Ultrasound Technician Schools and Programs

Employment opportunities in ultrasound technology are projected to explode for trained, qualified professionals between 2012 and 2022, according to government data. For those considering the field, education is the first step. The following guide provides an overview of ultrasound technician school and degree programs, specializations and career avenues, as well as an interview with a student taking ultrasound and sonography classes.

Ultrasound Technician Schools and Programs

The ultrasound technician—also known as diagnostic medical sonographer—uses sound waves to produce sonograms of the human body, creating images of internal structures that are not otherwise visible. Working under the supervision of a physician, these technologists help produce imaging data to use in a variety of ways, from diagnosing diseases to monitoring the development of unborn children. One of the fastest growing and most in-demand occupations, the field of medical sonography is projected to expand by 46 percent nationally between 2012 and 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The path to a potential career is varied. Entry-level employment begins with the completion of an accredited program of study for a certificate or associate or bachelor’s degree. Studies at ultrasound technician schools could last between one and four years depending on factors such as the degree level and the program’s educational framework. Curriculum is divided between classroom-based instruction and clinical, occupation-based coursework. Broadly, these programs include courses in the physical and biological sciences, mathematics and the foundational principles of diagnostic imaging, including ultrasound, diagnostic procedures, instrumentation and image assessment. The central component of any diagnostic sonography program is clinical education, which provides students the opportunity to develop core competencies in the profession.

Vocational Schools

Students can earn a diploma in diagnostic medical sonography from vocational and trade schools. These programs are career-oriented and traditionally require between 12 and 18 months of full-time study to complete. Curriculum is usually split between general coursework (e.g. mathematics, medical terminology), ultrasound-specific coursework (ultrasound physics, vascular ultrasound) and a clinical externship. The number of semester credits or hours varies, but most diploma programs in diagnostic medical sonography require between 1,900 and 2,200 contact hours or 75 to 85 semester credits to graduate.

Community Colleges

Community colleges offer a blend of academic and career-focused degree programs, designed to prepare graduates to either enter the workforce or continue their education in a bachelor’s degree program. These two-year associate degree programs in diagnostic medical sonography provide students with fundamental training in sonography, including specialized areas such as abdomen, vascular and obstetrics. Curriculum in Associate of Arts and Associate of Science programs is split between general education and sonography-specific coursework, while the Associate of Applied Science concentrates on career preparation classes in ultrasound technology. In addition, many community colleges offer certificate programs in diagnostic medical sonography for those who hold a degree in a different discipline.

Four-year Schools

Public and private colleges and universities provide students with additional options and a broader, more comprehensive educational experience at the bachelor’s degree level. Students can either enroll in four-year bachelor’s programs in diagnostic medical imaging or use their associate as a transitional degree into a two-year bachelor’s degree completion program in diagnostic medical sonography.

Four-year programs: Curriculum covers general education coursework in the liberal arts and sciences, as well as technical training in ultrasound technology and its related specialties.

Degree completion programs: Students complete their core coursework at a community college and then transfer, using the university program as a means to receive career-specific training in sonography.

Certificates: Like community colleges, some universities also have professional or extended studies departments that sponsor certificate programs for students who have completed an associate or bachelor’s degree in another field and are seeking career training to enter the diagnostic medical sonography field.

Ultrasound Technician Schools

Individuals who are interested only in career training can attend specialized ultrasound technician training programs. These are often found at medical centers or through partnerships between a community college or university and a local hospital. For example, St. Luke’s Hospital System—a collective of 10 hospitals in the Kansas City region—has a School of Diagnostic Medical Sonography that offers an 18-month program.

Ultrasound Technician Schools Must-Have List

With an extensive selection of educational avenues to careers in diagnostic sonography, prospective students should take the time to review all the options prior to making a decision. The Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonography has outlined critical components that every degree program in sonography should offer students. Below is a list of five of those important quality factors:

CAAHEP Accreditation

The Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Programs (CAAHEP) is a nonprofit organization that accredits 28 health science professions through more than 2,100 entry-level education programs. Accreditation is crucial for two reasons. First, it indicates the program adheres to industry-recognized educational standards. Secondly, graduating from an accredited program is one of the eligibility requirements for key certification examinations administered by professional organizations.

