Cytotechnologists might also be called cancer detectives. Their primary job is to scrutinize specimen samples such as Pap tests, body fluids and small biopsies under a microscope. Depending on the type of sample, the cytotechnologist might report his or her interpretation or mark any abnormal cells and pass the samples on to a pathologist for review.

In this career, you must enjoy microscope work, according to Lynnette Savaloja, president-elect of the American Society for Cytopathology. She has been a cytotechnologist for 11 years and cytopathology technical supervisor at Regions Hospital in St. Paul for the past six years.

Work is evolving

The work is changing as technological advances allow for detection of abnormalities at the molecular level, Savaloja said. These changes involve using digital image analysis equipment to evaluate the DNA content of malignant cells, according to the Mayo School of Health Sciences, which offers a 12-month program in cytotechnology to college seniors and graduates. Cyotechnologists are also beginning to use a test called fluorescence in situ hybridization, or FISH, to highlight chromosomal abnormalities in cells.

"A lot of what we've done when we're looking under the microscope may shift to other testing," said Savaloja. "We're also trying to figure out where that is going to go."

Educational requirements

Applicants must have a four-year degree with 28 credits in science courses, such as chemistry, biology, anatomy and genetics. Three credits in mathematics are also required. Some colleges offer a one-year cytotechnology program as part of a four-year bachelor's degree, but most cytotechnologists complete college and go one to a separate cytotechnology program, Savaloja said. The American Society for Clinical Pathology administers a certification exam and requires 36 hours of continuing education every three years to maintain certification.

Opportunities are available for cytotechnologists, who can expect to earn an average of $45,000 to $60,000 a year, or more if they go into management, Savaloja said.

To find out if they would enjoy a career in cytotechnology, Savaloja recommends that students work as laboratory assistants (sometimes called laboratory service technicians) while still in college. "Especially now since things are changing so much, you have to be able to embrace change and be comfortable in that environment," Savaloja said. "There's a lot happening in pathology right now. Cytotechnology is no exception, and I find that very exciting."

Nancy Crotti is a freelance writer who lives in St. Paul.