Would you consider a career change to a field that:
- Helps save lives
- Pays an excellent salary
- Is in demand all over the U.S. and beyond
- Can take as little as two years for full training?
If so, you might consider becoming a sonographer. But what is this profession all about, and how do you get started? Learn everything about life as a sonographer with this guide.
Sonography is an ultrasound imaging technique that is used in many medical procedures. It’s non-invasive and painless, using high-frequency (ultrasonic) waves to produce internal images of the body.
Sonographers are responsible for the equipment that produces the images. Although the images are of the inside of the body, the ultrasound equipment remains outside the body at all times – you don’t need to worry about performing invasive procedures. The sound waves pass through barriers harmlessly and help physicians to see what’s going on under the skin.
The sound waves produce a video report that is assembled and delivered by the sonographer. This is analyzed by a physician – in this field, you’ll be responsible for writing a report of the ultrasound procedure and building the video.
There’s no strict difference between medical sonographers and ultrasound technicians. Both work with ultrasound technology (the main instrument is called a transducer) to deliver internal images for physicians.
Once you’ve become certified in the basics of sonographic training, you’re qualified as an ultrasound technician. Some sonographers work in more specialized fields and take on a wider array of responsibilities – for this reason, “sonographer” is sometimes considered a more prestigious job title.
There are several paths you can take to obtain certification in this field. However, for all sonography-related health education programs, CAAHEP accreditation is required. CAAHEP is the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs.
The type of degrees and certificates you can take to get started in this career path are listed below. Once you’ve completed your education, you’ll be required to take an exam provided by the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS), which allows sonographers to obtain and maintain certification.
After you’ve become certified, you’ll be able to start looking for your first professional job. You can also obtain additional certification if you wish to become a specialist in a certain area, which can offer better-paid career opportunities in a part of healthcare that you’re passionate about.
What many people don’t realize is that numerous medical career paths don’t require years of training that costs tens of thousands of dollars. Medical school for doctors is renowned for its expensive, laborious qualification process, and even general nursing qualifications require years of education and intensive training.
This is partly because these professions deal with a huge variety of different medical areas. As a medical sonographer, you’ll help people with extremely diverse needs, but your job is specialized in a certain field. You can learn everything you need to know to qualify in this profession in 2 years, without training costing the Earth.
Many institutions offer a bachelor’s degree in sonography. However, you don’t need a bachelor’s degree to qualify or become certified – this can be prohibitively expensive or time-consuming, especially if you’re transitioning from another career path.
An associate’s degree is one of the most common educational pathways. Local colleges often offer an associate degree in sonography, typically lasting around 2 years.
If you already have an accredited background in another healthcare profession, you might be able to become a diagnostic medical sonographer (RDMS) by completing a 1-year certificate program. You can check with the American Registry to find out if this is a possibility. Otherwise, two-year associate’s degree programs are typically the fastest way to obtain certification.
You don’t have to put time and resources aside for a four-year degree. While bachelor’s degrees naturally offer a higher level of technical knowledge and the ability to specialize, you can always return for further education and obtain extra professional certification later. The type of degree program you choose depends on your needs and goals.
Working in any medical field means that you need to take your studies and practical tuition extremely seriously. When you come to take the certification exam, students will be tested on a wide range of relevant medical knowledge as well as answering practical questions about diagnostic imaging.
Obtaining clinical certification isn’t easy, but it doesn’t require you to memorize vast amounts of medical knowledge. You don’t need a physicist’s knowledge of how high-frequency sound waves operate to use a transducer in a clinical context.
Students may worry about the academic side of the program, but there’s nothing overly complex. Most of your studies will be focused on helping you gain clinical experience, learn how to interact with patients, and understand the role of diagnostic medical sonographers in a professional environment.
2 years is typically the minimum length of study. An associate’s degree will usually last this long, and this is the most popular route to obtaining certification.
If you wish to specialize in certain applications of ultrasound, you may need to study longer and obtain additional work experience. You can learn more about the clinical applications and experience required to work with patients in specialist areas below.
A bachelor’s degree usually takes 4 years. For students with the time and resources to undertake this education pathway, it can provide a more comprehensive learning experience and open up doors to more diagnostic medical sonography opportunities.
