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What is a Cytotechnology Degree?
Cytology is the branch of biology concerned with the structure and function of plant and animal cells. Cytotechnology is the study of cells to detect cellular abnormalities.
Cytotechnologists use a microscope to examine slides of human cells to uncover evidence of inflammation, infection, or disease. They play a crucial role in the discovery of cancer and pre-cancerous changes in cells. Degree programs in the field prepare students to work in this important medical lab science.
Note: It is important to choose a degree program that is accredited by the Committee on Accreditation of Allied Health Programs (CAAHEP). Graduates of accredited programs are eligible to take cytotechnology certification exam, which is administered by the American Society for Clinical Pathology(ASCP). In many states where licensing is compulsory, this credential fulfills the requirement.
Bachelor’s Degree in Cytotechnology – Four Year Duration
A bachelor’s degree is the minimum requirement to work as a cytotechnologist. Typically, students begin their cytotechnology concentration in their junior year. This means that in the first two years of undergraduate studies students have considerable freedom regarding the courses they take. They must, however, complete some prerequisite coursework in preparation for the two academic years of cytotechnology-specific study. These prerequisites vary somewhat from school to school, but normally include 28 credits of sciences and three credits of mathematics or statistics.
The junior year cytotechnology curriculum is comprised of lectures and lab sessions focused on the fundamentals of cytology. In their senior year, students spend much of their time in an extensive practicum and take advanced courses in areas such as histology (microscopic anatomy), pathology, and laboratory management.
Here is a snapshot of the courses that make up the two years of a bachelor’s program that are focused on cytology and cytotechnology:
- Introduction to Radiographic Procedures – radiographic procedures used in collecting cytology specimens
- Gynecologic Cytology – anatomy, histology, and cytology of the female genital tract; changes, abnormalities, lesions, and malignancies; interpreting clinical history, making a diagnosis
- Respiratory Cytology – anatomy, histology, and cytology of the respiratory tract; aspiration of the lung; interpreting clinical history, making a diagnosis
- Urinary Tract and Prostate Cytology – anatomy, histology, and cytology of the urinary tract; bladder, renal pelvis, kidney, and prostate; interpreting clinical history, making a diagnosis
- Gastrointestinal Tract Cytology - anatomy, histology, and cytology of the gastrointestinal tract; esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, and colon; interpreting clinical history, making a diagnosis
- Body Fluid Cytology - anatomy, histology, and cytology of fluids from serosal cavities; cerebral spinal fluid (CSF); interpreting clinical history, making a diagnosis
- Cytopreparation Techniques – techniques for collecting cytology specimens; laboratory skills, processes, operations, quality control, quality assurance, safety, and emergency preparedness
- Histotechnology Techniques – preparation of tissue specimens for microscopic evaluation; special stains and immunohistochemistry (identifying proteins in tissue cells)
- Fine Needle Aspiration (FNA) Cytology – study of the benign and malignant cells aspirated from the thyroid, breast, liver, pancreas, lymph node, and other organs; fine needle aspiration techniques; interpreting clinical history, making a diagnosis
- Pathophysiology – study of the disordered physiological processes associated with disease or injury of the human body’s major organ systems
- Histopathology – study and microscopic examination of both normal and abnormal tissue types of the human body’s major organs, with a focus on the smallest structures of the body (tissues, cells, and molecules)
- Current Research Techniques – in immunocytochemistry, image and flow cytometry, and molecular pathology
- Advanced Cytology Practices – further clinical experience working with cytology specimens image-assisted screening, and telepathology; maintaining regulatory statistics, identifying errors
- Cytology Research Projects – supervised research
- Cytology Practicum – internships in cytopathology laboratories, allowing students to rotate through pre-analytical, analytical, and post-analytical laboratory functions; independent evaluation of different types of cytology specimens
Master’s Degree in Cytotechnology – Eighteen Month to Two Year Duration
Eighteen-month master’s programs are generally considered accelerated programs. Graduates with a Master’s Degree in Cytotechnology typically occupy supervisory and management roles in laboratory settings or teach and conduct research at universities. Programs at this level culminate with a clinical practicum and a capstone project or thesis, which demonstrates ability to analyze scientific research, formulate case studies, and present findings.