Certification Eligibility

Students should check that a program’s accreditation is recognized by credentialing boards and organizations. If not, graduates might need additional clinical experience or education before taking certification examinations from groups such as the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS), The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) or Cardiovascular Credentialing International (CCI).

Faculty Credentials

Getting an understanding of the educational and professional experience of faculty members is important. That information is one indicator of program quality as instructors should possess work experience and hold industry certifications. Check the credentials of both the faculty and the program director.

Certification Examination Success

Another quality factor is the success of graduates taking national certification examinations. Students should ask for the percentage of students who pass these examinations on their first try. A higher score reveals the ultrasound technology program’s quality and the faculty’s ability to prepare students for their careers

Job Placement

As a career-oriented, professional degree, diagnostic medical sonography is designed to graduate students into entry-level careers. Students should ask about the program’s job placement program and the percentage of students that secure a position after graduation. Is the program graduating successful students? Or, are students having a difficult time finding a job?

Ultrasound Technician Degrees and Certificates

The goal of any educational path in this field is to prepare graduates to become Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographers through certification examinations. One major benefit of diagnostic medical sonography is that educational programs are designed to provide career-focused training to individuals from any background, whether they have no experience or are a licensed professional in another healthcare field.

Students have several choices for training in order to pursue entry-level employment in the industry: associate, bachelor’s and certificate programs. A review of graduation data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows the certificate is the most common path for diagnostic medical sonography, followed by associate and bachelor’s degree programs. The table below includes the national degree totals for diagnostic medical sonography between 2011 and 2013 (the most recent data available).

Degree Type 2011 2012 2013 Grand Total
Certificate 3,018 2,852 2,123 7,993
Associate 1,951 2,213 2,344 6,508
Bachelor’s 525 515 533 1,573

Program length varies from as little as one year (certificate) to four or more years (bachelor’s). However, the associate is more prevalent among college degrees in the field, and it requires approximately two years of full-time study to complete.

Degree Program Length Semester Credits Required
Associate 2 – 3 Years 60 – 72
Degree Completion Bachelor’s 2 Years 60 – 80
Bachelor’s 2 – 4 Years 120 – 128
Certificate 12 – 18 Months 40 – 55

As ultrasound technology represents a diverse and complex area of practice, certain programs may offer courses specializing in different forms of imaging (e.g. sonograms, ultrasound, echocardiogram) as well as parts of the body (e.g., obstetrics and gynecological, breast, abdominal, cardiovascular or musculoskeletal).

Ultrasound Technician School Associate Degrees

At this level, students can select from three degree options: Associate of Science (AS), Associate of Arts (AA) or Associate in Applied Science (AAS). The Associate of Arts and Associate of Science are considered “transfer” degrees and allow students to transfer their credits into a bachelor’s degree program. Both the AA and AS are academic degrees, and the main distinction is in the curriculum focus. The AA requires additional coursework in the humanities and social sciences, while the AS requires additional math and science classes.

On the other hand, the Associate in Applied Science is a professional degree, one that concentrates specifically on providing students with industry-specific knowledge and skills to pursue entry-level employment directly after graduation. In turn, students with an AAS in Diagnostics Medical Sonography cannot transfer their associate degree credits into a bachelor’s degree program. The associate degree in diagnostic medical sonography divides curriculum between general education courses, major concentration courses and clinical training. Courses frequently found at this level are shown below.

Essentials of Patient Care

Students receive an overview of sonography, including the history and responsibilities of diagnostic medical sonographers. Subjects of study may include fundamentals of patient care, medical terminology, patient safety, ethics and patient confidentiality.

Fundamentals of Diagnostic Medical Sonography

This course serves as an introduction to the field, including a review of the technical skills required. Topic areas of study may include sonographic terminology, patient positioning, image assessment and scanning techniques.

Introduction to Ultrasound Physics

This class provides an understanding of acoustical physics, including a discussion of waves, wave motion and Doppler, with instruction in the mathematical principles of acoustical physics, such as variables, logarithms and exponential notation.

