- To be eligible to work in a medical imaging field, individuals must first obtain a relevant degree through an accredited school or program.
- Medical imaging programs, such as the radiologic technology degree, have several degree levels ranging from the certificate level to the doctoral level(1).
- No two radiology degree programs are identical. However, the courses typically found in most of these programs include human anatomy, imaging principles, clinical decision-making, advanced image analysis, and radiation protection(2).
Degree Levels in Medical Imaging
Medical imaging refers to the use of various technologies to produce images of the human body to help diagnose, observe, or treat medical conditions. The most prevalent medical imaging fields are the following(3):
- Ultrasound imaging (sonography)
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
- Medical X-ray imaging
- Pediatric X-ray imaging
Individuals must first earn a medical imaging-related degree through an accredited school or program to work in these fields.
For example, radiologic technology degrees or radiology degrees have several levels, starting at the certificate level to the doctoral level(4).
Each level opens up various opportunities for certification and licensure. These opportunities can influence the individual’s career paths.
For instance, individuals can work as limited-scope X-ray technologists at the technical certificate level(5). Meanwhile, advancing to the doctoral level allows one to become a radiologist, who is a medical doctor specializing in medical imaging to treat and diagnose diseases.
The following are the degree levels for the radiologic technology program:
Radiologic Technology Certificate
A radiology certificate or certificate in radiologic technology is the minimum education requirement to be eligible to work in the radiologic technology field.
Many employers require such certificates for entry-level work, such as a limited scope X-ray technologist. This career path prepares applicants to safely work with radiographic equipment, such as X-ray machines, with limited application.
Radiologic technology certificates are ideal for working professionals who need additional expertise in specific medical imaging specialties like ultrasound, computed tomography (CT), or MRI.
Certificates are typically available at the undergraduate level as an alternative to getting a second degree, especially for individuals already working in radiologic technology.
Certificate programs usually take six months to a year to complete(6).
Individuals who graduate with a radiology degree can obtain certification, such as the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) certificate, or state licensure to practice their chosen modality or imaging method.
Certificates can also help people who have no prior experience in their chosen field to become eligible for ARRT certification or state licensure.
Certificate programs are typically offered on-campus. However, some educational institutions also offer online radiologic technology certificates for specific modalities.
Radiologic Technology Associate Degree
Most healthcare facilities or hospitals require an associate’s degree in radiologic technology for an applicant to work as a diagnostic imaging team member.
Many community colleges and technical schools offer associate’s degree programs in radiologic technology.
Radiologic technology associate’s degree titles can vary, such as the following:
- Associate of Science (AS) in Radiography
- AS in Diagnostic Medical Sonography
- Associate of Applied Science (AAS) in Radiologic Technology
Some schools also offer associate’s degrees in nuclear medicine technology and magnetic resonance imaging.
The required coursework will vary depending on the major. However, graduates of accredited medical imaging programs can qualify for entry-level radiologic technology work upon meeting state licensing or certification requirements.
In addition to classes like anatomy, medical terminology, and general education subjects such as math, students gain hands-on clinical experience through equipment operation and patient care.
An associate degree in radiologic technology usually takes two years to accomplish with full-time study.
The need for hands-on training to prepare students to work with medical imaging equipment adequately requires most of the clinical education to take place on campus. However, select courses may also be offered online.
Bachelor’s Degree in Radiologic Technology
A bachelor’s degree in radiologic technology prepares an individual to work with advanced medical equipment to produce images of the human body to help diagnose and treat various diseases and provide competent patient care.
While an associate degree can provide foundational skills, bachelor’s programs in radiologic technology are designed to prepare students for practice in various imaging techniques and modalities.
There are more than 1,000 accredited bachelor’s degree programs for radiologic technology, many of which vary in terminologies, details, and program names, such as the following(7):
- Bachelor of Science (BS) in Radiologic Sciences
- BS in Radiologic Technology (BSRT)
- Bachelor of Radiography
- Bachelor of Applied Science (BAS) in Radiologic Technology
- BS in Nuclear Medicine Technology
- BS in Diagnostic Medical Sonography
Regardless of the student’s chosen modality, a bachelor’s degree provides an opportunity to earn a higher salary, assume a leadership role, and take on managerial responsibility.
Coursework for this program usually covers radiation physics, radiation safety, pathology, anatomy, patient care, patient positioning, and ethics.
A bachelor’s degree in radiologic technology typically takes about four years to complete. Graduates are usually required to become ARRT-certified or state-licensed to become practicing technologists in a specific facility or state.
Some schools offer transfer programs allowing individuals with associate’s degrees in medical imaging to earn an online bachelor’s degree in radiologic science.
