What is the history of the cytology field?

In the 1920s, Greek physician and anatomist, Dr. George Nicholas Papanicolaou was the first to develop the “Papanicolaou Smear,” now commonly called the “Pap Smear” or “Pap Test.” The Pap Test has saved millions of women’s lives worldwide by detecting cervical and uterine cancer among other diseases of the female genital tract. Papanicolaou originally began collecting cervical smears while doing hormonal studies on women. He discovered that he could also detect cancer in its early stages. After Papanicolaou developed the pap smear, he began training others in this process. In the beginning, he trained medical doctors to read the pap smear slides. However, doctors could not keep up with the volume and didn’t want to be taken away from treating their patients. This is when it was determined that “cytologists” needed to be trained to prepare and interpret pap smear slides.

What other health care professionals do cytotechnologists work with?

In addition to the pathologist, cytotechs also oftentimes work with histotechnologists, who are trained to prepare tissue for examination by the pathologists. They also provide immunology stains for review by the cytotechnologist and pathologist.

Cytotechs may also work with clinical lab scientists, commonly called medical technologists, who handle the lab’s molecular testing. Sometimes when a doctor sends in a pap smear they also want a Genital Human Papillomavirus (HPV) test run on those cells. Also, if it has been determined that a women has breast cancer, molecular studies can be done by the cytotechnologist and pathologist to determine if the patient will respond to a particular type of chemotherapy.

Cytotechnologists also work with surgeons, interventional radiologists, gastroenterologists, and pulmonologists.

Cytotechnologist Salaries

What is the average cytotechnologist salary?

It can be hard to pinpoint specific salaries for cytotechnologists since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) groups them in with medical and clinical laboratory technologists and technicians. That said, these technologists and technicians earned a mean annual pay of $60,560, according to May 2014 BLS data. Of course, pay can vary by region and experience. This may explain the range of salaries, from $40,640 or less for the bottom 10 percent of professionals to $82,180 or higher for the top 10 percent, that the BLS lists for the career -- which is the same as hourly rates from $19.54 to $39.51. Some of the highest paying states for medical and clinical laboratory technologists and technicians were California, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Vermont, reports the BLS.

Are there advancement opportunities in cytology?

One of the main drawing points to this profession is the standard daytime 9-5 schedule, which can't be enjoyed in many other fields of healthcare. Some cytotechnologists are comfortable screening pap test slides and have no desire to move up the professional ladder. However, for those cytotechs who want to advance, there is definitely opportunity available. One example is the position of a quality control (QC) cytotechnologist who double-checks the work of other cytotechs. Others move up to become the laboratory supervisor or manager. In these positions more paperwork is involved, and a lot of time is spent time handling regulatory responsibilities and gathering statistical data, rather than screening slides.

Typically in order to advance, experience in the field is the key factor. However, to move up to a position such as a lab manager, most employers require a master's degree in business or public health. Overall demand for medical and clinical laboratory technologists is expected to increase by 14 percent from 2012 to 2022. This growth, which is close to the average across all occupations, could result in 22,700 new positions over the decade. Driving demand will likely be an aging population that will need more laboratory procedures, including those that diagnose conditions like type 2 diabetes and cancer. Medical and clinical laboratory technologists and technicians will also be needed to operate and maintain equipment.

Cytotechnologist License and Certification

Is a certification exam required for cytotechs?

Cytotechnologists are required to pass a certification exam administered through the American Society for Clinical Pathologists (ASCP) in order to practice in this field. This computerized, multiple-choice exam is taken following graduation from a cytology program. After passing this exam, the CT (ASCP) credentials are awarded.

Is state licensure required for cytotechnologists?

Upon passing the ASCP certification exam, there are a handful of states that also require state licensure to practice. These states

In addition to the national certification and state licensure, cytotechs are also required to pass an annual proficiency exam due to the extremely high amount of regulation in this field. This exam is typically administered through the College of American Pathologists (CAP) Proficiency testing program. The exam is required in every state that provides pap test screening services, regardless of the setting.

Cytology Schools

What type of degree is needed to become a cytotechnologist?

To practice as a cytotechnologist one must earn their bachelor’s degree in cytology or a science-based field. There are certain prerequisites required to be accepted into a cytology program, such as biology, chemistry, microbiology, anatomy and physiology. Often these prerequisites are taken over the first two years of college so that the last two years are focused specifically on cytology.

