A Comprehensive Guide to a Career as a Diagnostic Medical Sonographer

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Sonographers play an important role in the health care community. Learn more about this exciting field and how you can get started today.

[Featured Image] A sonographer wearing blue scrubs performs an ultrasound on a patient.

Diagnostic medical sonographers use sonography machines to create digital images of certain parts of the human body for the purpose of diagnosing conditions or illnesses. A sonographer reports findings to physicians.

Sonographers usually have an associate degree from an accredited sonography program. State licensure and certification are typically optional for sonographers, depending on where you work. Those who work in diagnostic medical sonography may advance their career by gaining advanced degrees or certifications or by changing industries.   

What does a diagnostic medical sonographer do?

A diagnostic medical sonographer conducts ultrasounds of certain parts of the body using high-frequency sound waves to detect abnormalities or diagnose conditions. Ultrasound is a non-invasive way to look inside the human body, meaning instruments do not enter the body. Sonographers interpret ultrasound results and report findings to the physician who ordered the ultrasound. The parts of the body you will ultrasound as a sonographer depends on your specialization and the health office in which you work.  

Diagnostic medical sonographers are also responsible for: 

  • Preparing the patient for ultrasound (educating patient on the procedure, answering any questions they may have, ensuring patient comfort) 

  • Understanding patient history and how it pertains to the ultrasound procedure 

  • Interpreting results of an ultrasound and communicating those findings to the doctor 

  • Using imaging equipment properly 

Where do diagnostic medical sonographers work?

The majority of diagnostic medical sonographers work in hospitals. You can also find sonographers working in physicians’ offices, diagnostic and medical laboratories, and outpatient surgical care centers. 

Some sonographers work in special rooms devoted to conducting ultrasounds while others may travel around a hospital going to see patients in their rooms. 

While sonographers are likely to work in health care settings, some diagnostic medical sonographers get advanced degrees or certifications and work in the classroom as educators, in corporate buildings as part of ultrasound marketing or sales teams, or in labs as researchers. 

What are the main duties and responsibilities of a diagnostic medical sonographer?

The main duties and responsibilities of a diagnostic medical sonographer are conducting ultrasounds of parts of the body, interpreting the results from the ultrasound, and disseminating those findings to the appropriate medical provider(s). The results from an ultrasound are used to diagnose medical conditions, so it’s important that a sonographer captures accurate images and understands what denotes a quality image. This requires an understanding of human anatomy, usually a specific part of the body.

A few other duties and responsibilities of a diagnostic medical sonographer are educating patients on details of the procedure, maintaining diagnostic imaging equipment, compiling a summary of findings for the ordering doctor, and working with the patient's medical records. 

What qualifications and certifications are required to become a diagnostic medical sonographer?

The majority of diagnostic medical sonographers earn an associate degree to qualify to become a sonographer, though there are other educational pathways to becoming a sonographer like certificate-based programs or a bachelor’s degree. If you choose to earn your associate degree, make sure you choose a Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) accredited program since this is usually preferred by employers. Be sure that the school or program also offers any specialties you’re interested in. Some examples of areas of specialties include vascular technology, obstetrics/gynecology, cardiac, breast, and neurosonology. 

Certification is not a requirement to work as a sonographer, but is an option once you graduate from your program or earn your degree. To become a certified sonographer, you will need to graduate from an approved sonography program and pass the certification exam for the certification for which you’re earning. 

A number of certifications are available to sonographers, depending on your area of interest. The most widely acknowledged certifications are available through the two major national sonographer organizations: the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS) and the American Registry of Radiologic Technologies (ARRT). 

ARDMS offers four different certifications: registered vascular technologist, registered diagnostic medical sonographer, registered physician in vascular interpretation, and registered diagnostic cardiac sonographer. ARRT offers three different certifications: breast sonography, sonography, and vascular sonography. 

Licensure is not a requirement for sonographers unless you live in one of the four states that do require it. 

How long does it take to train as a diagnostic medical sonographer?

Most sonography associate degree programs take two years to complete. A bachelor’s degree will take four years to complete, and though not a requirement, it’s still an option to earn your bachelor’s in a related field. A certificate-based program will take the shortest amount of time to complete, usually around one year.  

You’re eligible to earn certification after you’ve completed a sonography program. These certifications vary in length, with the average being 10 to 18 months. 

What skills do I need to become a diagnostic medical sonographer?

Diagnostic medical sonographers should have a mix of personal skills like good communication and empathy, as well as technical skills like how to operate diagnostic equipment and how to correctly interpret ultrasound images. 

