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How to Become a Sonographer Guide
If you’re caring, compassionate, and interested in the medical field, a career in sonography could be a great choice for you. Sonographers guide patients through ultrasonic imaging procedures of all types. By doing so, they assist physicians and doctors in making diagnoses and treatments for patients.
If this sounds interesting to you, keep on reading to learn how to become a sonographer!
Also see: Fastest growing careers
What is a sonographer?
Diagnostic medical sonographers, better known as just “sonographers,” use ultrasound technology to produce images, scans, and other visualizations of the human body. However, as the human body is incredibly complex and diverse, one’s specific role as a sonographer largely depends on what they specialize in. While some sonographers focus solely on scanning the progress of women’s pregnancies, others may specialize in visualizations of organs. In addition to these, there are specializations of sonography focusing on tissues, muscles, bones, and much more. We’ll get into those later, though.
Is a sonographer the same as an ultrasound technician?
While reading our brief description of sonographers, you may have started to wonder, “Isn’t this the same as an ultrasound technician?”
Great question! The answer: yes, they are essentially the same. Both professions involve using ultrasound technology to create sonograms used to diagnose and treat patients. While the jobs may require slightly different educational paths depending on your specialization and your school, the requirements tend to be very similar.
Thus, the main difference between a sonographer and an ultrasound technician lies in semantics. Besides the difference in job title, an “ultrasound” and “sonogram” refer to slightly different things. While an ultrasound refers to the use of sound waves to create an image, a sonogram is the image created by an ultrasound. However, as both sonograms and ultrasounds require professionals who know how to perform ultrasounds, the careers are essentially the same.
What should I look for in a sonography program?
As mentioned earlier, there are many different educational paths one can take to become a sonographer. However, no matter which path one pursues, there are some things you should make sure to look for in any sonography program. Here they are:
- Accreditation: Your sonography program must be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health/Education Programs (CAAHEP). This handy tool will help you figure out whether your chosen program is accredited. If not, you can also use it as a search tool to find one that is accredited!
- Admissions requirements: Make sure that you meet all the eligibility requirements of your chosen sonography program. It is not uncommon for programs to require students to have completed specific prerequisite math, health, and science courses.
- Specializations: For subtypes of sonography, it’s important that your chosen program offers your preferred specialty. Some subtypes of sonography can be particularly difficult to find. We recommend doing thorough research to make sure yours is offered by your desired program.
- Curriculum: The sonography profession is very hands-on. Therefore, we recommend making sure your program offers a lot of hands-on, clinical, and/or real-world experience. Such experience is arguably one of the most important parts of any sonography education.
Now that you know what to look for in a sonography program, let’s get into what education is required to become a sonographer!
Step-by-step education guide to becoming a sonographer
Sonography is a unique profession. Whether you want to jump into the profession as soon as possible, or stay in school a little longer, either is fine when it comes to sonography. So, to make things simple, we’ll go over the many different paths you can take to become a sonographer. Note that there are three separate “Step 1”’s because you can pursue one of three different types of degrees to become a sonographer!
Before we get into the specific steps to become a sonographer, though, it’s important to note that those already working in other medical fields can also pursue sonography. It is not uncommon for those in radiology and/or nursing to pursue a specialization in sonography as well. If this sounds like you, feel free to skip the steps that you’ve already completed to find out what you have to do next. For example, if you’ve already earned an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, skip to step two.
With that said, though, let’s get into it!
1. Option A: Earn a certificate (12 to 18 months)
Out of high school, you have one of three possible “first step” options to choose from to become a sonographer. The first is to earn a postsecondary certificate in sonography at your local community college or vocational school. Such programs are generally the quickest of the three options, taking somewhere between 12 and 18 months to complete. Such programs also allow you to start fulfilling your clinical hour requirements, which will give you some real experience in the field.
Related: Top certificates to earn
2. Option B: Earn an associate’s degree (18 to 24 months)
Your next “first step” option is to obtain an associates degree in sonography or a related field. Some of these programs even allow students to obtain certificates in specialty areas of sonography, such as vascular technology or echocardiology. They also allow students to accumulate clinical hours over the course of their studies, like the certificates mentioned above. Obtaining an associates degree in sonography generally takes between 18 and 24 months, with the length depending on your specific path and program.
Also see: What is an associate’s degree?
3. Option C: Earn a bachelor’s degree (four years)
The last “first step” option is to earn your bachelor’s degree in sonography or a related field. However, this is not necessarily a “first step” for everyone. Some already-registered sonographers choose to pursue bachelor’s degrees to further advance their careers. Obtaining a bachelor’s may open sonographers up to more job opportunities or allow them to achieve a higher salary than they’d receive with only a certificate or associate’s degree. These programs also allow students to gain clinical, real-world experience in the field. However, if you are already a sonographer and pursuing a bachelor’s to further your career, you do not need to worry about your clinical requirements. You’ve likely already completed them! Receiving a bachelor’s typically takes between three and four years, depending on how many credits you take each academic term and your prior coursework.
Don’t miss: Complete guide to undergraduate degrees
4. Finish clinical hour requirements
After you receive your degree or certificate, it’s time to finish those clinical hour requirements! P.S. If you’ve already completed them, skip to step three!
If you haven’t, however, this is your time to do so. You can do so by either interning, volunteering, or possibly even working at local hospitals. Doing so will not only help you develop your clinical skills, but also the interpersonal and communication skills needed to be a sonographer. As sonograms can sometimes be the bearer of bad news, it is of utmost importance that sonographers be strong for their patients.
The ARDMS gives helpful general information on the sonography exam requirements. However, we still recommend checking with your specific program, advisor, or test administrator on how many clinical hours are required of you.
