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

Learn How to Become a Sonographer in 2019

sonographer and patient

If you’ve been considering a career as an ultrasound technician, also referred to as a diagnostic medical sonographer or sonographer, you’ve undoubtedly got questions as to how to get started. There’s a lot to learn and prepare for, and we’re here to help you get started.

In our Ultrasound Technician Guide, we’ll let you know what education you’ll need, how long it might take you to complete your education, where you might work, and how much you can earn. Also, you’ll get the chance to explore the specialties available within the field. We wish you lots of success!

Why Become an Ultrasound Technician?

It is a fulfilling career that continues to increase in demand.  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 sonographers.

How Long Does it Take to Become an Ultrasound Technician?

Sonography programs options include:

  • 1-year certificate
  • 2-year Associate’s degree
  • 4-year Bachelor’s degree

Entry level ultrasound tech positions generally require an Asscociate’s degree in an applied science, with a specialization in diagnostic medical sonography.  These programs are designed to take 18 to 24 months of full time course work.

Bachelor’s degrees, which are four-year programs, are also available for those who want to advance their career in to management, or specialize in one of the more technically advanced fields in sonography.

One year certificate programs are also available to those already working in the field, holding positions such as radiology or cardiovascular technician.  In order to qualify for a certificate program, the student usually needs either:

  • Associate’s degree in allied health
  • Bachelor’s degree in any field

Job Description

What Does an Ultrasound Technician do?

When most people think of ultrasounds, the image of the unborn baby is the first to come to mind.
While sonographers play an important role in monitoring the health of an unborn fetus and the health of the mother, there is much more that they do on a daily basis.

Sonographers image organs and other structures inside a patient’s body using equipment that relies on sound wave technology. The ultrasound images or scans they capture are used to diagnose and monitor medical conditions, abnormalities or diseases. Several cancers, such as testicular, prostate and breast, use ultrasounds as a crucial tool in diagnosis.

Ultrasound techs 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. As diagnostic medical sonographers, they help interpret ultrasound images.

Physical requirements include:

  • Standing for long periods of time
  • Focus and attention to detail in a fast-paced environment
  • Able to lift 80 pounds or less
  • 12 hour shifts are often required, especially in hospital settings

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

How Much do Ultrasound Techs Make?

Diagnostic medical sonography is frequently categorized as one of the top paying jobs available without a 4-year degree. In a recent article, Monster.com ranked Sonography #8 out of 10 of high paying fields available to Associates Degree holders, with 3 other medical imaging fields making the list as well.

In 2017, the median salary for an ultrasound technician was $71,410/year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS adds that the bottom 10% of ultrasound technologists made $50,760/year, whereas the top 10% made $99,840/year.

Numerous factors contribute to the salary of an ultrasound technician. Naturally the more experience you have, generally the more you will make. Certifications and higher education also lead to more advanced or specialized job positions which can lead to higher compensation.

Where you work also plays a role. For example, the BLS stated that in 2017, ultrasound technicians working in outpatient care centers made more than those in doctor’s offices, labs and hospitals. Finally, geographic location is also a factor. Sonographers that work in California, Washington D.C.,  Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii provided the highest salaries to their sonographers.

Ultrasound Licensing/Certification Requirements

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. Where ultrasound certification is not legally required, still many employers either 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 looking for employment.

ARDMS:  The ARDMS (American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography) is a leading accrediting organization recognized across the United States and the world. You can become certified in numerous specialties of ultrasound 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).

Coursework, Internships and Externships

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

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 training process. When considering which program to attend, find out what they offer their students in this important area.

Where do Most Sonographers Work?

Ultrasound technicians and medical sonographers work in hospitals, doctor’s offices, medical/diagnostic labs, outpatient centers and other healthcare facilities. In 2017, the BLS stated that 75% of ultrasound technologists worked in hospitals. This includes working in the emergency room, the sonography department and also performing ultrasounds in patient rooms.

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 it a 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.

Which Sonography Specialization is the Best Match for you?

“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.

The ARDMS offers 5 different Certificates in sonography, with 10 different corresponding specialty exams.

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

Obstetric and Gynecologic Sonography

This is the function that most people probably think of when they hear the word “ultrasound”.  An obstetric sonographer or Midwife performs ultrasounds to determine the presence of an embryo/fetus inside the uterus of a woman or to assess the health, growth and development of the fetus.

A diagnostic medical sonographer who specializes in obstetric ultrasounds not only has to be skilled in biology, physics and technology – he or she also has to be caring, compassionate, and professional. They will find themselves present in what is typically one of the most important times of a woman’s, and her partner’s, lives, when emotions are at their peak.

