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Ultrasound Technician and Sonographer – Career, Salary, and Education Guide

Editor: Samantha Callis, MHA, RDMS, RDCS, RVT

sonographer and patient

How to Become a Sonographer in 2020

Ultrasound technicians, sonographers, and ultrasound technologists are interchangeable terms used to describe a highly specialized and trained allied health professional. Often, an ultrasound technologist is associated with performing pregnancy ultrasounds, and career opportunities are vast. Possible professions include abdominal, small parts, cardiovascular, gynecologic, and musculoskeletal sonographic imaging.

Ultrasound technologists use specialized equipment that emits high frequency
sound waves. These sound waves travel into the body and reflect back to the
machine. The sound wave reflections have different appearances depending
on the type of tissue being imaged.

If a career as a sonographer interests you, we’ve provided you with the tools to get started. In our free Ultrasound Technician Guide, we’ll give you a step by step process on how to become an ultrasound tech. Below you will learn:

  • Required skills, abilities, and education
  • How long it take to complete a degree
  • Licensing and certification requirements
  • How much a sonographer earns

You will also learn about what a sonographer does, potential coursework and internship opportunities, and specialties available within the sonography field.

Why Choose Diagnostic Medical Sonography?

First, it’s important to consider why sonography might be a good choice. It’s necessary to learn the requirements, benefits, and challenges of any potential career path, and sonography is no different.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), jobs for diagnostic medical sonographers are expected to increase by 19% in the next decade, which amounts to roughly 21,000 new sonography positions.

Sonographers need to be able to make hypothesis of a possible diagnosis and know how to carry out their job to test that hypothesis. Being able to contribute as much as possible to patient care is what made me decide to become a sonographer.” -Brooke A., sonography student, Southern Illinois University of Carbondale


Ultrasound Technician Requirements

Healthcare professions and other service industry related careers often require both hard and soft skills. Hard skills represent the abilities a professional must be able to do to accomplish their job. Soft skills are the abilities a professional must utilize when carrying out the hard skills.

Hard Skills Soft Skills
Hand-eye coordination Compassion and empathy
Ability to lift, push, pull over 50 lbs Staying calm under pressure
Dexterity to operate equipment Listening and communication skills
Knowledge of anatomy/physiology Ethical conduct
Understanding of pathophysiology Independent work ethic
Reading, writing, and interpretation
of technical findings from exams
Ability to function as part of a team

 

Education

An Associates Degree (AA) in diagnostic medical sonography is the minimum education required to become a practicing sonographer. Certification by the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS) is required by almost all employers. In addition, the more education a person has, the further they can advance in their career.

How Long Does it Take to Become an Ultrasound Technician?

Certificate Program

  • Approximately 1 year
  • Typically designed for current healthcare professionals or those
    who have already completed some type of higher education
  • Prepares students for entry level sonography positions

Associate Degree

  • Approximately 2 years
  • Typically results in an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree
    with a specialization in diagnostic medical sonography
  • Prepares students to become a practicing sonographer
    • Choosing a program that is accredited through the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) is important to be eligible to take examinations through the ARDMS or Cardiovascular Credentialing International (CCI) organizations

Bachelor’s Degree

    • Approximately 4 years
    • Typically results in a Bachelor of Science Degree with a
      specialization in diagnostic medical sonography
    • Prepares students to become a practicing sonographer
    • Choosing a program that is accredited through CAAHEP is
      important to be eligible to take examinations through the ARDMS
      or CCI organizations
    • May provide students with more job opportunities due to the
      additional length of education and specialty training, allowing
      them to be eligible for various specialty registry examinations

Whether you choose a two-year or four-year program, it is crucial that you do
your research before starting a program. CAAHEP accredited programs have
distinguished their quality in educational resources through a rigorous external
review process.  Learn more about your options by visiting our degree center.

Ultrasound Licensing/Certification Requirements

ARDMS: The ARDMS (American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography) is a leading accrediting organization recognized across the United States and the world. Many states require an aspiring sonographer to become certified in numerous ultrasound specialties through meeting educational and experiential pre-requisites and writing a certification exam.

Other licensing or certification organizations that offer credentials relevant to ultrasound technology include the ARRT (American Registry for Radiologic Technologists), CCI (Cardiovascular Credentialing International) and JCAHPO (Joint Commission on Allied Health Personnel in Ophthalmology).

In certain states, such as New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Oregon, mandatory licensing laws for ultrasound technologists have either been passed or proposed. In these four states, it will be impossible to become a sonographer without receiving a license or certificate.

In states where ultrasound certification is not legally required, most employers still prefer or require an ultrasound technician to be licensed or credentialed. Generally speaking, those who are certified have a competitive advantage over those who are not when searching for employment.

What Does an Ultrasound Technician Do?

Sonography refers to imaging organs and other structures inside a patient’s body using equipment that transmits high frequency sound waves. The ultrasound images obtained are used to detect and monitor medical conditions, abnormalities or diseases. Several cancers, such as testicular, prostate and breast, use ultrasounds as a crucial tool in diagnosis.