5. Become a certified sonographer
Once you finish your clinical hours, it’s time to get certified! The majority of sonographers choose to get certified through the Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer (RDMS) credential before going on to specialize in a subtype of sonography. However, you may also choose to take one of several other specialty certification exams offered by the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT).
No matter which test you sign up for, we highly recommend making sure you meet all the eligibility/prerequisite requirements beforehand. This way, you won’t show up on test day and realize that you’re ineligible, saving you time and energy.
On a more positive note, passing your certification exam officially makes you a certified sonographer (or even a specialized sonographer)! To make sure that happens, we recommend checking out these helpful sonography exam preparation resources:
- ARDMS examination resources
- ARDMS sonography principles
- Ultrasound certification – preparing for the exam
6. Choose a specialty! (optional)
If you’ve already passed your sonography specialty certification exam, feel free to skip this step. If not (or if you’re looking to specialize in another subtype), it might just be time to consider choosing a specialty. Although it is not necessary to choose a specialty in sonography, it is increasingly common.
Let’s take a look at the many sonography subtypes, and how you can go about specializing in each of them.
The subtypes of sonography
We’ve now gone over the general path to become a sonographer. So, it’s time for the specializations! Keep reading for a brief introduction to the many subtypes of sonographers and the additional requirements for each.
Abdominal sonography utilizes sound waves to produce visualizations of structures within the upper abdomen. Such structures include the kidneys, liver, gallbladder, bile ducts, pancreas, spleen, and abdominal aorta.
To become certified with an AB (abdominal) specialty, one must pass both the Sonography Principles & Instrumentation (SPI) exam and the BR examination within five years. Once you pass the SPI examination, you can continue to earn additional credentials (without re-taking the SPI) so long as you maintain active status.
Breast sonography uses sound waves to create visualizations of the internal structures of the breast. These are typically used to identify breast lumps and other abnormalities found during a physical exam, mammogram, or MRI.
Similarly to abdominal sonography, to become certified with a BR (breast) specialty, one must pass both the Sonography Principles & Instrumentation (SPI) exam and the BR examination within five years. Once you pass the SPI examination, you can continue to earn additional credentials (without re-taking the SPI) so long as you maintain active status.
Neurosonography involves performing ultrasounds on the brain and nervous system. This form of sonography is somewhat unique in that it uses specialized beam shapes and frequencies from a Transcranial Doppler (TCD) rather than typical obstetric and abdominal sonography machines.
Up until 2015, those who wished to become certified in neurosonography had to pass the Neurosonology (NE) RDMS credential examination. However, since then, the Neurosonology RDMS has been discontinued in favor of the new Pediatric Sonography (PS) specialty. Those with a NE credential may still use their credential until the 10-year recertification cycle is up. Then, if they wish to continue practicing, they must pass the PS certification exam.
Obstetric and gynecological sonography
Most often referred to as OB/GYN ultrasound, obstetric and gynecological sonography is generally used to determine the condition of pregnant women and their fetuses.
To receive specialty certification in OB/GYN sonography, one must pass the Sonography Principles & Instrumentation (SPI) exam and the OB/GYN examination within five years. To sit for the OB/GYN exam, first-time applicants must choose a prerequisite that best matches their education and clinical experience.
Echocardiography uses sound waves to create moving pictures of patients’ hearts. Pictures show the size and shape of one’s heart, while the Doppler echo illustrates blood flow through chambers and valves.
To become certified in echocardiography, one can take a number of exams offered by the ARDMS, including the Adult Echocardiography (AE) examination.
Vascular sonography utilizes high-frequency sound waves to produce visualizations of blood vessels, including arteries and veins. For these sonograms, patients’ legs are compressed, and their vein blood flow is assessed for clogs.
To receive specialty certification in vascular sonography, one must pass both the Sonography Principles & Instrumentation (SPI) exam and the Vascular Technology (VT) exam within five years.
Musculoskeletal sonography uses sound waves to produce visualizations of patients’ muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints. Such pictures diagnose sprains, tears, and other abnormalities in the soft tissue.
To become certified in musculoskeletal sonography, one must pass the Musculoskeletal sonographer (MSKS) examination that is offered at certain times of the year at Pearson VUE test centers. Scores for each exam are typically available 60 days after each testing period.
Alternatively, if you are already a physician or advanced care provider, you are eligible to receive RMSK certification instead. This certification exam requires applicants to be licensed, practicing physicians or advanced care professionals with prior musculoskeletal ultrasound experience. The results for this exam are also generally available 60 days after one’s testing date.
And that’s it! As you now have a general idea of what these specializations of sonography are (and how to pursue them), we hope you’ve found something you’re interested in.
As you can see, sonography truly is a diverse profession. So, no matter which path you choose to follow, we hope that this post has been helpful. With hard work, you’ll certainly be able to achieve your goals. Although it may take some time, you’ll learn a lot on the way there. Good luck!
Frequently asked questions
How long does it take to become a sonographer?
Ultimately, how long it takes to become a sonographer depends on what path you seek out. The most common way is to receive an associate’s degree in diagnostic medical sonography, which takes around two years. Pursuing a bachelor’s degree, on the other hand, will take around four years. Further, if you wish to pursue additional degrees or certifications, you may be adding months or years onto the process. However, we recommend that students pursue whichever type of sonography that interests them, even if it may take a little longer.
Do sonographers make good money?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, medical sonographers made an average of $70,380 in 2020. However, this average varied across industries, with some sonographers making more than others. Those working in hospitals made an average salary of $76,060 in 2020. Sonographers in outpatient care centers made $96,780, while those in medical and diagnostic laboratories made roughly $71,650. Sonographers working in physicians’ offices made an average of $75,270.