Here are some samples of graduate courses that are commonly part of a master’s cytotechnology curriculum:
- Exfoliative Non-Gynecologic Cytopathology I – cytopathology principles applied to cellular samples obtained from body sites through brushings, washings, and scrapings
- Cellular Pathophysiology and Histology I – examination of the biochemical and molecular mechanisms underlying disease processes and leading to cellular change and death
- Genetics / Molecular Basis of Disease – fundamental genetic concepts, the hereditability and/or molecular basis of disease; new methods of diagnosing genetic diseases and disorders such as sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s Disease, Alzheimer’s Disease, breast cancer, and alcoholism
- Experimental Design and Data Analysis – how to design experiments and analyze the results
- Advanced Laboratory Practices / Lab Management – how to produce reliable test results; quality collection, processing, and testing of specimens
- Molecular Diagnostics – applying molecular concepts (DNA, RNA) to identify infectious agents, genetic risk of disease, mutations caused by infectious or toxic exposure
- Rounds in Pathology – case presentations and discussions led by pathologists and other specialty physicians, patient symptomatology, diagnostics, patient management, clinical outcomes
- Research Design – research methods used in the biological sciences
- Ethics in Research – discussion of ethical issues involved in the research process, human and animal subjects, reporting of research and conflict of interest
- Flow Cytometry – principles and applications of a cell analysis technique that uses a flow cytometer, which is able to measure cells in solution as they pass by a laser
- In Situ Hybridization – theory and application of molecular hybridization, a process used to map and order genes and other DNA and RNA sequences to their location on chromosomes and within nuclei
- Clinical Practicums – students spend time in program-affiliated laboratories shadowing a teaching cytotechnologist; they participate in pre-screening cases, preparing and staining specimens, patient follow-ups, and other activities
- Advanced Topics in Biotechnology – compiling fine need aspiration (FNA) specimens from clinical rotations, creating a presentation of case studies based on these specimens
Degrees Similar to Cytotechnology
A general biology degree program may include subjects like animal biology, invertebrate biology, vertebrate biology, cellular and molecular biology, evolution, microbiology, and ecology.
Biophysics applies the theories and methods of physics to understand how biological systems like the brain, the circulatory system, and the immune system function. Coursework includes math, chemistry, physics, engineering, pharmacology, and materials science.
Majors in this field study engineering and the life sciences to create new products – such as vaccines, medicines, growth hormones for plants, and food additives – for the agricultural, industrial, and environmental industries. Among typical classes are biochemistry, general biology, cell biology, chemistry, and genetics.
Degree programs in cardiovascular technology prepare students to work as cardiovascular technologists (CVTs). These technicians assist doctors with the diagnosis and treatment of diseases and conditions of the heart (cardio) and blood vessels (vascular). The curriculum is threefold in nature. Students learn (1) the structure, function, and pathology of the heart and blood vessels, (2) the diagnostic tools and procedures used to test them, and (3) the care of cardiovascular patients.
Clinical Laboratory Science
Degree programs in clinical laboratory science prepare students to work as laboratory technicians, who use chemicals and other substances to test body fluids and tissues for the purpose of diagnosing diseases. The curriculum combines chemistry, biology, and medicine.
Genetics is the study of heredity. It attempts to answer questions about how inherited traits are transmitted from parents to offspring.
Microbiology is the study of all living organisms that are too small to see with the naked eye. These ‘microbes’ include bacteria, archaea, viruses, fungi, prions, protozoa, and algae.
Degree programs in molecular biology teach the composition, structure, and interactions of cellular molecules like nucleic acids and proteins that are essential to cell function.
