle University
- University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences
- University of California - San Diego
- University of Iowa
Bachelor's programs for radiologic technologists, such as sonographers, typically include hands-on training and coursework in:
- Basic patient care
- The use of ultrasound equipment
- Human anatomy and physiology
- Medical terminology
- Basic and advanced physics
- Abdominal sonography
- Gynecologic sonography
- Cardiac sonography
- Vascular sonography
- Doppler sonography
If you're anxious to start working as quickly as possible, you could complete a certificate program like the Diagnostic Medical Sonography program at St. Luke's Hospital or the Diagnostic Ultrasound and Vascular Technology program at the University of Kansas. This is a good option for aspiring sonographers who don't have the time or resources to enroll in an undergraduate program right now. You can always continue your education in the future.
When you're considering sonographer programs at different hospitals and universities, ask yourself these questions:
- What are the requirements for being admitted to the sonography program?
- Does the program allow you to specialize in a particular area of sonography such as vascular, cardiac, or obstetrics?
- What are the options for clinical experiences offered by the school?
- Can you afford the tuition? Is tuition assistance available?
- What is the school's post-graduation job placement rate?
- Do students have access to academic advising and tutoring services?
There are master's degree programs in sonography. These are typically designed for ultrasound technicians who want to teach, publish in medical journals, or work as consultants.
Licensing and certification for sonographers
There isn't a formal licensure process for ultrasound technicians in most states, and no states require certification for sonographers. Many employers prefer to hire sonographers who have invested in and passed general and specialist certification programs, however, and insurance companies are increasingly requiring patients to see certified techs. More importantly, most sonographers have at least one certification, which means you might have a hard time finding work if you have none.
There are a lot of organizations offering sonography certifications. Many of these credentials are related to different sonography specializations. For instance, American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS) offers certifications in areas like:
- Abdomen sonography
- Breast sonography
- Pediatric sonography
- Musculoskeletal sonography
- Gynecological sonography
The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) offers certifications in general diagnostic sonography, vascular sonography, and breast sonography. And Cardiovascular Credentialing International (CCI) offers an Advanced Cardiac Sonographer credential along with certifications for ultrasound technicians in other specialties like phlebotomy and congenital cardiology.
The employment outlook for sonographers
An aging population plus a move away from using radioactive imaging technologies have led to an uptick in opportunities for qualified sonographers. Jobs for sonographers are growing at a rate faster than average, and the pay is competitive.
The average sonographer salary is about $71,000, though this varies quite a bit by location. Sonographers in California earn an average annual income over over $92,000; in middle Georgia, that figure drops to about $46,000. Outpatient care centers tend to pay higher wages ($88,820 annually), while medical and diagnostic laboratories tend to pay less ($69,670). You can boost your earning potential even more by earning a bachelor's degree and getting certified in two or more specialization areas.
Is sonography a good career?
First and foremost, you need to ask yourself whether this career aligns with your skills, character traits, goals, and interests. Do you like working with people and technology? Are you comfortable touching sick and injured people as part of your job? Are you comfortable working with patients who are nervous, in pain, afraid, or devastated by a tough diagnosis? Are you willing to spend much of each workday on your feet and in dimly-lit rooms?
Many people are surprised to learn that this job is physically demanding. You'll be performing repetitive and sometimes awkward motions that can strain your hands, wrists, shoulders, neck, and back. You may have to lift and reposition disabled or severely injured people or move heavy imaging equipment from room to room. According to a 2017 report by the Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonography, 90 percent of ultrasound technicians reported work-related musculoskeletal disorders.
If you can handle those kinds of physical and emotional strains, then this could be the right job for you. US News & World Report ranks sonography fourth in its list of Best Healthcare Support Jobs and 35th in its list of the 100 Best Jobs. Why? Probably because the pay is solid (especially for a career that doesn't require a degree), you can start working after just a year or two of training, and you'll spend your days helping people get and stay healthy. Overall, it's a great way to enter the medical field for people who want to work directly with patients without going to medical school.
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