What type of cytology schools are available?

Since cytotechnologists must earn a bachelor’s degree, there are a variety of school options including state universities, private colleges, and technical schools. Online cytology degrees may be available as well.

Are clinical rotations included in cytology degree programs?

Cytology programs include clinical rotations for students to gain practical experience and knowledge. Typically cytology programs include nine months of didactic course work and three months of clinical rotations. Each clinical rotation typically lasts for 2-3 weeks and is generally located in a variety of settings such as private labs and hospitals. Cytology students are mentored by seasoned cytologists who review their slides and help them refine their speed and accuracy. The clinical rotations help students decide which type of a setting they prefer to work in when they have completed their education.

What equipment is used in this field?

Mainly cytotechs use microscopes and computers. There are typically two different types of microscopes used; a traditional manual scope where the cytotech controls the settings, and a microscope tied to an imaging system. Essentially the later type of microscope helps guide the cytotech to areas of interest on the slide where an abnormality maybe present.

Cytology Careers

What is the job of a cytotechnologist?

Almost everyone is familiar with the term “pap test.” The pap test is collected during an annual gynecological exam. Pap tests are a critical prescreening test for cervical cancer and women are typically urged to have these tests done annually in order to prevent and detect cervical cancer and other infectious diseases. Cytotechnologists interpret pap tests by examining the slide under a microscope to determine if there are abnormalities.

Interpreting pap tests is only one example of what a cytotechnologist does. Cytotechnologists interpret cells from all body sites.

What employment settings are available for cytotechnologists?

The majority of cytotechs work in hospitals or private cytology labs. In a private lab setting these individuals typically examine pap smears to look for atypical cells, and other pathogens such as herpes and fungus. In the hospital setting cytotechs may read slides from Fine Needle Aspirations (FNAs), or those for non-gynecological and gynecological (pap test) specimens.

Although it is not common, some large family practices and gynecological practices hire cytotechs to screen slides and then have an on call pathologist to review anything the cytotech identified as cause for concern.

Cytotechs are also able to teach cytology courses, sell cytology equipment and tools, conduct research, provide peer review by inspecting cytology laboratories, and volunteer in third world countries where cervical cancer is the number one cause of death for women.

As a cytotech one can also become active in their state and national societies or even be employed by them. Also, one can write and publish research papers on the topic of cytology for professional journals.

Finally, if one has the desire to travel around the country or world they could work as a cytologist for a temp or travel company. Locations with shortages of cytologists employ those working for a travel company for a predetermined contracted time.

Become a Cytotechnologist

How to Become a Cytotechnologist

  1. Interview or job shadow cytotechs who work in a variety of settings to learn more about this job/field first hand and see what type of a setting you’d prefer.
  2. Enroll in a cytology bachelor’s degree program.
  3. Sit for the American Society for Clinical Pathologists certification exam to earn the CT-ASCP.
  4. Apply and test for state licensure.
  5. Look for a job in this rewarding field.
  6. Take the annual proficiency exam.
  7. Maintain the necessary continuing education units your state licensure requires (typically 24 hours within a two year period).

What skills must one possess to succeed in this field?

In the field of cytology there is no black and white; rather everything is gray. One cytotechnologist may review a slide and think they see something atypical and another may review it and find it to be “normal”. Cytologists must have strong communication skills so they’re able to discuss cases with the pathologist or other cytotechs, and express their opinion as to whether they view a slide as normal or atypical. Cytotechs must also have a very high attention to detail and handle each slide they review with care, giving it the attention it needs. Cytotechs spend the bulk of their day reviewing slides, unless in the hospital setting where they may be required to handle Fine Needle Aspirations, so they must be okay in a sedentary job.

Request Information from Cytotechnology Colleges

The Cytology schools, colleges, and universities below offer some of the best training available to medical degree seeking individuals. Request information from multiple registered schools in order to compare programs and find the best degree for you.


  1. Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technologists, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2014. Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technologists. http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes292011.htm
  2. Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technologists, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Jan. 8, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/medical-and-clinical-laboratory-technologists-and-technicians.htm#tab-6

Cytotechnologist Schools