Master’s Degree in Radiologic Technology
Individuals who have a bachelor’s degree and pursue an advanced understanding of medical imaging and associated research methods may take up a master’s degree.
This advanced degree typically takes one to two years for full-time students to complete or up to three years when taken as a part-time program.
One potential career path for individuals pursuing a master’s degree in radiologic technology is to be a radiologist assistant, an advanced practice radiologic technician with responsibilities in the field of patient assessment and radiological procedures.
Titles under this degree include the following:
- Master of Science in Radiologic Science (MSRS)
- Master of Science (MS) in Radiation Sciences
- MS in Biomedical Imaging
- MSRS-Radiologist Assistant (RA)
Doctoral Degrees in Radiology
Most degrees at the undergraduate and master’s levels are radiologic technology degrees. However, individuals pursuing true radiology degrees should take a radiology degree at the doctoral level.
This degree prepares graduates to work in advanced careers in radiologic science, such as the doctor of medicine (MD) in radiology. This career path equips graduates with advanced skills to work as medical fellows and seek medical board certification and licensure as doctors.
Students can also obtain a doctor of philosophy (PhD) degree in radiology programs, leading to medical imaging research careers and potential board certification as medical physicists who work as equipment specialists.
Educational institutions can have varying prerequisites, which an applicant must satisfy before enrolling in the medical radiography program.
For example, students at the Loma Linda University School of Allied Health Professions can enroll in the Associate of Science in medical radiography program by meeting the following education requirements upon application(8):
- Freshmen English: One year in college
- Interpersonal communication, speech, or oral communication: One quarter or semester in college
- Medical terminology: One quarter or semester in college
- Human anatomy and physiology: Two or three classes, each with a lab session
- Introduction to physics: One quarter or semester in college
- Mathematics: College algebra (intermediate and high school algebra are no longer accepted)
- Social sciences: General psychology or general sociology in college
- Electives: Students may take other non-remedial college courses to meet the required 28 semester units (42 quarter units)
Electives recommended for the program include: Cultural anthropology, nutrition, physical education, critical thinking, and Spanish.
Other electives include sociology, psychology, computers, statistics, philosophy, history, political science, and economics.
After meeting all prerequisites, the student must submit the following requirements upon enrollment(9):
- Application Form: This form contains information on the academic history and personality of the student applicant.
Applications typically include a resume, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement. Some online application apps allow students to submit enrollment applications to multiple universities at once, which saves time.
- Transcripts: Students must submit their high school or college transcripts and indicate how well the student performed throughout their education.
Students can ask for official copies of their transcripts from their school counselors.
- Application fee: College application fees typically cost under $40. However, students can request to have this fee waived under some circumstances.
- Letters of recommendation: These letters should usually come from professionals or teachers who can elaborate or vouch for the applicant’s skills and work ethic. The student should submit two or three letters of recommendation(10).
- Test scores: Some schools use the ACT (American college testing), the SAT (scholastic aptitude test), or both tests to determine the student’s eligibility to enroll in the program.
Test score requirements can vary between programs.
Radiology degree programs vary between schools. Thus, no two programs are identical. However, the following courses are typically found in most of these programs(11):
Through a systematic learning approach, students learn about the human body’s anatomy, including muscular, skeletal, nervous, respiratory, circulatory, integumentary, reproductive, and digestive systems.
Students also identify the anatomical structures’ functions and apply the clinical relevance of these functions in practical situations.
Principles of Imaging
This course lets students understand the basic principles of medical imaging, including relevant pieces of equipment and their functions.
Students learn how to read images accurately and improve image quality, including how scattered radiation can impact the medium, such as a film, and how to minimize this error.
Knowing how to read and communicate about various equipment in the clinic is a competency students will learn in this course.
Students will also learn and recall relevant protocols and processes that lead to accurate and effective outcomes. This course allows students to earn a degree with a focus on leadership training.
Advanced Image Analysis
This coursework teaches the scientific methodology to students using foundational knowledge and skills.
In this course, students apply the scientific methodology by reading and analyzing scientific publications, developing strategies for algorithm implementation, and presenting theories professionally.
Students at the end of this course should be capable of teaching image processing to others.
Students learn about radiation protection principles, which typically include radiographer and patient responsibilities. Coursework covers radiation regulations mandated by federal and state agencies.
In this course, students learn to discuss the impacts of radiation on various individuals with specific ailments.
Students also learn to communicate and express the importance of monitoring radiation levels to other individuals, including patients and employees.
Accreditation can impact an individual’s licensure eligibility and the ability to transfer credits when switching to another program.
