Become a Diagnostic Medical Sonographer: Education & Career Guide

A detailed primer on the education and certification requirements for becoming a diagnstic medical sonographer.

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Become a Diagnostic Medical Sonographer: Education & Career Guide

Over the next 10 years, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the number of sonographer jobs will increase by 10 percent. Diagnostic medical sonographers play a crucial role in the health care field. They provide essential diagnostic information for physicians and patients through the use of ultrasound technology.

What is a sonographer exactly? Diagnostic medical sonographers use high-frequency sound waves to produce images of internal organs and tissues. These skilled professionals are trained to capture high-quality images of the body's internal structures to diagnose, monitor and treat various medical conditions.

Diagnostic medical sonographers have a strong job outlook and competitive salary potential. Pursuing a career as a diagnostic medical sonographer may be an attractive and rewarding option for those interested in health care and medical imaging.

If you're considering this kind of career and want to learn how to become a diagnostic medical sonographer, this step-by-step guide can help. Below, we'll explore the education and training requirements, job duties, average salary and working conditions of a diagnostic medical sonographer.

What Does an Ultrasound Tech Do?

As a diagnostic medical sonographer, also known as an ultrasound technician, you'll be responsible for operating special imaging equipment that generates high-frequency sound waves (ultrasound) to produce detailed images of internal organs, tissues and blood flow within the body. These images aid physicians in diagnosing illnesses, monitoring pregnancy progress and finding potential abnormalities or issues.

Your daily tasks may include:

  • Preparing patients for imaging procedures by explaining the process and ensuring their comfort
  • Applying gel to the patient's skin to facilitate the transmission of sound waves
  • Operating ultrasound equipment to obtain clear and accurate images
  • Analyzing images and identifying any potential irregularities or issues
  • Documenting findings and reporting them to the patient's physician
  • Maintaining patient records and equipment in accordance with established standards and regulations

Work Environment and Settings

Diagnostic medical sonographers can work in various health care settings. They can be found everywhere from hospitals and diagnostic imaging centers to private practices and outpatient care centers.

In hospitals, they may work in departments like radiology, cardiology, obstetrics, or vascular medicine. Sonographers often have the opportunity to specialize in specific areas of medicine, such as pediatrics, neurosonography or musculoskeletal imaging.

Regardless of the setting, sonographers typically work full-time, with some positions requiring evening, weekend or on-call shifts to accommodate patient needs and emergency cases.

Step One: Get a High School Diploma or Equivalent

The first step to pursuing a career as a diagnostic medical sonographer is to obtain a high school diploma or its equivalent, such as a GED. During high school, it can be advantageous to focus on courses in math, science and health to develop a solid foundation for future studies. Anatomy, physiology and physics are considered to be particularly helpful.

Additionally, it may be helpful to engage in activities that develop strong communication and interpersonal skills. These skills are seen as essential for effectively interacting with patients and colleagues in the health care field.

Step Two: Choose a Specialty

When learning how to become a diagnostic medical sonographer, you'll find that you have the option to specialize in specific areas of ultrasound imaging. The choice of specialty shapes your course of study and may influence your career trajectory. There are several specialties to choose from.

1. Cardiovascular/Cardiac Sonography (Heart/EKG)

Cardiac sonographers, also referred to as echocardiographers, focus on imaging the heart. This specialty requires a thorough understanding of cardiac anatomy and function, as well as additional training in interpreting the specialized images produced during echocardiograms.

2. Vascular Sonography

Vascular sonographers specialize in imaging the body's blood vessels. This includes arteries and veins. They play an essential role in diagnosing and assessing conditions related to circulation or blood flow. Such conditions may include deep vein thrombosis or vascular disease.

3. Obstetric and Gynecologic Sonography (OB/GYN)

Sonographers in this specialty are trained to image the female reproductive system. OB/GYN sonographers may also be involved in performing fetal ultrasounds for diagnostic or prenatal care purposes. In addition to extensive knowledge of the female reproductive system, they require a deep understanding of fetal development at every stage.

4. Breast Sonography

Breast sonographers specialize in imaging the breasts and surrounding lymph nodes. Breast ultrasounds are often used to follow up abnormal mammograms to check for breast cancer. This specialty requires in-depth knowledge of breast anatomy, imaging protocols and analysis of results.

5. Abdominal Sonography

An abdominal sonographer focuses on imaging the soft tissues, blood vessels and organs of the abdomen. This specialty includes experience in imaging the liver, gallbladder, kidneys and other abdominal organs and tissues.

6. Musculoskeletal Sonography

Musculoskeletal sonographers specialize in imaging the body's musculoskeletal system, such as the joints, muscles, nerves, tendons and some ligaments. This specialty requires knowledge of musculoskeletal anatomy, imaging protocols and the analysis of damage or disease processes.

Step Three: Apply to a Diagnostic Medical Sonographer Program

Once you've decided on a specialty, it's time to apply to an accredited diagnostic medical sonographer program. These programs can be found at community colleges, universities and technical schools. When selecting a program, there are two primary accreditation organizations to be aware of. They are CAAHEP and ARRT.  


