How to Become a Sonographer in 2021
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, though career opportunities extend beyond obstetrics. Other 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 takes to complete a degree
- Licensing and certification requirements
- How much a sonographer earns
You will also learn more 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.
Becoming an ultrasound tech is a great career choice for many reasons, including:
- Short degree program: Most sonographers hold an Associate of Science Degree (AAS), which typically takes 2 years to complete.
- Earn a great salary: Average salary for ultrasound techs is among the highest available for associate degree holders.
- Strong job market: Double digit job growth is expected over the next ten years.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), jobs for diagnostic medical sonographers are expected to increase by 17% in the next decade, which amounts to roughly 21,000 new sonography positions. Salary and employment figures are based on a national average and may vary by location.
Ultrasound Technician Requirements
Healthcare professions and other service industry related careers require a wide-range of skills, from technical know-how (commonly known as hard skills) to good interpersonal communication (the soft skills). In order to be a successful and well-rounded sonographer, it’s necessary to have both. 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|
Ultrasound technologists work in close 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 work in many different locations, such as hospitals, doctor’s offices, medical/diagnostic labs, outpatient centers and other healthcare facilities.
How Long Does it Take to Become an Ultrasound Technician?
An Associate of Science Degree (AAS) in diagnostic medical sonography is the minimum education required to become a practicing sonographer. Students with an existing degree in a patient-care related field may be able to apply to a shorter-term certificate program. Prerequisites to enter most degree programs include college-level math, science, and English. Program completion times may vary depending on specific program requirements.
Earn Your Degree
- Approximately 12-18 months
- Typically designed for current healthcare professionals or those
who have already completed some type of higher education
- Prepares students for entry level sonography positions
- At least 2 years of full-time attendance
- 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
- 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.
Attendance at a college accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) will prepare you to sit for national certification exams. Certification by the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS) is required by almost all employers.
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 one of the 5 ultrasound specialties offered through the ARDMS by 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.
How Much Does a Sonographer Make?
In 2020, the national median annual salary for an ultrasound technician was $75,920, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS adds that the bottom 10% of ultrasound technologists made up to $53,790 a year, whereas the top 10% made over $105,340. Salary and employment figures are based on a national average and may vary by location.
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.
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 2020, 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.
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.
Coursework, Internships and Externships
A wide range of coursework is included a Sonography program. While specific classes vary by institution, there are some commonalities.
- Anatomy and Physiology
- Medical Terminology
- Principles of Sonography
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||
|RDCS||Sonography, Principles and Instrumentation (SPI) Exam||
|RVT||Sonography, Principles and Instrumentation (SPI) Exam||
|RMSKS||Sonography, Principles and Instrumentation (SPI) Exam||
|Midwife Sonography Certificate||Midwife Sonographer Examination||
*Salary information provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics Survey, 2020 Data: www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes292032.htm.