For example, accreditation can influence an individual’s eligibility to transfer to a four-year program after a two-year program completion or obtain a certification for a new modality.
Students should be aware of two accreditation types: regional (or institutional) accreditation and programmatic accreditation.
- Regional accreditation: With this accreditation, a school is recognized by one of the six regional accreditors authorized by the Department of Education in the United States.
Some states require that the school where the applicant completed their program is regionally accredited as part of the radiologic technologist licensing process.
Most credentialing exams also require examinees to have graduated from an accredited institution.
Regional accreditation is also required for students to be eligible for certain types of financial aid, such as federally-backed student loans.
Finally, a school that holds regional accreditation will generally require any transfer credits to be from institutions that also hold regional accreditation.
- Programmatic accreditation: This accreditation type means that a specialty organization has granted accreditation to a program.
The medical imaging field has three major program accreditors:
- Joint Review Committee on Education in Radiologic Technology (JRCERT)
- Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
- Joint Review Committee on Educational Programs in Nuclear Medicine Technology (JRCNMT)
Accreditations by these organizations reflect the program’s quality as these programs undergo a thorough review and vetting process to obtain accreditation.
Thus, many states and credentialing exam administrators prefer programmatic accreditation in the licensing process. Each of the three accreditors is recognized for its expertise in specific modalities.
Credentialing and Accreditation
JRCERT is the only organization that the US Department of Education acknowledges as the authority for accrediting radiologic technology degree programs.
The organization specifically accredits radiation therapy, radiography, magnetic resonance, and medical dosimetry programs.
Individuals who need to find a program’s accreditation status can search the JRCERT database online.
JRCERT accreditation is not required for radiologic technology graduates to become eligible to take the ARRT certification or the Medical Dosimetry Certification Board (MDBC) licensing exams. However, this accreditation provides candidates the eligibility to take these exams upon graduating.
Meanwhile, CAAHEP accredits health education programs, including medical imaging modalities for advanced cardiovascular sonography and diagnostic medical sonography, from the diploma to the master’s level.
CAAHEP accreditation is not included in the ARRT licensing process. However, CAAHEP-accredited ultrasound programs may be likely to be on the ARRT-approved programs list.
On the other hand, JRCNMT accredits nuclear medicine technology programs. Graduating from a JRCNMT-accredited nuclear medicine technologist degree program can grant eligibility to a candidate to take the Nuclear Medicine Technologist Certification Board (NMTCB) exam.
However, graduates from programs not accredited by JRCNMT may still be eligible to take the ARRT exams.
Individuals planning for their career in radiologic technology and medical imaging must check with their state’s licensing boards for specific requirements in the career path the individual wishes to take.
Licensing and Certification
In the US, some states require individuals who are planning to work in the medical imaging field to obtain a state license before working. This license is different from the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) certification and registration.
Individuals with medical imaging credentials who want to be certified and registered with ARRT must apply to this organization and meet its requirements. Establishments such as hospitals and imaging laboratories may prefer applicants with an ARRT certificate.
On the other hand, obtaining a state license requires the individual to meet that particular state’s licensing requirements and apply directly to that state.
What Is a Radiographer?
A radiographer, also called a radiologic technologist, performs an essential role in a medical team by conducting medical imaging examinations that assist physicians in diagnosing and treating diseases.
Traits and Skills
Medical imaging technicians are expected to have the knowledge and traits needed to perform various imaging procedures, such as capturing images of broken bones, tissue abnormalities, or even unborn babies in pregnant women.
Individuals who choose this profession can choose to work in one of two areas of medical imaging:
- Radiology: Using radiation to capture images
- Sonography: Using sound waves to create images
The traits and skills required of these imaging professionals vary according to the employer.
However, in general, the traits employers look for in prospective medical imaging technicians include, but are not limited to, the following(12):
- A people person
Additionally, employers may prefer applicants to have the following skills(13):
- Good hand-eye coordination
- Ability to concentrate
- Excellent communication skills
- Solid interpersonal skills
- An ability to calm others
- Strong organizational skills
Pursuing a medical imaging degree can open up an individual’s career in several health professions.
The following are the potential career opportunities and specializations individuals can pursue after earning a degree in this field:
A bone densitometry technologist creates images using specialized X-ray equipment, which helps doctors diagnose health conditions affecting an individual’s bone health.
For example, patients and their healthcare providers can discuss treatment options, such as medications or lifestyle changes, if the test reveals adverse bone conditions.
Breast sonographers conduct medical imaging using a transducer on the patient’s breast to produce ultrasound images. A transducer is a tool that converts a form of energy, such as sound, into electronic signals.
