Sonography is a diagnostic medical practice using high-frequency sound waves (ultrasound) to produce visual images of the inside of the body. When many people think of an ultrasound, they often think of obstetrics, as sonographers typically show expectant parents the first images of their child during pregnancy, but the technology and practice can be applied in many other medical and diagnostic settings.
While different facilities may expect slightly different sets of specific tasks from their sonographers, most positions share at least a few of the general duties of the occupation:
- Explaining ultrasound techniques to patients and preparing them for procedures
- Performing exams using special diagnostic and monitoring equipment
- Observing and recording test findings and reporting results to physicians
- Maintaining equipment and updating patient records
Sonographers — also known as ultrasound technicians or ultrasound techs — can specialize in the imaging of a number of different body parts, such as the abdomen, brain, heart, breasts, vascular system and reproductive system. Ultrasound technician training specific to these areas of the body may take place in a formal education setting or on the job in a clinical training program.
How Much do Sonographers Make?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports an average diagnostic medical sonographer salary of $70,880 in 2015, with the bottom 10 percent of workers earning less than $48,720 and the top 10 percent taking home $97,390 or more for the year. California offered the highest mean wage for diagnostic medical sonographers in 2015, reporting an annual average of $95,880.
Regional cost of living can make a big difference in how far each dollar of your salary goes, and there are a few cities where comfortable diagnostic medical sonographer salary expectations are coupled with a high affordability rank on the Center for Community and Economic Research's September 2015 Annual Average Cost of Living Index (COLI):
- Houston, TX: $83,500 mean annual salary; state ranked 17th most affordable
- Ogden, UT: $77,880 mean annual salary; state ranked 15th most affordable
- Kansas City, KS: $71,660 mean annual salary; state ranked 8th most affordable
The San Francisco Bay area was home to the highest overall diagnostic medical sonographer salaries in 2015, with an average annual wage of $119,550, but the COLI ranks California as one of the five most expensive states in the U.S. for everyday living expenses.
How Much Training do Sonographers Need?
As skilled members of the medical community, sonographers and ultrasound technicians require thorough technical training to effectively operate and maintain the sensitive equipment of their profession. This training can often be completed in about a year, and may take place in a variety of settings that includes community colleges, technical schools and clinical learning centers.
As far as total time spent in ultrasound technician training, the Occupational Information Network reports that the largest percentage of working sonographers in spent approximately two years in school. Here's a breakdown of degrees held, by portion of the sonography workforce in 2015:
- Associate degree: 47 percent
- Postsecondary non-degree award: 19 percent
- Bachelor's degree: 17 percent
- Other: 17 percent
The BLS indicates that employers tend to prefer candidates who completed their training through a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP), and that professional certifications may increase job prospects. Certification programs are offered primarily through the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonographers (ARDMS) and include the following credentials:
- Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer (RDMS)
- Registered Musculoskeletal Sonographer (RMSKS
- Registered Diagnostic Cardiac Sonographer (RDCS)
Some certifications also include intra-credential specializations for professionals looking to further distinguish themselves and their skills. RDCS students can focus on adult, pediatric or fetal echocardiography, while those taking the RDMS exam can choose to specialize their credential in abdominal, mammary, pediatric or obstetric/gynecological ultrasound imaging.
Some types of sonographer training may be available online as well, depending on the institution. Look for ultrasound technician schools in your area and see what educational options might fit your goals.