Abdominal Sonography

A comprehensive overview covers the anatomy, physiology, imaging and assessment of the abdomen. Through a hands-on approach of scanning and procedural techniques and laboratory testing, students learn about topics including visualization of the abdomen, human anatomy of organs and the pelvic cavity, and disease issues.

Ultrasound Technician School Bachelor’s Degrees

Bachelor’s degree programs in diagnostic medical sonography are slightly more nuanced than those at the associate level. Educational paths and options vary widely by institution and department. Typically speaking, students may select from two educational avenues at this level: a degree completion program or a full bachelor’s degree.

Two-Year Degree Completion Programs. The most common option for degree completion is a Bachelor of Science, with a major in either diagnostic medical sonography or diagnostic medical imaging. Both programs are aimed at advancing the knowledge and critical skills of allied health professionals who have an associate degree in the field. Upon acceptance to the program, advisors conduct a transfer evaluation of associate coursework to determine which classes are applicable towards the bachelor’s degree. To that point, the number of credits required to complete the bachelor’s is variable, but usually falls between 60 and 80 credit hours. Many students can finish the required studies and clinical practice in two to three years.

Core curriculum is geared towards upper-division coursework in industry-specific subjects, such as sonography instrumentation, anatomy and medical pathophysiology, ultrasound principles, ultrasound physics and more. In addition, students may select a specialty-based concentration in areas such as vascular ultrasound, echocardiography and sonography. Upon completion of core course and major requirements, students finish their training through clinical practicums or externships that provide hands-on, professional experience.

Four-Year Bachelor’s Degree Programs. The complete Bachelor of Science in Diagnostic Imaging can take about four years of full-time commitment in order to complete between 120 and 128 credit hours of study. Graduates are qualified to take the national board certification exam administered by the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography.

Curriculum is commonly divided between general education classes, core subjects, foundations of ultrasound, specialty and elective courses, and a clinical practicum. In this broad program of study, students develop an academic background in mathematics and the physical sciences, in addition to professionally oriented skills in ultrasound, sonography and other specialty areas of practice. The table below provides some sample course descriptions.

Introduction to Diagnostic Medical Sonography

Through classroom- and laboratory-based instruction, students gain an understanding of the role of diagnostic medical sonographer. Class discussions cover a broad range of topics such as HIPAA confidentiality regulations, patient safety, ultrasound system operation and musculoskeletal disorders.

Obstetrics and Gynecology

In this class, students learn about the anatomy of the female pelvis and the related process of taking, recording and assessing sonograms to produce proper diagnoses. Topics of discussion include proper ultrasound protocol and obstetrical examinations, anatomy and fetus development.

Echocardiography

This course presents students with a comprehensive overview, including etiology or cause of heart-related diseases. Students examine advanced diagnostic techniques, including intervention echocardiography, stress echocardiography and Doppler imaging.

Clinical Applications

Students translate their diagnostic medical sonography knowledge into practical interpretative skills in various areas, including abdominal and OB/GYN sonography and echocardiography. Through a review of case studies and journal articles, students enhance their critical thinking and decision-making skills.

Ultrasound Technician School Certificates

Certificate programs are designed for students who are seeking entry-level careers in diagnostic medical sonography and already have a college degree. Many schools accept applicants with a bachelor’s degree in any field or an associate degree in an allied health field such as radiologic technology, respiratory therapy or occupational therapy. Usually offered by vocational schools, medical center institutes and community colleges, certificate programs can be completed in as little as 12 to 18 months of study, preparing graduates to sit for certification exams and perform diagnostic ultrasound procedures.

Topics of study could include sonography, ethics, vascular sonography and ultrasound instrumentation as well as the courses shown below. Additionally, students complement their classroom-based learning with a hands-on clinical practicum experience.

Introduction to Clinical Education

Students receive an introduction to the sonography clinical environment, giving them an opportunity to apply their lab-based skills in a healthcare setting. The class is designed to teach students about basic hospital and clinical procedures and career professionalism.