Ultrasound technologists work in concert with other healthcare professionals,
such as doctors and radiologists. They also help prepare patients for
procedures, maintain ultrasound equipment, record patient history and
present findings to the medical team.

Sonographers and also work in many different locations, such as hospitals, doctor’s offices, medical/diagnostic labs, outpatient centers and other healthcare facilities.

New technologies and opportunities

As new technologies have emerged, so have new fields within medical imaging. Whether it be telemedicine, Point of Care Ultrasound (POCUS), or new markets for a traveling sonographer, the field is changing rapidly.

There is an emerging job market for traveling or temporary sonographers, which we explore in an interview with Dave Felix, founder of SonoTemps, Inc.  Traveling as an ultrasound tech is an appealing option for many due to the more flexible schedule, variety in the workplace, and often higher compensation. Is being a traveling sonographer your dream job? Find out in this 2-part interview with Stephanie Eisler, RDMS, where she chronicles the ups and downs of traveling for a living.

You can learn much more about what a sonographer does by visiting our ultrasound technician job description page.

How Much Does a Sonographer Make?

In 2019, the median annual salary for an ultrasound technician was $74,320, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS adds that the bottom 10% of ultrasound technologists made $52,770 a year, whereas the top 10% made over $100,000 (conditions in your area may vary).

Diagnostic medical sonography is frequently categorized as one of the top paying jobs available without a four year degree. In a recent article, Monster.com ranked Sonography second out of the top ten highest paying fields available to Associates Degree holders, along with three other medical imaging fields making the list as well.

Naturally, more experience in the sonography field can result in higher compensation. Certifications and higher education may lead to more advanced or specialized job roles which correlate to a higher salary.

The setting a sonographer works in plays a part in determining their salary. The BLS stated that in 2019, ultrasound technologists working in outpatient care centers were paid more than those in doctor’s offices, labs, and hospitals. Additionally, sonographers who are on-call or working less desirable shifts may receive additional compensation (conditions in your area may vary).

Lastly, geographic location is also a factor in determining salary. Hawaii, Alaska, California, the District of Columbia, and Washington provided the highest salaries to their sonographers compared to other states.

Coursework, Internships and Externships

A wide range of coursework is included a Sonography program. While specific classes vary by institution, there are some commonalities.

Examples include:

      • Anatomy and Physiology
      • Medical Terminology
      • Principles of Sonography

See complete list

Hands on learning, both in the form of internships and clinical externships, are an important part of the sonography training process. When considering which program to attend, find out what types of experiential learning are offered to students.

“The student needs to determine what area of the body is of most interest to them. Don’t look at the job market – it fluctuates, as do salary ranges and job responsibilities.“Each student should research, job shadow/observe and speak with professionals or other sonography students – learn how they determined their specialty area. But honestly, from most educator perspectives, you can’t make a bad decision. The bottom line is that the foundation of all the specialties is sonography. They are all interesting, ever-changing and challenging.”Tricia Turner, DMS Program Director at the South Hills School of Business and Technology.

Specialties in Sonography

Which Specialization is the Best Match for you?

The American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS) offers five different credentials in sonography, which correspond to a main exam and different specialty exams.  There are also a variety of non-clinical career paths available to working sonographers.

Credential Earned Main Exam Specialty Exam
RDMS Sonography, Principles and Instrumentation (SPI) Exam
  • Abdomen (AB)
  • Breast (BR)
  • Fetal Echocardiography (FE)
  • Obstetrics and Gynecology (OB/GYN)
  • Pediatric Sonography (PS)
RDCS Sonography, Principles and Instrumentation (SPI) Exam
  • Adult Echocardiography (AE)
  • Pediatric Echocardiography (PE)
  • Fetal Echocardiography (FE)
RVT Sonography, Principles and Instrumentation (SPI) Exam
  • Vascular Technology Exam (VT)
RMSKS Sonography, Principles and Instrumentation (SPI) Exam
  • Musculoskeletal Sonographer Examination (MSKS)
Midwife Sonography Certificate Midwife Sonographer Examination
  • No special examination needed

Obstetric and Gynecologic Sonography, OB/GYN

This is the function that most people probably think of when they hear the word “ultrasound”. An obstetric sonographer performs ultrasounds to determine the presence of a fetus inside the uterus of a woman and performs certain examinations to assess fetal well-being, anatomy, and growth. During the anatomy scan (sometimes called a 20-week scan), a sonographer may be able to visualize the fetal genitalia to determine the sex of the baby.

A diagnostic medical sonographer specializing in obstetric ultrasounds must
possess the same foundational knowledge all sonographers require—a detailed
understanding of anatomy, sonographic physics, and pathophysiology. Obstetric
sonographers must also be experienced with family-centered care
as they are looking after two patients’ needs at once—mother and baby.

