How to become a sonographer

Last updated: February 23, 2024
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Eleana Bowman
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How to become a sonographer
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Are you looking for a career dedicated to helping people improve their health? Are you fascinated by human anatomy? If so, then a career in sonography might be perfect for you!

Sonographers use sound waves to take high-quality images and videos of the human body. Medical professionals use these results to diagnose and treat patients for a wide variety of ailments.

From examining tumors to pregnancies, sonograms are a safe way to evaluate the health of patients without invasive medical procedures.

In this guide, we’ll review everything aspiring sonographers should know, including how to become a sonographer, average salaries, job responsibilities, and specialty fields.

What is a sonographer?

A sonographer uses high-frequency sound waves to map out different structures within the body. From blood vessels and muscle tissue to vital organs, sonograms help medical professionals investigate issues that may be impacting patients’ health.

Most people think of sonographers as ultrasound technicians who provide services to expectant mothers. While the terms “ultrasound” and “sonogram” are often used interchangeably, a sonographer works in a variety of healthcare settings outside of OB/GYN clinics.

Sonography is used for the following:

  • Tumors

  • Blood flow

  • Thyroid glands

  • Pregnancy

  • Heart defects

A sonographer works together with a physician to evaluate patients. They take detailed pictures and videos to show the physician, who then diagnoses the patient.

Sonographers are not responsible for disclosing ultrasound results to patients. Their job is strictly to record and take pictures of internal organs, blood vessels, and other structures.

After communicating the results to a physician, that physician will evaluate the patient’s images and report their findings to the patient. Since, as a sonographer, you won’t be giving good or bad news to your patients, you’ll just need to ensure that you keep a straight face during the sonograms.

Medical sonography specialties

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the field of sonography is expected to boom. Each year until at least 2031, an estimated 10,000 sonographer positions will become available to prospective applicants.

However, as mentioned earlier, sonographers aren’t just limited to OB/GYN clinics. Here are some other specialty areas within the field of sonography and what they examine:

  • Abdominal sonographers: Liver, gallbladder, kidneys, spleen, and other vital organs within the upper abdomen

  • Breast sonographers: Breast lumps

  • Cardiovascular sonographers: the heart

  • Musculoskeletal sonographers: muscles and tendons

  • Neurosonographers: the brain and nervous system

  • Vascular sonographers: blood vessels

Are you interested in one of these sonographer specialties? Read on to find out how you can become a sonographer and choose your specialty area.

Responsibilities of a sonographer

Before a patient even enters the room, the sonographer must prepare the ultrasound equipment and sanitize the examination table. The equipment, ultrasound gel, and other machinery should be ready for them to use the moment a patient arrives.

Once the patient is escorted to the sonogram room, the sonographer will take high-quality images and video of the affected part of the body with the ultrasound equipment.

While sonographers won’t report final results to their patients, they need to know what they’re looking at and looking for during each ultrasound. If something looks abnormal, they need to take additional footage during the ultrasound appointment so the doctor can properly assess the issue.

Additionally, if a sonographer sees something concerning during imaging, they need to inform the medical team. Communication among medical professionals is crucial during sonograms. Most of the time, doctors are not present for ultrasounds and can only rely on high-quality imaging and information from the sonographer to confirm or deny a diagnosis.

For example, if you are an abdominal sonographer and you notice something unusual on the patient’s ultrasound, you need to identify the internal organ and area of concern to the doctor. That way, while the doctor reviews the imaging, they know to pay extra attention to that area.

Lastly, sonographers should feel comfortable working on their feet. Most sonographers stand for long hours between ultrasounds as they report their findings to physicians and prepare sonogram rooms.

How much do sonographers earn?

Medical sonographers earn an average of $77,740 a year or $37.37 per hour.

While cardiovascular technologists perform sonograms on the heart, this position doesn’t earn as much as a medical sonographer. Diagnostic medical sonographers need to dedicate more time to school and can learn more than one specialty.

Depending on your location and hours of work, your yearly salary may fluctuate.

Sonographers who work in outpatient clinics earn a higher average salary ($100,990 yearly) than sonographers who work in hospitals, medical labs, and physician offices ($77,000 yearly).

Some sonographers also choose to work part-time, which impacts their yearly salary. People in part-time positions often create their own schedules, and non-emergency patients will make ultrasound appointments depending on the sonographer’s availability.

If you’re a sonographer in a primary care clinic, you may only perform a handful of sonograms each week. However, if you work in an OB/GYN office, you’ll likely perform a few every day.

Currently, California, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, and Rhode Island are the top five highest-paying states for sonographers. But major cities like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia hire the most sonographers.

How to become a sonographer

Are you ready to start your career in sonography? Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to become a sonographer:

Step 1: Select a sonography program

One of the biggest hurdles to becoming a sonographer is finding the right degree program.

First and foremost, prospective students should think about the specialty area they would like to focus on during their clinical experience. Many degree programs offer general ultrasound courses that focus on OB/GYN and abdominal sonography.