Sonography in gynecology involves taking ultrasounds of the female pelvic region. Normally these ultrasounds are performed on the female reproductive system for purposes separate from those related to pregnancy. Gynecologic ultrasounds are used to detect, and sometimes treat, abnormalities, such as ovarian cysts or uterine fibroids. An ultrasound technician with this specialty certificate performs both transabdominal and transvaginal ultrasounds.

Cardiovascular and Vascular Technologists

Cardiovascular technologists play a critical role in the overall health of Americans, especially as we age.  They work closely with doctors to assess heart and vascular system health.  Sonographers generally perform non-invasive ultrasounds and assist physicians with making diagnoses based on the images they collect.

Cardiovascular technologists, broadly speaking, may also perform invasive procedures, such as inserting cardiac catheters and conducting stress tests.  As the populations ages, the need for cardiac health grows.  The demand for cardiovascular technologists is expected to increase by 29% over the next eight or more years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Vascular interventional sonography, referred to as intravascular ultrasound, combines imaging techniques with invasive medical procedures. This means that an ultrasound device is inserted inside the body – in this case inside a blood vessel. Coronary arteries are the most common blood vessels to be examined in this way. Vascular interventional sonographers perform tests that are used for both diagnostic and therapeutic purposes.

Opthalmologic Sonography

Simply put, opthalmologic sonography is an ultrasound of the eye. An ultrasound technician who is specialized in ophthalmologic sonography perform ultrasounds on the eye and orbit (eye socket) to take measurements before surgery or to detect abnormalities such as tumors, detached retinas or hemorrhages among the vitreous fluid. Ophthalmologic sonography may be practiced anywhere from a hospital’s emergency room to an ophthalmology clinic.

Breast Sonography

The American Cancer Society estimates that about 266,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women in 2018, and that about 40,000 will die. Breast ultrasounds can be more comprehensive than mammograms and are often performed to further evaluate findings from the mammogram or from a clinical check-up. Since they are able to see all layers and angles of the breast, the images that breast sonographers are able to obtain play an important role in the early detection of breast cancer among female and male patients.

Abdominal and Genitourinary Sonography

Abdomen sonography involves taking ultrasounds of the organs and soft tissues in the abdominal region, including the liver, spleen, kidneys, pancreas and gallbladder. Abdominal ultrasounds help detect and diagnose a variety of conditions, from kidney stones and gallstones to pancreatic cancer and cirrhosis of the liver. Abdominal sonographers also play an important role in assisting physicians when they perform diagnostic biopsies by helping guide the physician to the targeted area.

The genitourinary system includes organs from both the urinary and reproductive systems, and ultrasound techs with this specialization perform ultrasounds that are used to capture images of urinary and genital organs of both males and females, adults and children. There are many possible genitourinary complications and diseases and ultrasonography assists with early detection in a non-invasive, efficient manner. Genitourinary sonographers also help with monitoring health conditions and in some cases assist with treatment procedures.

Echocardiography and Pediatric/Fetal Echocardiography

Echocardiography is the process of performing ultrasounds on the heart and its surrounding structures. In producing these echocardiograms or electrocardiograms, cardiac sonographers help diagnose cardiovascular diseases and assess the overall health and function of the heart. In most cases cardiograms are non-invasive, meaning that the ultrasounds are performed on the surface of the patient’s skin.

Echocardiographers may perform ultrasounds while the patient is either at rest or active (as part of a stress test for example).  Doppler sonography is often employed by echocardiographers or cardiovascular techs as a means to detect the direction and speed at which blood is flowing throughout the blood vessels and heart.  Doppler ultrasounds generate both audio outputs and visual images.

Heart problems and disease are the number one type of birth defect in the United States.  Those specialized in pediatric and fetal echocardiography are trained to perform tests that can be used to diagnose heart defects and disease early on, even before a baby is born.

Fetal echocardiography is normally performed on expecting mothers if a sonogram detects an irregular heart beat among the fetus or if the family history hints at potential heart problems. Pediatric patients will undergo an echocardiogram for the diagnosis of either congenital or acquired heart problems/diseases. Pediatric and fetal echocardiographers also prove useful during treatment procedures and surgeries.

Musculosekeletal Sonography

Musculoskeletal (MSK) sonography is an emerging form of ultrasound becoming increasingly popular in the fields of sports medicine, rheumatology and other areas specifically dealing with joints, muscles, tendons, nerves and ligaments. MSK sonographers help diagnose musculoskeletal injuries and diseases and also monitor the progression or treatment of those conditions.

*Salary information provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics Survey, 2016-17 Data: www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes292032.htm.

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