After the sonographer produces the image, a doctor analyzes it to make a diagnosis. Sonographers also participate in interventional procedures, such as biopsies (removal of tissue to examine for diseases).
Breast sonograms are noninvasive, meaning it does not require insertion of the instrument into the body. Additionally, sonograms use sound energy instead of radiation to produce images.
Still, individuals undergoing breast sonograms may be anxious or have questions about the procedure.
With appropriate education and relevant credentials from the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) in breast sonography, sonographers will have the knowledge to capture the best images possible, explain the process clearly, and provide a calming presence to individuals undergoing the procedure(14).
Cardiac Interventional Radiography
Cardiac interventional radiographers assist doctors by using minimally invasive and image-guided procedures, which help diagnose and treat heart and blood vessel diseases without needing surgery.
Procedures wherein cardiac interventional radiographers are likely to assist include biopsies, angioplasty, thrombolysis, and embolization(15).
Angioplasty is a medical procedure to open blocked arteries to restore blood flow, while thrombolysis is a treatment process using drugs to dissolve blood clots.
Meanwhile, embolization involves using particles such as tiny beads or gelatin sponges to block blood vessels or help stop bleeding(16).
Individuals in this role work with fluoroscopic equipment to take images of the heart and its surrounding blood vessels.
Fluoroscopy is an imaging technology used for observing body parts using X-rays to produce real-time moving images.
Computed Tomography (CT)
Individuals who choose to become CT technologists are likely to work in a hospital or an imaging laboratory where they will perform scans on different body parts using X-ray equipment for various purposes.
For example, doctors will need CT-generated images to diagnose a patient’s disease or acute condition. Others may need CT scans in emergencies such as physical injuries so that physicians can understand the extent of the wound and apply the appropriate remedy.
CT technologists must have the relevant skills and confidence for this role as these skills are crucial when balancing image quality with the radiation dose since a CT scan involves X-ray exposure.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
An MRI procedure utilizes the resonant frequency properties of the atoms within a magnetic field to generate images of the anatomic or physiologic body conditions.
MRI technologists are responsible for obtaining the best possible images since radiologists review these scans to provide the appropriate diagnosis and treatment for the patients.
Additionally, individuals undergoing MRI procedures can become distressed or claustrophobic, especially since the MRI equipment places the patient inside a confined space.
Thus, MRI technologists must be skilled in providing support to patients undergoing the procedure.
Mammography is an essential part of medical care as it can help in the early detection, diagnosis, and treatment of breast diseases.
According to the ARRT, mammography has helped reduce breast cancer deaths by almost one-third since 1990(17).
Many individuals who undergo mammography procedures often come for routine screenings, while others do so due to lumps or other signs of breast cancer.
Thus, mammographers operate specialized equipment to obtain images that help doctors detect breast diseases, including breast cancer, while these conditions are in their earliest stages.
Individuals undergoing mammography may feel anxious, especially since this procedure involves exposing certain body parts to radiation. Mammographers must have the confidence and skill to help support and comfort these individuals throughout the procedure.
Nuclear Medicine Technology
Nuclear medicine technology is an advanced field of health care that helps doctors evaluate and diagnose severe health conditions like heart disease and cancer.
Nuclear medicine technologists are responsible for creating diagnostic images that may require administering radiopharmaceuticals to individuals to be scanned in preparation for the image capture procedure.
Radiopharmaceuticals are radioactive agents used to help diagnose medical conditions. The camera or other medical imaging equipment detects these agents, which show up on the image to help nuclear medicine doctors analyze the condition(18).
Radiation therapists are part of a medical team that plans and administers treatments prescribed by radiologists or radiation oncologists to patients and monitors the conditions of these patients.
Radiologists or oncologists often prescribe radiation therapy to patients who have cancer or other serious diseases.
Individuals who work in the radiation therapy field use specialized medical equipment that emits ionizing radiation to deliver therapeutic radiation doses to patients.
Most radiologic technologists who start working in the medical imaging field enter the profession as radiographers(19).
In this role, the radiographer captures images of patients’ internal organs, bones, and tissues using X-ray equipment.
Radiographers also assist radiologists in performing various procedures such as gastrointestinal examinations or fluoroscopic imaging that require the use of contrast media.
Contrast media are substances administered to an individual through various delivery routes to help improve the contrast resolution of various imaging modalities(20).
Registered Radiologist Assistant (RRA)
RRAs are an integral part of a medical team as they assist radiologists in performing certain clinical duties and assessing and managing patients. This career opens up new opportunities for individuals interested in advancing their radiology-related profession.
