Experienced ARDMS staff sonographer discusses job opportunities, certification process and character traits needed for a successful career in ultrasound.
Staff sonographer at Park Nicollet Medical Center
St. Louis Park, MN
Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I have been a sonographer for over 30 years. I started out in x-ray as an x-ray technologist, and when ultrasound was first coming out in the late 1970s, our group purchased an ultrasound machine. The radiologists were showing us the pictures and I saw everything they were looking at, and at some point the radiologists said ‘come on and work with us, we will teach you how to do this. ’ So, it was the radiologists that were instrumental in starting my ultrasound career.
I enjoyed radiology a lot; it was a lot of fun. I already knew a lot about arteries and veins from the special procedures and x-ray exams that we did back then, so it was easy for me to transition from x-ray to sonography.
Q: How does being a sonographer compare to being a radiology technologist?
There is quite a bit of difference. You are at a much more advanced level when you are doing ultrasound; you are the radiologist’s eyes. If you do not photograph something or see it as abnormal or different, and you don’t show the properties of what you are looking at, the radiologist won’t see it and know something is wrong. You have more responsibility. It is exciting trying to figure out if something is normal or not, and you may wonder ‘why can’t I figure this out?’ Your mind really needs to work to understand what it is you are seeing. It’s definitely more involved than just taking specific views of different bones or structures like in x-ray.
Q: Is what you like best about being a sonographer the fact that it is so tech dependent?
Very much so. I tease some of my students. I tell them ‘you’re like the sleuth that comes in and figures out what is happening with this patient. You are looking through their organs and trying to figure out how what you are seeing comes into play with their symptoms. You are trying to help their Dr. figure that part of the puzzle out and help them to get better. ’
Q: What do you like least about being a sonographer?
Sometimes the paperwork gets a little involved. Every exam has its own paperwork, but overall there’s not a lot that I don’t like about ultrasound. It’s a fascinating field that is never stagnant. It keeps changing and evolving and now with the onset of 3d/4d ultrasound, the field is evolving even further; it’s really exciting. It never ceases to amaze me what we can see with ultrasound. It’s a very fun field to be in.
Q: Thinking back to when you first went into the field, what would you say you wish you had known about sonography then that you know now?
I didn’t know the field was going to change so drastically. I don’t think that would have changed my mind about going into the field, but the continuing education and trying to figure out how to incorporate new innovations into our clinic policies and procedures is really different, and I guess I didn’t think about that when I first went into the field. I was just thinking ‘oh just another modality to help the doctors out’ but, it has become so much more than that.
Q: What is your average day at work like?
I’m kind of spoiled; I work Monday through Friday, and have nice hours. In the morning, when I first come in, I look at the schedule for the day to see where we have openings, and I get the equipment up and running. Then I might do anything from stocking rooms to troubleshooting if the equipment is not functioning correctly. I even sometimes order supplies to make sure the day runs smoothly for everyone that comes into work that day. It’s not limited to just scanning or paperwork; there’s a lot involved, and it keeps you busy.
Q: You have a bunch of initials after your name RDMS, RVT what does all that stand for?
When I passed my boards, I got my RDMS, or Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer credential, and it felt great to pass some of those tests and to get that. Later on, as ultrasound evolved, we started doing more vascular work, so I took my vascular boards; the RVT (Registered Vascular Technologist). Since then, I’ve taken a few more boards: I have my Fetal Echo (FE) credentials, my Abdomen credentials, and my OB/GYN credentials. So, I’ve taken quite a few of them and passed. It makes me quite proud to say that I have done that many and that I’ve gotten that far along. It makes me feel confident in what I do.
Q: Do you need to pass a separate exam for each specialty every time?
Q: How long are the exams?
Some exams are a couple of hours like 2 to 3 hours depending upon which ones you are taking. In Minnesota, we can take them online; you go to a testing center and they download the test and you’re off and running. When you are finished, you go back to the register’s desk, and she has the results ready. That was always the nerve-wracking part when you walked up to her knowing that in a few minutes you will know if you passed or not.
Q: Where do specialized sonographers like cardiac techs or vascular techs usually work? Is it mainly in hospitals or doctors offices?
Clinics, doctor’s offices, and hospitals. We actually have some pain clinics being set up in Minnesota, and they have their own sonographers doing vascular work specifically for them. Some of the private OB/GYN clinics offer quite a few different places to work. We have a number of schools in Minnesota, and the teachers there are all former sonographers and enjoy sharing their knowledge with students, so that’s another career path for sonographers. Application Specialties with the companies that produce ultrasound machines is another area a couple of my friends have gotten into, and they really enjoy the travel and the new things that the companies are doing with the equipment.
Q: If you are thinking about sonography as a career, and for some reason don’t want to scan, what are your career options? Can you go on to teaching or managing?
All of those things: management, supervisory roles, teaching, and research. There are some hospitals that do a lot of research and they have sonographers helping to gather information for them.
Q: What kind of certification or registration is required to get a job as an ultrasound tech?
In Minnesota you need to have your RDMS, and that would include passing the physics test and one specialty whether it’s Abdomen or OB/GYN or if you’re doing vascular work, then you need those tests behind you. The clinic where I work asks that you hold certification in all exams that you perform.
Q: So just being a graduate of a sonography school does not mean you automatically have the certification or registration. That is something in addition to graduating from ultrasound school that you need, right?
Correct. I have a new hire who recently graduated. While she was in school, she was able to pass her physics boards and when she graduated, she immediately took her Abdomen and OB/GYN boards and passed them both. She has been fully welcomed into the clinic and she is doing great.
Q: What is the job availability like for new graduates at least from where you are in Minnesota?
With the number of schools we have in Minnesota, right now we have quite a few sonographers in our area, but I think as sonography continues to expand and grow, the need for sonographers will still be there. I do know that in some states, they are short of sonographers. One of my good friends is a travel tech that works in hospitals and clinics in need of temporary help. She is having a good time with that, because she travels to many different places until they hire someone and then she moves on to a new place in a new state.
Q: Does the job prospects for the future look good for the field?
Yes I do. With the coming of the 3d/4d applications, I think that it will be even more so. It’s not a dying field at all, and it continues to grow.
Q: What character traits does a good sonographer need to have?
I think the drive to want to know more: to continuously ask yourself ‘where does this lead?’ to want to know how to do something new. Drive and energy are very important. You need to do continuing education to maintain your certification, but beyond that, you need to be chronically curious about things and have the willingness to sit down and learn about them.
Q: Can you give future students any advice about how to balance a sonography career when parenting a child at home?
It is definitely something that I did; I have a son and it seemed to work really well. I think it is a balancing act, and like any job when you are at work that is where your attention should be, and when you are home, your focus should be on your family. We are lucky that my clinic gives you the time and help you need to stay current with your continuing education. They offer financial assistance so we can go to seminars and with online reading materials and webinars, you can keep current on your CMEs. It can be done; it’s not hard, but it takes balancing, yes.
Q: Is there an age limit to being a sonographer?
I think as long as you are still excited about your job and still enjoy what you do, there’s not an age limit. I’m into my late fifties, and I still enjoy my job, so I’m going to say there is no age limit.
Q: Do you have any additional advice for aspiring sonographers; anything that you would like them to know?
Hard question. I would say keep up-to-date on the latest developments in sonography, enjoy what you’re doing, and know that you are making a difference. Know that your patients appreciate the fact that you are there to help their doctors find out what is going on with them. Take pride in your work.
If you would like more information about sonography as a career, check out UltrasoundTechnicianCenter.org’s collection of up-to-date information and articles. There is a lot of information to help you make an informed decision.