A cytologist, or cytotechnologist as they also are called, prepares microscopic slides of human cells, examining them for abnormalities. Cytotechnologists typically have a master's degree in cytotechnology, which takes about six years of post secondary education. The Bureau of Labor Statistics includes cytotechnologists in its "medical and clinical laboratory technologists" category, reporting a median annual income of $56,130 as of May 2010. The rate of job growth is projected to be around 11 percent between 2010 and 2020, which compares with the projected average job growth of 14 percent for all U.S. jobs.
Cytologists obtain cell specimens from areas such as the female reproductive tract, the lungs or other body cavities. Although swabs are the most common method of obtaining specimens, the cytologist may use a fine needle to aspirate a lesion that is more deeply seated in the body. A cytologist needs basic knowledge of the gynecologic and non-gynecological cytopathology and cytopreparatory techniques. Scientific precision, as well as good bedside manner, are essential job skills.
The cytologist has to be very exacting, verifying the patient's identifying information to ensure the right sample is matched to the right patient. She describes the specimen's appearance in detail, documenting how many slides she's prepared and how many stains, a preparatory technique for microscopic analysis, were performed. The cytologist spreads the sample thinly and evenly over a microscope slide. The slide is then immersed in a preparatory solution and, if ordered, stained for easier examination.
Most slides are examined microscopically, and any cellular changes representative of a disease process are carefully noted for review by a pathologist. The cytologist must stay current on the latest non-microscopic methods of cell examination, studying methods that include image analysis, flow cytometry and immunohistochemistry. The cytologist needs a solid background in cellular pathophysiology and histology to be able to make conclusions regarding any molecular abnormalities that could be suggestive of disease.
The pathologist relies on the cytologist's carefully prepared and exacting reports, not only to make his job easier, but to increase accuracy and the possibility of early disease detection. Reports must be scientific but readable, with all conclusions backed up by observation and data. When more than one conclusion is possible, the cytologist has to list each alternative, followed by supporting and detracting evidence. Any factors, such as sample contamination, that would detract from the integrity of the final results must be noted. Examination reports must contain her conclusions and any areas in need of further examination and specimen collection.
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