Sonographers work with equipment that utilizes high-frequency sound waves to visualize anatomy, blood vessels, or other structures in the body. The equipment creates images that physicians use to diagnose medical conditions and care for patients. Though the process is non-invasive, it requires a high degree of skill and attention to detail.
Are you interested in an exciting hands-on career in the medical field? If you enjoy working as a part of a team to help others and want to help physicians provide the best possible patient care they can, then becoming a sonographer may be an excellent career for you.
This guide will offer a complete overview of the profession, including details about what a sonographer does, salary potential, career outlook, educational requirements to get started, and more.
Part One What is a Sonographer?
Sonographers, also known as ultrasound technologists, ultrasound technicians, or vascular technologists, work with sophisticated equipment that uses sound waves to create images of structures inside the body.
Some of the images that a sonographer can create are called sonograms, ultrasounds, or echocardiograms. Physicians then use these images as a diagnostic tool to help plan and deliver the most optimal patient care.
Types of Sonographers
Sonographers initially train to be generalists in the field. However, after gaining experience on the job, many move on to pursue additional education and certifications to specialize in a specific area. Different types of sonographers include:
- Cardiac sonographer
- Vascular sonographer
- Ob/GYN sonographer
- Pediatric cardiac sonographer
- Musculoskeletal sonographer
- Neuro sonographer
Where Can Sonographers Work?
Sonographers work directly with patients, physicians, nurses, and other allied healthcare professionals. You can find sonographers working in:
- Outpatient clinics
- Physician offices
- Imaging centers
- Diagnostic laboratories
Sonographers who work in hospitals perform testing at patient bedsides as well as a dedicated imaging department.
Part Two What Do Sonographers Do?
Sonographers use equipment that creates images through the use of sound waves. These tests assess the anatomic and pathophysiologic health of various bodily systems. In addition, sonographic tests help diagnose and manage diseases.
Physicians will order scans electronically, and sonographers have details about exactly what part of the body requires imaging.
Sonographers are often associated with performing diagnostic ultrasounds. Here they use a transducer to scan obstetric patients and assess the health and status of pregnancy. However, sonographic imaging tests also can diagnose various other conditions as well, such as:
- Cardiovascular conditions
- Breast anomalies
- Gynecologic conditions
- Musculoskeletal injuries
- Abdominal conditions
Though the main focus of a sonographers’ job is to manage and operate imaging equipment, they are also responsible for:
- Positioning a patient’s body for procedures
- Explaining what the process will entail
- Reviewing patient medical histories and records
- Coordinating care with other healthcare professionals
- Preparing imaging equipment for the scans scheduled for the day
- Interpreting physicians’ orders and performing the correct scan
- Communicating results to physicians quickly if an urgent problem is detected
- Recording results of scans and tests
>> Related: The Ultimate Guide to Radiology Careers
Part Three Sonographer Salary
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median annual salary for diagnostic medical sonographers in 2020 was $70,380 annually or $33.84 per hour. The BLS also says that the lowest ten percent of technologists earned less than $53,790, and the highest ten percent earned more than $105,340.
Sonographer Salary Factors
The significant spread between the lowest paid and the highest paid reflects a variety of factors, including:
- Level of education
- Years of experience
- Geographic location
- Job setting where the sonographer works
- Specialization or certification status
Sonographer Salary by Place of Work
The wage range for sonographers varies significantly depending on the work environment. The BLS reported that the 2020 average salary for medical sonographers in the following industries were:
- Outpatient care centers: $96,780
- Hospitals: $96,780
- Physician offices: $75,270
- Medical and diagnostic laboratories: $71,650
Highest Paying States for Sonographers
The top-paying states for sonographers according to the BLS are:
- California - $108,400 annually, or $52.11/hr
- Hawaii - $101,570 annually, $48.83/hr
- Alaska - $95,990 annually, $46.15/hr
- District of Columbia - $94,260 annually, $45.32/hr
- Rhode Island - $92,460 annually, $44.45/hr
In addition to annual salary, compensation for full-time sonographers may also include benefits such as tuition reimbursement, paid time off, sick leave, health insurance, bonuses, onsite childcare, and more.
Part Four How to Become a Sonographer
If you want to become a sonographer, there are a few different paths you can take.
Most sonographers attend accredited two-year associate degree training programs. However, you can also go to a certificate program that takes about 12-18 months, earn a 4-year bachelor's degree in sonographer or imaging science, or earn a master’s degree in sonography.
4 Ways to Become a Sonographer
1.) Sonography Certificate Program
Sonographers can attend a certificate program in sonography through a vocational school or community college. These programs generally take 12-18 months and include a combination of classroom and clinical education requirements.