Gynecologic ultrasound involves performing diagnostic examinations of the
female pelvic anatomy through transabdominal and transvaginal ultrasound methods. Transabdominal imaging provides an overview of the pelvis while transvaginal imaging provides higher resolution, detailed images
of the pelvic organs. These ultrasounds are performed on the female reproductive system for reasons unrelated to pregnancy. Common indications a patient is in need of a gynecologic ultrasound include pelvic pain and abnormal bleeding. Gynecologic ultrasound can detect pathology, such as ovarian cysts and uterine fibroids. Ultrasound can even be used to guide procedures like the placement of an intrauterine device.

Cardiovascular and Vascular Technologists, RDCS

Cardiovascular technologists play a critical role in evaluating the heart and
vascular system to assist doctors in managing the overall health of their
patients.

Cardiac sonographers perform transthoracic echocardiograms. The
transducer is placed in various locations on the chest and abdomen to
evaluate heart structure and function in patients of all ages. They play an
important role in procedures such as stress testing, transesophageal
echocardiograms, and ultrasound guidance during several types of cardiac
surgeries.

Common indications a patient may need a cardiac ultrasound completed
include chest pain, murmurs, heart valve disease, heart attacks, etc.
Sonographers working in cardiac ultrasound can further specialize, with
appropriate training and credentials, into fetal and pediatric echocardiography.
More recently, there is an Advanced Cardiac Sonographer (ACS) credential
that is awarded to sonographers from Cardiovascular Credentialing
International (CCI). Sonographers obtaining this credential have a breadth of
experience, knowledge, and potential for career path advancement in
echocardiography.

Vascular sonographers perform a wide variety of exams in the non-invasive
vascular lab to evaluate the effectiveness of the peripheral circulatory system
through evaluation of arteries and veins. Common examinations performed in
the vascular lab include carotid duplex imaging, ankle brachial indices, lower
extremity venous evaluation, and direct arterial imaging of peripheral arteries.

Physicians may order vascular evaluation on patients with indications like cerebrovascular accident (CVA) also called a stroke, or transient ischemic attacks (TIA) also called a mini stroke, uncontrolled diabetes, poor cardiac history, and other conditions that may be attributed to a vascular problem.
Vascular sonography plays an important role in pre-operative and post-
operative evaluation for patients undergoing surgical interventions such as
dialysis fistula creation, bypass grafting for diseased native vessels, and
endarterectomy.

The vascular sonographer also provides the interpreting physician with accurate diagnostic data. Sonographers generally perform non-invasive ultrasounds and assist physicians with making diagnoses based on the images they collect.

Breast Sonography, BR

The American Cancer Society estimates that about 266,000 new cases of
invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women in 2018, resulting in
40,000 deaths. Breast ultrasounds can be more comprehensive than mammograms and are often performed to evaluate suspicious findings from the mammogram or from an abnormal physical exam.

Breast sonographers are highly skilled professionals trained in evaluating the
normal and abnormal changes in breast tissue and surrounding areas. High frequency, high-resolution imaging transducers and machine settings are very important tools to help a breast sonographer detect subtle abnormalities and variations in breast tissue.

They work closely with radiologists and mammographers to thoroughly evaluate an area of suspicion. Many breast sonographers provide ultrasound guidance for physicians performing breast biopsies of suspected masses.

Abdominal Sonography, AB

Abdominal sonography involves performing ultrasound examinations of the
organs and soft tissues in the abdominal region. This often includes
evaluation of the liver, spleen, kidneys, pancreas, gallbladder, and biliary
system. Abdominal ultrasound can help detect and diagnose a variety of
conditions like gallstones, liver cirrhosis, pancreatic masses, and kidney
stones. Indications for abdominal ultrasounds are broad, but commonly
include reasons such as abdominal pain, abnormal laboratory testing, and
nausea/vomiting.

Like other specialties of ultrasound, abdominal sonographers assist physicians in the performance of procedures such as biopsies of soft tissue structures and procedures to drain excess fluid from the abdomen
(paracentesis) or chest (thoracentesis).

Musculoskeletal Sonography, MSKS

Musculoskeletal (MSK) sonography is a rapidly evolving specialty of
ultrasound. The use of MSK sonography has increased in orthopaedic
medicine, sports medicine, and rheumatology. MSK ultrasound evaluates
muscles, connective tissues like ligaments and tendons, and nerves. MSK
sonographers assist in the diagnosis of musculoskeletal injuries. Ultrasound
can also be used to monitor musculoskeletal injury interventions like physical
therapy, occupational therapy, orthopedic surgery, and other minimally
invasive procedures such as steroid injections or nerve blocks.

*Salary information provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics Survey, 2019 Data: www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes292032.htm.

Contributor and Technical Copy Editor, Samantha Callis MHA, RDMS, RDCS, RVT

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Sonographer Samantha Callis
Sam Callis is the clinical coordinator for the DMS program at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville, IN. In addition to clinical coordinating duties, she teaches didactic and laboratory coursework in cardiac and general sonography.


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