The increase in demand for medical imaging services can stretch radiology teams and resources thin(21). Thus, medical facilities turn to RRAs to help improve efficiency and patient care and provide high-level assistance to radiologists.
Sonographers or ultrasound technologists operate medical imaging equipment that uses nonionizing high-frequency sound waves to produce images of an individual’s tissues and internal organs.
Clinical applications for this procedure include gynecology and obstetrics, wherein the sonographer creates images of the unborn child inside the mother’s womb.
Facilities for sonographers to gain work opportunities include hospitals, diagnostic clinics, and physicians’ offices.
Vascular Interventional Radiography
Vascular interventional radiographers assist physicians by using image-guided vascular procedures, such as angioplasty and thrombolysis.
These minimally-invasive procedures use advanced fluoroscopic equipment. Vascular interventional radiographers operate these equipment to capture images of the blood vessels.
In this professional field, sonographers create images of the patients’ arteries and veins using ultrasound machines that utilize high-frequency sound waves.
The images produced typically show blood movement through the vessels and the structure and condition of internal organs. Doctors utilize these images to diagnose and treat various medical conditions.
Additionally, vascular sonographers provide information about the procedure to patients and support them during the imaging process.
Salary and Benefits
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) listed down the following medical imaging careers and their corresponding annual median salaries as of 2021(22):
- Medical sonographers and cardiovascular technologists and technicians: $75,380
- Nuclear medicine technologists: $78,760
- Radiation therapists: $82,790
- Radiologic and MRI technologists: $61,980
Medical imaging professionals can become part of the following organizations based on specialization(23):
- American Society of Radiologic Technologists (ASRT): This organization supports its members, who are composed of radiologic technologists and radiation therapists, by providing access to journals, magazines, continuing education (CE) opportunities, and professional development.
- Association of Vascular and Interventional Radiographers (AVIR): AVIR helps its members hone their professional skills through chapter meetings, online workshops, annual conferences, and regional networking opportunities.
- Association for Medical Imaging Management (AHRA): AHRA represents professionals in managerial roles dealing with imaging. The organization provides its members with access to CE opportunities, a global network, and award-winning publications.
- Radiological Society of North America (RSNA): This international society comprises medical professionals working in radiology. RSNA’s vast network allows members to access thousands of CE credits.
- Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonography (SDMS): SDMS has educated medical professionals specializing in sonography since 1970. Members can access the organization’s network of more than 28,000 professionals.
As the population continues aging, more medical conditions will require medical imaging as a tool for physicians to make diagnoses.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics mentioned that overall employment within the radiologic and MRI technology fields is projected to increase by 9% between 2020 and 2030(24).
History and Evolution of Medical Imaging
The field of medical imaging was born after Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen discovered X-rays in 1895(25). The X-ray became the basis for subsequent advancements in the field, including mammography, angiography, fluoroscopy, and tomography.
The 1950s became a period for medical imaging advancement as nuclear medicine became an acceptable diagnostic imaging tool.
The positron emission tomography (PET) scan, which became the primary diagnostic method for cancer, emerged from this technological advancement.
Ultrasound, CT, and MRI scans were first used for clinical practice in the 1970s. Due to the lack of practical ways to produce an image of the brain before, ultrasound became a breakthrough in the medical imaging field.
As technology advances rapidly, most experts agree that medical imaging will allow doctors and technologists to detect diseases earlier and less invasively(26). This capability can enable physicians to see whether a therapeutic drug is working in a matter of hours.
1. How long will it take to finish a medical imaging degree?
A medical imaging program, such as a radiologic technology degree, typically takes two years to complete an associate degree or four years to obtain a bachelor’s degree(27).
Additionally, an individual who proceeds to take a master’s degree will take another two years to complete a full-time program.
2. Is medical imaging a good career?
There is no single determinant of what makes medical imaging a good career choice.
However, an individual who has set a goal to build a career in medical imaging may consider this career a viable path to take based on the number of modalities and growth potential that medical imaging offers.
For example, a radiologic technologist may later become a radiologist by taking up a doctoral degree(28).
- Radiology Degrees
- Bachelor’s in Radiology Technology Program Guide
- Medical Imaging
- Radiology Degrees
- Medical Radiography (X-ray), AS
- Bachelor’s in Radiology Technology Program Guide
- Explore Medical Imaging and Career Paths
- Breast Sonography
- Cardiac Interventional Radiography
- Radiopharmaceutical (Oral Route)
- Contrast Medium
- Registered Radiology Assistant
- Healthcare Occupations
- Bachelor’s in Radiology Technology Program Guide
- Radiologic and MRI Technologists
- Explore Medical Imaging Career Paths
- Radiology Degrees