2.) Associate Degree Program in Sonography
You can also earn an associate’s degree (AD) in sonography at a community college. An AD takes about 18 months to two years to complete, depending on how quickly you complete your coursework.
Associate degree sonography programs also offer classroom and clinical hours, and many also offer courses for more specialization in the field.
3.) Bachelor’s Degree Program in Sonography
Many sonographers earn a four-year bachelor’s degree (BA) in sonography or imaging science. Earning a BA is a common pathway for sonographers who want to advance their education or those trained in another healthcare field.
Bachelor's degree programs require general coursework in addition to classroom and clinical hours. They usually also offer specialized certification programs for those who want to focus on a specific specialty.
4.) Master’s Degree Program in Sonography
Many sonographers may decide to advance their career in management or higher education as a professor. In this case, a master’s degree in health science with an emphasis in medical sonography might be the right path for you. To be eligible for a master’s degree program, students must already have a bachelor's degree experience working in the healthcare field.
No matter which sonography program you choose, make sure your program is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP). Accreditation by the CAAHEP shows that your program meets high standards for healthcare education and is essential in case you decide to advance your education in the future.
Students who graduate from an accredited sonography program can earn professional certification by passing the American Registry of Diagnostic Medical Sonographers’ certification exams (ARDMS). Upon passing the ARDMS exam, sonographers can earn registered diagnostic medical sonographer (RDMS) credentials.
It is not mandatory to become an RDMS to practice. At this time, no state or national licensure mandates oversee the sonography profession. However, many employers prefer certified sonographers, and it may help you have the edge over your competition during interviews.
Part Five What is the Career Outlook for Sonographers?
U.S. News and World Report ranks diagnostic medical sonographer as the country’s sixth-best health care support job. Sonographers make good money, have opportunities to advance their career and education, and the profession can provide a healthy work-life balance.
The BLS projects a 12 percent increase in demand for diagnostic medical sonographers between 2019- 2029, which is significantly faster than the average for all occupations. They project a need for an additional 15,700 sonographers during that time.
The increased need for sonographers is due to an aging population that will require additional diagnostic testing for diseases or disorders.
Part Six What are the Continuing Education Requirements for Sonographers?
There are no continuing education (CE) requirements for non-certified sonographers. However, since many employers prefer or require certification for employment, it is essential to know what the CE requirements are if you decide to become a certified sonographer.
For sonographers with ARDMS certification, CE requirements include earning a minimum number of ARDMS-accepted continued medical education (CME) units every three years. The number of units required depends on your sonographic specialty. However, most require about 30 CEs.
Part Seven Where Can I Learn More About Becoming a Sonographer?
If you are considering becoming a sonographer, you may find the following organizations helpful:
- How to Become a Radiology Technician
- Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonography (SDMS)
- American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS)
- American Society of Radiologic Technology (ASRT)
- American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine AIUM
- American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT)
Part Eight Sonographer FAQS
How many years does it take to become a sonographer?
- Most sonographers attend accredited two-year associate's degree training programs. However, you can also go to a certificate program that takes about 12-18 months or earn a 4-year bachelor's degree in sonographer or imaging science.
What is the highest paid sonographer?
- Sonographers who are specialized usually make more than those who are not. The highest paying state for sonographers is California, and the highest paying sonography location is outpatient care centers.
Is it hard to become a sonographer?
- Becoming a sonographer will require determination, dedication, and excellent interpersonal skills. The coursework will be challenging, require attention to detail, and include anatomy and other science classes. However, those who become sonographers state that they work in a satisfying field and enjoy a healthy work-life balance.
Is sonography better than nursing?
- Nursing and sonography are different healthcare professions that require their own set of unique skills. The nursing profession provides direct patient care, while sonographers offer diagnostic imaging for physicians and other healthcare providers. You must decide what values are essential to you before pursuing any career in healthcare.
Can I be a sonographer without a degree?
- Admission into a certification program for sonography generally requires either an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree. However, there are some certificate programs available.
Who makes more radiologists or sonographers?
- Radiologists are medical doctors (MDs). They attend medical school and participate in several years of residency and specialized training to diagnose patients’ conditions. Radiologists earn significantly higher salaries than sonographers.
Do you have to be good at math to be a sonographer?
- Being able to do mathematical calculations is necessary to complete the coursework to become a sonographer.
Is sonography a stressful job?
- A survey conducted by Forbes magazine in 2017 identified sonography as the least stressful career out of 200 professions evaluated.