Workplace skills 

Sonographers work closely with patients as well as doctors and other co-workers in the health care field. Having the ability to communicate well, listen effectively, and exude compassion and empathy are a few key personal skills for a sonographer. Sonographers may be meeting with people who have been referred to them for possible conditions, so they may have questions or concerns or simply be a little uneasy going into the ultrasound. A sonographer needs the ability to make patients feel comfortable and be able to answer their questions. Attention to detail is also a helpful skill to have as a sonographer as the ability to detect abnormalities is key to this job. 

Technical skills 

Sonographers often work on their feet most of the day, so this is a profession that requires a level of physical stamina. You may be asked to move patients around while conducting an ultrasound. Excellent hand-eye coordination is needed when operating ultrasound equipment, as is actual knowledge and skill in the use of the equipment you’ll be using as a diagnostic medical sonographer. 

What do diagnostic medical sonographers earn?

A diagnostic medical sonographer earns an average of $77,740 a year [1]. The top five highest paying industries for sonographers are outpatient surgical centers, management of corporations/enterprises, doctor’s offices, specialty hospitals, and education. Outpatient surgical centers pay sonographers an average of $109, 670 a year as the top-paying employer for sonographers. Medical and diagnostic labs tend to pay the least, averaging $74,190 yearly [2]

The top-paying states for diagnostic medical sonographers are California, the District of Columbia, and Hawaii. 

Factors that may impact how much diagnostic medical sonographers earn include location, your employer, the industry in which you work, and certifications or additional education or training you may hold. Certification and years of experience as a sonographer seem to impact salary the most. You may earn more also if you have more than one certification. 

Interesting diagnostic medical sonographer positions

Diagnostic medical sonographers have the opportunity to work in different industries, different specialties, and with different populations. You can even specialize within certain specialties and age groups, like pediatric cardiac sonographers or senior vascular sonographers. From maternal-fetal sonography to musculoskeletal, there are quite a few interesting positions in the field of digital sonography. A few interesting positions you may want to pursue as a sonographer may be: 

  • Veterinary diagnostic imaging sonographer: Most vet techs get their certification to be able to ultrasound animals, and some veterinary clinics and hospitals hire individuals who only specialize in animal ultrasound. 

  • Travel sonographer: These sonographers are a sort of “jack of all trades.” You are typically skilled in various specialties of ultrasound to work as a travel sonographer as you’ll be traveling to different health care facilities working with a variety of people.

  • Ultrasound marketing manager: This position is outside of the typical health care setting as you’ll work to develop and implement marketing plans for ultrasound equipment. This position usually requires a bachelor’s degree or multiple certifications in sonography. 

  • Medical imaging applications specialist: In this role, you are in charge of educating other sonographers on new technologies and equipment in medical imaging. You won’t be working in a traditional health care setting, but rather employed by ultrasound equipment manufacturers and distributors. 

Career progression

You can progress your career in the field of sonography by acquiring certifications, earning advanced degrees, specializing in a particular area, or changing industries. 

Certifications can open up more opportunities for you as a medical sonographer, especially if you get your certification in a certain specialty like cardiac sonography. With a specialized certification, you can choose to focus on a certain area of health care and expand your role within a field. 

Earning advanced degrees can open you up to several new opportunities like managerial roles or even jobs outside of the health care industry. A bachelor’s degree in ultrasound can help you be eligible for positions like director of an ultrasound department, sonography educator, sonography consultant, or more. 

A master’s degree in health science and sonography, or a related degree, can open you up to executive-level management positions in the field of medical ultrasound. With a master’s degree in a related field, you may be able to pursue a career as a consultant, educator, ultrasound marketing manager, or chief director of an ultrasound department.  

While there are no doctoral programs in sonography or ultrasound, there are PhD programs in biomedical engineering or biomedical ultrasound. You can choose to pursue one of these degrees if you’d like to become a senior director at a medical research organization. 

Certifications and advanced degrees can allow you to move into different industries like education, marketing, sales, and more, which can mean a boost in income depending on the job and employer. Besides income, just having the option for mobility within your profession as a diagnostic medical sonographer is a perk of the job. 

Get started

To get started as a diagnostic medical sonographer, find an accredited sonography program and consider if you’d like to specialize in a particular area of the human body.

On Coursera, you can find medical courses for all types of health care professions and interests. Consider taking beginner courses like an Anatomy Specialization to help you better understand the body. Choose a more advanced course like Medical Neuroscience if you know you’re interested in neurosonography.

When you’re ready, consider certification to improve your chances of being hired and help you find the most fulfilling sonography job for you. 

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Article sources

  1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Occupational Outlook Handbook Medical Sonographers and Cardiovascular Technologists and Technicians Summary, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/diagnostic-medical-sonographers.htm#tab-5.” Accessed April 22, 2022.

  2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics, May 2021, Diagnostic Medical Sonographer, https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes292032.htm#st.” Accessed April 22, 2022. 

Written by Coursera • Updated on

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