Nuclear Medicine Technology
Nuclear medicine technology uses radioactive drugs or radiopharmaceuticals to help diagnose and treat illnesses. Programs in the field include courses in anatomy and physiology, physics, medical microbiology and immunology, radiobiology, and pathophysiology.
There is no distinct pre-medicine degree. ‘Pre-medicine’ or ‘pre-med’ is merely a term that students planning to go to medical school use to describe their undergraduate studies. In fact, aspiring doctors enter med school having earned many different bachelor’s degrees. A science program such as biology or chemistry is certainly a common choice, but it is not mandatory. In other words, a pre-med student can be a psychology major, a statistics major, or a Spanish major. The key for students is to incorporate into their studies the classes needed to apply to medical school.
Radiological Science and Technologies
Degree programs in radiological science and technologies prepare students for careers as radiologic technologists. These professionals, also known as radiographers, use medical diagnostic equipment, tools, and instruments to capture images of the organs, bones, and tissues inside the body. They also analyze and interpret these images in consultation with doctors and other medical team members.
In addition to learning imaging procedures and image interpretation, students take foundational courses in anatomy and physiology, physics, and pathology. They also learn how to maintain imaging equipment, prepare patients for imaging procedures, and protect patients from harmful radiation.
Respiratory care programs prepare students for careers as respiratory therapists. The curriculum focuses on how to diagnose and manage cardio-pulmonary disorders. Training includes performing CPR, using ventilators, and providing oxygen therapy.
Skills You’ll Learn
Here are some of the competencies associated with the study of cytotechnology:
- Analytical thinking and problem-solving – the work of identifying and diagnosing cell abnormalities requires strong analytical and investigative skills
- Attention to detail – successfully identifying cell deviations in specimens requires an eye for detail
- Communication and collaboration – although individual cytotechnologists often perform their assignments independently, the laboratory environment in which they work is a collaborative, team environment
- Computer skills and data-processing – cytotechnologists work with electronic records and documents
- Mechanical skills and manual dexterity – a large part of cytotechnologists’ work involves manipulating microscopes and properly positioning slides
- Physical stamina – the work requires standing for long periods of time
- Report writing – detailing their findings in written reports is integral to what cytotechnologists do
- Stress management – the medical and health implications of the work can make it stressful
What Can You Do with a Cytotechnology Degree?
Because of the very specific nature of their training and degree, the majority of cytotechnologists work in cytotechnology laboratories. There are, however, some opportunities outside of the lab setting. Here is a summary of the employment options for cytotechnologists:
- Public Health Facilities
- Private Cytology Laboratories
- Teaching and/or research positions with university cytotechnology programs
- Research positions with private research institutes working on disease detection using automated screening, liquid-based, or molecular identification techniques
- Sales and technical consultant roles with companies that sell clinical and lab equipment and reagents (compounds or mixtures added to a system to cause a chemical reaction or test if a reaction occurs)
These are some of the different titles that cytotechnologists may hold, depending on their place of employment and their specific responsibilities:
- Biochemistry Technologist
- Blood Bank Laboratory Technician
- Blood Bank Laboratory Technologist
- Blood Bank Technologist
- Chief Medical Technologist
- Clinical Chemistry Technologist
- Clinical Laboratory Technician
- Clinical Laboratory Technologist
- Cytogenetic Technologist
- Hematology Technician
- Hemodialysis Technician
- Histologic Aide
- Histologic Technician
- Histologist Technologist
- Histology Technician
- Immunohematology Technologist
- Immunology Technologist
- Medical Laboratory Scientist
- Medical Laboratory Technician
- Medical Laboratory Technologist
- Microbiology Technologist
- Molecular Biology Technologist
- Neurology Technician
- Pathology Laboratory Technologist
- Pathology Technician
- Serology Technician
- Tissue Technologist
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