What to Know About Being a Medical Sonographer

portrait of Michelle Kelley
by Michelle Kelley
Published on November 15, 2021

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Since the 1940s, medical professionals have used sonography to explore the inner workings of the human body. Sonography — also known as ultrasound — is safe and usually noninvasive. It's also the most frequently used diagnostic imaging technology after the X-ray.

Medical sonographers earn higher-than-average wages. Some earn six-figure salaries. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that jobs for medical sonographers and cardiovascular technologists and technicians will increase by 14% from 2020-2030.

Many diagnostic medical sonographers specialize in imaging a specific body part or system. For example, vascular sonographers create images of blood vessels. Obstetric and gynecologic sonographers focus on the female reproductive system. Sonographers work in hospitals, physicians' offices, outpatient care centers, and diagnostic laboratories.

If you're considering a career in sonography, keep reading. This article covers what you need to know to pursue a career as a medical sonographer.

What Does a Medical Sonographer Do?

Diagnostic medical sonographers use high-frequency sound waves to conduct tests and diagnose and monitor medical conditions. Before performing an ultrasound, the sonographer typically records the patient's medical history. After the exam, the sonographer analyzes the resulting images and reports findings to physicians.

During most ultrasound examinations, the sonographer uses a device outside the patient's body. However, some devices are designed for internal use. Sonographers use ultrasound to diagnose gynecological conditions, conduct fetal exams, and assess soft-tissue injuries. Sonographers also use ultrasound technology to detect signs of cancer and heart disease.

Successful sonographers are typically detail-oriented and can notice and interpret subtle changes in diagnostic images. Sonographers also usually have excellent hand-eye coordination. They enjoy working with advanced technology but also have strong interpersonal skills. Most sonographers are interested in human anatomy and driven by a desire to help patients.

What Is a Medical Sonographer’s Career Outlook?

A position as a diagnostic medical sonographer is one of the most in-demand jobs you can get with a two-year degree. The BLS projects that the job market for medical sonographers and cardiovascular technologists and technicians will increase by 19,100 positions between 2020 and 2030.

Diagnostic medical sonographers typically earn associate degrees from programs accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health/Education Programs (CAAHEP). Some students pursue CAAHEP-accredited bachelor's degrees. Individuals with degrees in health services or related fields can sometimes enter the profession by earning a certificate in sonography.

Most employers prefer to hire sonographers who are certified. The American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonographers (ARDMS), Cardiovascular Credentialing International (CCI), and the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) offer various sonography certifications and credentials.

Most states do not require sonographers to hold licenses. Currently, sonographers need licenses to practice in only four states: New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Oregon. Licensing requirements vary by state.

What Is a Medical Sonographer’s Salary and Growth Potential?

If you want to earn a high-paying degree without spending four years in school, an associate in sonography degree could be a good option. As of May 2020, medical sonographers and cardiovascular technicians and technologists earned a median annual salary of $70,380. The top-paying state for diagnostic medical sonographers is California, where they earn an annual mean salary of $108,400.

Many sonographers choose a speciality. For example, abdominal sonographers specialize in imaging the abdominal cavity, kidney, liver, and other nearby organs. Breast sonographers take images of breast tissue to detect tumors and cysts. Top-paying specialties include neurosonology, pediatric echocardiography, and adult echocardiography.

ARDMS administers certification exams in five areas. The table below lists the specialty exams available within each category.

Midwife Sonography Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer Registered Diagnostic Cardiac Sonographer Registered Vascular Technologist Registered Musculoskeletal Sonographer
Midwife Sonography Examination Abdomen Adult Echocardiography Vascular Technology Musculoskeletal Sonography Examination
Breast Fetal Echocardiography
Fetal Echocardiography Pediatric Echocardiography
Obstetrics and Gynecology
Pediatric Sonography

CCI and the ARRT also offer sonography certification exams.

Frequently Asked Questions About a Medical Sonographer’s Career

How long does it take to become a sonographer?

A certificate in sonography program typically takes students 1-2 years to complete. Students enrolled in associate in sonography programs often take 2-3 years to earn their degrees. Some aspiring sonographers earn bachelor's degrees. Bachelor's in sonography programs usually take full-time students four years to finish.

If you've already earned a degree in the medical field, you may be eligible to enroll in a one-year sonography certificate program. You can then pursue certification through the ARDMS, CCI, or ARRT. The ARDMS offers several exams throughout the year. However, some exams are only available during two one-month periods annually.

What is the difference between ultrasound and sonography?

Sonography refers to a medical procedure using high-frequency sound waves to view internal organs and tissues. These high-frequency vibrations are known as ultrasound. However, ultrasound is also a synonym for sonography. The image created through ultrasound or sonography is called a sonogram.

Some medical professionals use the terms sonographer and ultrasound technician interchangeably. However, diagnostic medical sonographers sometimes complete more training than ultrasound technicians. Therefore, many imaging professionals prefer the term sonographer, especially if they are certified.

Is it hard to become a sonographer?

Becoming a sonographer can be challenging. Most programs include technical training, coursework in the biological sciences, and clinical requirements. However, earning your certificate or degree may be worth it. Sonographers usually earn above-average incomes and report low levels of job-related stress.

Sonography programs include courses in sonography instrumentation, physiology, anatomy, and medical terminology. Although some students find these courses difficult, several programs boast 90-100% graduation rates. In addition, most graduates pass the ARDMS's certification exams on their first try.

Learn more about the many career paths of Health Services! Begin your journey here. Learn about becoming a nurse here! There are over 75 areas of specialization and many more available credentials in this ever growing career field. Learn more about the many career paths of radiology! Begin your journey here.

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