If you want to know how to become a sonographer, you need to find a sonography program that offers the right type of education for you. This may depend on a chosen specialization or the education requirements of certain degree programs.
Here’s a general guide to choosing a high-quality diagnostic medical sonography program.
The program must be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs. Only an accredited program will allow you to qualify and practice. There are 150 accredited sonography programs nationwide, so there are likely to be options wherever you’re based.
The curriculum should be a combination of hands-on experience and academic learning. Some programs tend more towards providing you with the necessary experience to work in the field, while others may include more options to earn credits through academic modules.
Any good program will include a combination of both. Practical and theoretical knowledge are both essential for assisting patients.
Ask yourself if you have the time to undertake a longer degree program. If not, consider an associate’s degree as a more affordable and accessible route. Remember, you can always earn additional qualifications later.
If you know that you’d like to treat patients in a certain field, you may wish to choose a program that focuses on that path. For example, some programs specialize in obstetrics and gynecology – know what you want to do before you begin your training as an ultrasound technician or sonographer.
Some colleges are connected to medical practices that can give you more direct work experience of patient care and are focused on preparing you for your first job in the field. This is worth looking into when you’re weighing up your options, as it may speed up the transition from studying into a clinical role.
Prospective students will need to meet the education requirements of any program you apply for. This could include a high school diploma and may require having passed tests in areas like math.
According to the BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics), a registered diagnostic medical sonographer (RDMS) will earn a median wage of around $70,000. This rises for those with specialist ultrasound knowledge and more clinical experience. The BLS also projects job growth of 14% in this area, significantly faster than the national average, from 2020-30.
Given that the average length of study for diagnostic medical sonographers is just 2 years and the cost of an associate’s degree is significantly lower than most bachelor’s programs, this is an extremely attractive wage. It’s an excellent reason to get started on this career path.
Below are some of the specializations chosen by sonographers. Certification for these roles can be obtained by students as part of many standard sonography degrees, but certification is also available if you wish to specialize later in your career.
Abdominal sonography focuses on an area of the body containing many vital organs, including the liver, kidneys, pancreas, and intestines. It’s used to identify common health issues and is one of the main applications of ultrasound in medicine.
Specializing in obstetrics and gynecology will lead to qualifying as an OB/GYN, a specialist in women’s health. You’ll help patients identify a range of potential issues, but perhaps the most common (and highly rewarding) part of working as an OB/GYN is obtaining an ultrasound of a baby in the womb. This is an attractive role for many sonographers.
A breast sonographer helps check for irregularities following a basic mammogram and plays an essential role in this area of healthcare. For these ultrasound technologists, ARRT (American Registry of Radiologic Technologists) certification may also be desirable if you wish to undertake a wider range of responsibilities.
This area focuses on ultrasound imaging for children. As sonography is non-invasive and painless, it’s a favored way to check for health issues in infants. This also has some crossover with obstetrics and gynecology, as these healthcare professionals may also perform fetal imaging.
A registered vascular sonographer identifies issues with blood flow in the body. When you’re certified in vascular technology, you’ll perform checks for damaged blood vessels and other critical issues in patients’ veins and arteries.
A cardiac sonographer focuses on the heart. It will be your job to get images of a patient’s heart and create a report for the physician, enabling life-saving patient care. A cardiac sonographer may wish to obtain additional certification from a body like Cardiovascular Credentialing International (CCI).
This field also includes echocardiography, a special technique for imaging the heart.
This part of diagnostic medical sonography focuses on the brain and nervous system. Students of neurosonography require training using specialist equipment such as a TCD (Transcranial Doppler) – ultrasonic imagining of the brain is slightly different from the work most sonographers perform.
This job is very technical and if you wish to get certified, you’ll likely be required to earn an additional qualification.
This area focuses on the muscles, tendons, and nerves. It can be used to help patients identify persistent issues that have no apparent cause and is one of the most practical, everyday uses of diagnostic medical sonography.
Sonographers save lives every day. While you’re performing a highly specialized role, the training and certification for this profession is very affordable and doesn’t take the best part of a decade. Sonographers can expect to earn an attractive wage and the demand for jobs is consistently high.
If you’re wondering how to become a sonographer, it’s time to start looking at schools. Find a program that suits your education background and goals, set your timescale and learning goals, and reach out to a school today.