Clinical Practice

Real-world instruction is provided in a clinical setting under the supervision of a registered diagnostic medical sonographer. Students have the opportunity to develop their imaging and assessment skills of various structures and regions of the human body, including pancreas, liver, uterus and pelvic area.

Fundamentals of Fetal Scanning

This course serves as an introduction to fetal growth imaging and assessment through sonographic examinations. Topics of study include scanning techniques in areas such as amniotic fluid index, head circumference and extremity measurements.

Ultrasound Technician Toolbox

There are certain academic and career milestones achieved by most successful ultrasound technologists. In addition, these professionals share certain responsibilities, whatever their place of employment. The list below describes some of the duties and requirements that aspiring technicians should be ready for.

  • Degree Attainment.

    According to O*NET, 47 percent of diagnostic medical sonographers have an associate degree, 19 percent have a post-secondary certificate and 17 percent have a bachelor’s degree. Students must graduate from a CAAHEP-accredited program and—the BLS notes—employers in the industry often prefer students to hold a Bachelor of Science degree.

  • Essential Functions.

    Although specific responsibilities vary by setting and role, diagnostic medical sonographers have functions such as the following:

    Perform clinical assessment of patients

    Conduct diagnostic sonography examinations

    Assist with sonographic laboratory operations

    Provide patient education

    Analyze sonograms

    Communicate with supervising physician and healthcare team

    Maintain diagnostic medical sonography equipment

  • Job Titles.

    Graduates may find occupational titles vary by specialty and employer. For example, common titles include sonographer, registered diagnostic medical sonographer, cardiac sonographer, staff sonographer, ultrasound technician or technologist, vascular sonographer and others.

  • Required Certifications and Licensure.

    For those planning on ultrasound technician careers, research into regional regulations is vital. A few states require licensing for diagnostic medical sonographers, which in turn requires certification. Government labor statistics suggest that most U.S. employers look for candidates with professional certification. To maintain active certification, ultrasound techs can earn continuing medical education credits.

  • Resources.

    Below are some associations that provide information on ultrasound technician school accreditation, professional certification and career qualifications.

The Difference Between Ultrasound Technicians and Radiology Techs

Diagnostic sonography and radiology technology are two
distinct, but related fields. Sonographers and ultrasound technicians employ ultrasound technology—which uses sound waves—to record internal images of the body. Radiology technologists use a variety of methods for radiation imaging, such as computer tomography (CT), medical resonance imaging (MRI) and X-ray, to take images of the human body.

Ultrasound Technician Specializations

The term “ultrasound” sounds general rather than specific, and is often associated with procedures performed on expectant mothers. The diagnostic medical sonography field is much more complex and diverse, encompassing several areas of specialized practice. Aspiring sonographers may choose to customize their programs of study or to enhance their skills after graduation in areas such as musculoskeletal or vascular sonography as well as other specializations shown here.

Abdominal Sonography

Concentrates on ultrasound imaging of the abdomen and organs.

Obstetric and Gynecological (OB/GYN) Sonography

Emphasizes ultrasound imaging of female reproductive system.

Vascular Sonography

Focuses on ultrasound imaging of the circulatory system, veins and arteries.

Breast Ultrasound

Ultrasound imaging—similar to a mammogram—is used as a diagnostic aid to detect breast cancer.

Musculoskeletal Sonography

Concentrates on ultrasound imaging of the musculoskeletal system, including bones, tendons, ligaments and muscles.

Echocardiogram Sonography

Specializes in ultrasound imaging of the heart.

