Histologist: What Is it and What Do They Do?


February 20, 2024

Embarking on a scientific career offers a fulfilling path to engage with distinctive opportunities in the healthcare sector, enhance your skill set and scientific knowledge, contribute to advancements in medicine and environmental science, and experience cutting-edge techniques and invaluable processes. Histologists play a crucial role in analysing and testing biological samples to identify abnormalities, diseases, and critical features of specimens. For those considering a profession as a histologist, gaining insight into the nature of the job and its requirements is beneficial.

This guide provides an overview of the histologist profession, detailing their responsibilities, working conditions, salary expectations, job outlook, and offers practical advice for those aspiring to enter the field.

What is a Histologist?

A histologist, also known as a histotechnologist, is a specialised medical scientist who focuses on preparing, examining, and testing biological samples and specimens from various sources, including humans, animals, and plants. The primary aim of their work is to aid in the diagnosis of diseases or to identify abnormalities within the samples. Mastery in handling techniques is essential for histologists, as accurate sample preparation is crucial for the reliability of test results and the preservation of specimen integrity. Typically, histologists possess degrees in medical science and are adept in specific techniques such as staining, trimming, processing, and analysing critical samples, equipping them with the necessary skills for their role.

What Tasks are Assigned to Histologists?

In their day-to-day functions, histologists collaborate closely with laboratory science teams and pathologists to prepare, test, and assess specimens for particular conditions or anomalies. They may work with specimens from various species and locations, including international samples, making their contributions valuable not only in medical diagnostics but also in forensic laboratories, diagnostic clinics, and research and development settings. Employing the scientific method, histologists conduct tests based on the requirements of medical teams or research inquiries. For instance, in an oncology lab, a histologist might examine a sample to check for the presence of cancer cells in a donor’s specimen, demonstrating the critical role they play in health care and medical research.

Routine Procedures Performed by Histologists:

Preparation of Specimens

A key aspect of a histologist’s role involves the preparation of specimens for both testing and storage. This often includes “grossing,” or the careful trimming of samples to ensure they fit properly on a microscope slide, facilitating easier examination and more precise results. Preservation treatments may also be applied to samples, particularly if there is a need to transport them to another laboratory or store them for long durations. Additional preparatory techniques such as staining, sectioning, and embedding are critical for optimising specimens for analysis.

Mastery over these preparatory processes is essential for histologists, as it directly impacts the reliability of test outcomes. Adhering strictly to established protocols enhances the informational value derived from each specimen and the overall accuracy of diagnostic tests.

Conducting Tests

Beyond specimen preparation, histologists frequently engage in the direct testing of samples. This critical function enables the detection of abnormalities or, within medical contexts, the identification of potential diseases. The specific testing methodologies employed by histologists may vary based on the objectives of the test, the field of application, and the standards of the particular laboratory.

Management of Laboratory Inventory

In addition to their scientific duties, histologists often undertake administrative tasks such as managing laboratory inventory. This responsibility encompasses the careful handling and proper storage of prepared samples to prevent degradation or loss. Effective organisation and strict compliance with lab protocols are pivotal in maintaining a clean, efficient, and contamination-free workspace, thereby ensuring the integrity of specimen analysis and laboratory operations.

Employment Settings for Histologists

Histologists find employment in a range of settings, including clinical, veterinary, and research laboratories. Their employers span a diverse spectrum, such as medical practices, pathology labs, pharmaceutical companies, governmental agencies, and independent research entities. Typically, histologists collaborate with a team of laboratory scientists and researchers in environments that are sterile and meticulously maintained.

Earnings and Future Prospects for Histologists

The compensation for histologists and histotechnologists varies, with an average annual salary being around $48,003. However, actual earnings can be influenced by factors such as location, educational background, experience level, and the employing organisation. Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not provide specific forecasts for histologists, it offers projections for the broader group of clinical laboratory technologists and technicians, which includes histotechnologists and histologists. The forecast suggests an 11% job growth from 2020 to 2030, indicating a growth rate that surpasses the average and signifies the emergence of numerous opportunities within this field.

Guidance for Pursuing a Career as a Histologist

For those aspiring to become histologists, the following advice can significantly enhance your prospects in this specialised field:

Pursue Relevant Education

Obtaining at least a bachelor’s degree in a field related to medical science is a common prerequisite for aspiring histologists. Such academic programs not only equip you with essential skills for specimen preparation and laboratory work but also familiarise you with critical scientific principles, including the scientific method, which are invaluable in professional practice.

Gain Laboratory Experience

Acquiring hands-on experience in a laboratory setting is crucial for honing the practical skills necessary for a career in histology. Mastery in specimen handling requires dedication and adherence to strict laboratory protocols. Participating in degree programs that offer laboratory modules allows students to develop these competencies. Proficiency in a laboratory environment directly correlates with future job success, emphasising the importance of following established guidelines to ensure sample integrity, personal safety, and the safety of colleagues.

Obtain Professional Certification

While not mandatory for all positions, obtaining professional certification can significantly enhance your resume, opening doors to higher-level roles within the field. Certifications serve to validate your expertise, potentially leading to increased job opportunities and salary prospects. It’s advisable to explore whether your employer offers support for certification expenses, as many organisations invest in the continuous professional development of their staff.

Leverage Your Professional Network

Utilising your professional network is a strategic move when seeking employment opportunities as a histologist. Connections from your academic journey, alongside affiliations with professional groups and mentors, can be invaluable resources. These contacts may provide leads on vacancies within laboratories, offering a pathway to engaging and rewarding positions.

In summary, embarking on a career as a histologist involves a combination of formal education, practical laboratory experience, professional certification, and active networking. Each of these steps contributes to building a solid foundation for success in this dynamic and essential field.

Published on 20-02-2024