However, if you’re looking to become a vascular technologist or cardiac sonographer, you’ll want to find a college that offers courses in these areas.

When exploring potential degree programs, it’s crucial to find a college with accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP).

The CAAHEP examines programs in sonography and decides whether course curricula and clinical experience meet healthcare standards. In other words, students who graduate from colleges with CAAHEP accreditation typically make good, competent ultrasound technicians.

Typically, CAAHEP-accredited programs are two to four years long. Depending on your school and area of specialty, sonographers will earn an associate degree (two years) or a bachelor’s degree (four years).

Step 2: Take the American Registry of Diagnostic Medical Sonographers certification exam

Once you’ve completed your degree program, you’ll need to take the Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer (RDMS) or Registered Diagnostic Cardiac Sonographer (RDCS) exam.

This test is broken into two parts: Sonography Principles and Instrumentation (SPI) and the specialty exam.

The SPI portion focuses on general knowledge about ultrasound equipment, medical terminology, safety procedures, and good patient care. It has 110 questions and lasts about two hours. Potential applicants must pay a $250 fee to take the exam.

As of 2021, only 60% of SPI test takers passed the exam — so make sure to study the material before scheduling your exam date!

Regardless of your specialty area, all sonographers must complete the SPI test to achieve their certification.

Step 3: Pass the specialty exam

While every prospective sonographer must take the SPI, you have the choice of selecting a specialty exam based on the sonography work you’d like to focus on in your career.

Medical sonographers have five different test options:

  • Abdomen

  • Breast

  • Fetal echocardiography

  • OB/GYN

  • Pediatric sonography

Cardiac sonographers can select between three exams:

  • Adult echocardiography

  • Fetal echocardiography

  • Pediatric echocardiography

The fetal echocardiography exam is available for both medical and cardiac sonographers; however, that does not mean test-takers can receive two certificates. You still must select between the RDMS or RDCS pathways.

Students looking to specialize in musculoskeletal or vascular sonography have their own certification tracks through the American Registry of Diagnostic Medical Sonographers (ARDMS). They will complete the PSI and their corresponding specialty exam — they won’t need to select between the various specialty exams.

For more information on obtaining your certification, visit the ARDMS website.

Step 4: Create a resume and CV

Once you’ve completed your CAAHEP-accredited education and passed the certification exam, it’s time to craft a professional resume and curriculum vitae (CV).

Your resume needs to make a great first impression on your potential employers — you’ve mastered the skills, completed your education, and passed the certification exam, but so have all the other sonographer applicants.

If you need some advice on how to create a stellar resume to secure a new job, check out these five resume examples.

In addition to your resume, you’ll need a CV to show employers your clinical experience, certifications, and educational background. CVs focus strictly on your professional skills, not your prior job experience.

Need help crafting your CV? Not to worry. Take a look at this guide on how to create an excellent CV.

Step 5: Find a sonography job

Finally, it’s time to find a sonography job and kick-start your healthcare career. Luckily, Jobcase can help. Our job board has immediately available positions in your area. All you need to do is search for a job title and location — it’s that easy.

FAQs about sonographers

Is a sonographer the same as an ultrasound technician?

Not exactly. Sonographers go through additional schooling and certifications to earn the title of Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer. Professionals with this title are trained in a variety of healthcare settings and specialize in different areas of the body.

But here’s where it gets tricky — the terms “sonographer” and “ultrasound technician” are often used interchangeably. While some people prefer going by their “sonographer” title, others prefer to use the arguably more casual “ultrasound technician” term.

Is studying sonography harder than nursing?

That depends on you and your career path.

The field of nursing has many specialty areas and programs for students to complete. A nursing student may decide to become a certified nursing assistant (CNA), which takes only five weeks of education courses. On the other hand, a registered nurse (RN) has to go through a four-year bachelor’s degree program in nursing.

Compared to an associate or bachelor’s degree in sonography, a CNA education may be easier, and an RN education may be more difficult.

Additionally, there are fewer sonography programs than nursing programs available in the U.S. With limited space, prospective sonographers will need to work hard to be accepted into education programs. Nursing students, on the other hand, will have more options for schooling.

How long does sonography education take?

Typically, a sonography education takes anywhere between two and four years of school to complete.

However, the majority of sonographer jobs require an additional certification from the American Registry of Diagnostic Medical Sonographers. However, if you wait to take the certification exam or fail on your first try, it will take longer to get a sonogram job.

Start pursuing your career as a sonographer today!

Sonographers are needed to investigate potential health problems without the need for invasive and investigative surgeries. With a yearly salary of $77,740, sonography is an excellent career path for individuals who want high earnings without needing to pursue a doctorate education.

If you enjoy working as part of a team, helping others, and studying human anatomy, consider a future in sonography. While it takes two to four years of schooling and a passing grade on a certification exam, 10,000 new sonographers are expected to be needed every year until at least 2031 — making this career pathway a promising one.

For more information on how to secure the best position for your skills and expertise, visit our Getting Hired Resource Center.

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