The American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography recognizes 10 areas of practice and allows graduates of accredited degree programs to take certification examinations in each. ARDMS administers exams for credentials in the following areas:

  • Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer (RDMS)
  • Registered Diagnostic Cardiac Sonographer (RDCS)
  • Registered Vascular Technologist (RVT)
  • Registered Physician in Vascular Interpretation (RPVI)
  • Registered in Musculoskeletal Sonography (RMSK)
Examination Specialty ARDMS Credential
Sonography Principles & Instrumentation Examination Abdomen (AB) Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer
Breast (BR) Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer
Fetal Echocardiography (FE) Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer
Obstetrics and Gynecology (OB/GYN) Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer
Pediatric Sonography (PS) Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer
Adult Echocardiography (AE) Registered Diagnostics Cardiac Sonographer
Fetal Echocardiography (FE) Registered Diagnostics Cardiac Sonographer
Pediatric Echocardiography (PE) Registered Diagnostics Cardiac Sonographer
Vascular Technology (VT) Registered Vascular Technologist
Musculoskeletal Sonography Examination Registered in Musculoskeletal
Physician’s Vascular Interpretation Examination Registered Physician in Vascular Interpretation

Interview with an Ultrasound Technician

Allison T. is a second-year student enrolled in a full-time, two-year associate degree program in diagnostic medical sonography in California.

Could you describe why you chose a career in diagnostic medical sonography?

I graduated from high school in 2010 and have spent the past few years in different low paying jobs. The desire to pursue DMS came from my mother. She’s a nurse and has been telling me for years to look into healthcare careers. After doing some research, I discovered ultrasound technology was a perfect fit for me—short training period with some good employment opportunities.

Could you talk about the type of classes you’ve taken to-date?

First, I didn’t expect the scope of the program to be so broad. I’ve taken classes in sonographic procedures, physics, cross-sectional anatomy, abdomen sonography, OB/GYN sonography. Not only have I studied topics across ultrasound technology, including vascular and MSK—that’s musculoskeletal sonography—but I’ve also been introduced to related radiologic methodologies such as X-ray and MRI.

What’s been the best part of your program?

The clinical interaction with patients is amazing. We work closely with a teaching hospital and I have had a great opportunity to work with a registered sonographer who coaches me through the process. Looking at scans with an untrained eye is like staring at clouds because you aren’t quite sure of the shapes you’re seeing. But, because of my training partnership, I’m not afraid to say I don’t know what I’m supposed to see or make a mistake because my mentor supports my learning process.

What’s Next After Ultrasound Technician School?

One of the biggest questions prospective students may have is what happens after graduation. That answer chiefly concerns professional qualifications and experience. Setting post-graduation expectations falls into three basic categories: employment, certification and–for those who choose this path–specialization.

Employment. As noted above, diagnostic medical sonography is one of the fastest growing occupations not only in healthcare, but in the entire country. Ultrasound technicians should find a robust job market after graduation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the top employing industries include general medical hospitals, physicians’ offices, diagnostic laboratories and outpatient care centers.

All told, more than 58,000 individuals are employed as diagnostic medical sonographers in the U.S., with another 51,600 working as cardiovascular technologists and technicians. Based on BLS projections, an additional 42,800 professionals trained in diagnostic medical sonography will be needed nationally between 2012 and 2022.

The employment growth rate in several states is likely to outpace the national average for this occupation. At the state level, Texas (58 percent), Arizona (55 percent) and Utah (54 percent) are projected to have the best employment opportunities. Below is a list of 10 states with the fastest growing industries in diagnostic medical sonography.

Rank State Job Growth Rate (%)
1 Texas 58
2 Arizona 55
3 Utah 54
4 Colorado 51
5 Idaho 51
6 North Carolina 50
7 Georgia 49
8 North Dakota 47
9 Kentucky 45
10 Iowa 45

ARDMS Certification. Certification from the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography is considered the gold standard. Typically, students take the general certification examination—Sonography Principles and Instrumentation (SPI)—either during their final year of study or directly after graduation.

Specialized Experience and Credentials. Closely aligned with industry certification is employment experience. Work history in a specialty area of practice is a prerequisite for most specialized certification exams. After passing the SPI general exam, students can proceed to take specialty exams in fields such as obstetrics and gynecology or abdominal sonography. In addition, sonographers may want to pursue certifications in advanced practice areas such as radiation therapy, computer tomography or cardiac catheterization.

Advice From an Ultrasound Technician

Be confident in your decision. After my first semester, I was
ready to drop out of my program because the classes were really difficult. Also, be dedicated. Many people may think diagnostic medical sonography is an easy profession to learn—it’s not. You have to be ready to give up your free time to study and read.