CAAHEP, or the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs, is a national accrediting agency that evaluates educational programs for many different health care professions. Their accreditation is a signal of a quality program, and many states require certification from a CAAHEP-accredited program to obtain licensure.

What Is ARRT?

ARRT (American Registry of Radiologic Technologists) is the largest credentialing organization for radiologic technologists, nuclear medicine technologists and limited x-ray technicians. Many states require certification from an ARRT-accredited program to practice as a diagnostic medical sonographer.

Difference Between CAAHEP vs. ARRT Accreditation

The difference between CAAHEP and ARRT accreditation is the type of program they assess. The only imaging CAAHEP accredits is diagnostic medical sonography programs, while ARRT accredits diagnostic medical imaging and radiation therapy programs.

Though diagnostic medical sonography and imaging programs may use similar imaging technologies, the two organizations maintain separate accreditation standards. Diagnostic medical sonography programs prepare students for careers in ultrasound technology, while diagnostic medical imaging programs prepare students for careers in radiologic technology, nuclear medicine technology and limited x-ray technology.

CAAHEP-accredited programs are recognized nationally as meeting established standards for preparing students for entry-level work in the profession. ARRT-accredited programs are also reputable, and some states may require ARRT certification for licensure.


The cost of a diagnostic medical sonographer program can vary depending on factors such as location, program duration, certification or degree type and institution type. Be sure to research and compare costs and financial aid opportunities when selecting a program.

Step Four: Graduate from a Diagnostic Medical Sonographer Program

Once you have applied to a program and been accepted, the next step is to complete the program, successfully graduate, and/or earn a degree. What this looks like can depend on what program you complete and where. There are also other skills that can be helpful which may or may not be taught throughout the course of completing your chosen program.

State Licensure Requirements

Requirements for certification and/or licensure vary by state but often include education, certification and examination components. Licensure for diagnostic medical sonographers is only required in four US states: New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota and Oregon. It's essential to research the specific requirements for the state you plan to work in and complete the necessary application process and fees.

What Will You Learn?

Diagnostic medical sonographer programs typically encompass a combination of classroom instruction, laboratory work and clinical experience. You can expect to study subjects such as anatomy, medical terminology, applied sciences and ultrasound imaging techniques. Programs may also include coursework related to your chosen specialty.

Technical Skills

Diagnostic medical sonographers need proficiency in using sonographic equipment and software. They must also possess strong image analysis and interpretation skills to provide accurate findings to physicians.

Soft Skills

In addition to technical expertise, sonographers need effective communication and interpersonal skills. This facilitates interactions with patients, physicians and other health care professionals.

Attention to detail and critical thinking are essential for accurate image analysis, diagnosis and report writing. Differences in images over time or between healthy and unhealthy structures can be subtle.

A detailed eye can be necessary to spot them. Furthermore, in medicine, a single issue can have numerous possible causes. Critical thinking can help to sort out the possibilities and come to the most likely conclusion.

Compassion and empathy for patients, as well as time management and organization, are also qualities that can be very helpful for a successful career as a diagnostic medical sonographer.

How Long Will It Take?

The length of a diagnostic medical sonographer program can vary depending on the type of program and your chosen specialty. Certificate programs may take as little as 12 months to complete, while associate and bachelor's degree programs can take two to four years. Some programs also offer part-time or accelerated options, which can impact the overall duration.

Step Five: Take Boards

After completing an accredited diagnostic medical sonographer program, it's time to take your board exams. The American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS) is the primary certifying organization for sonographers in the United States. Depending on your specialty, you may take one or more exams.

These include the Sonography Principles and Instrumentation (SPI) examination, Abdomen, Small Parts, Obstetrics and Gynecology, or Adult Echocardiography exams. Passing the appropriate exams is how you earn your Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer (RDMS) credential, which signifies your competency in the field.

Step Six: Find a Job

With your education, certification and specialty training completed, it's time to start your job search. Diagnostic medical sonographers work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, outpatient clinics, imaging centers and private practices. To help jumpstart your career, consider the following tips:

  • Join professional organizations like the Society of Diagnostic Medical Sonography (SDMS) for networking opportunities and job listings.
  • Attend job fairs and conferences to make connections with potential employers.
  • Complete internships or clinical rotations to gain hands-on experience and build your resume.
  • Utilize your school's career services resources for assistance with job searching and interviewing techniques.

Bottom Line

Individuals who are detail-oriented, compassionate, and interested in providing quality patient care within the health care field may want to consider pursuing a career as a diagnostic medical sonographer. This rewarding profession can offer opportunities for growth, specialization and competitive pay. This can make it an attractive option for those seeking a fulfilling career in health care.

If you're ready to embark on the journey to becoming a diagnostic medical sonographer, start by focusing on your education, selecting a specialty and researching accredited programs. With time, dedication, and the right training, you could be well on your way to a successful career in this dynamic field.


Let's address some frequently asked questions (FAQ) and go over some important topics people often inquire about further.

Can I Attend Diagnostic Medical Sonography School Online?

While some diagnostic medical sonography schools offer online coursework, it's important to note that hands-on clinical experiences are an essential component of sonography training. Be sure to select a program that includes a strong clinical component to ensure you receive the necessary hands-on practice.

What is the Difference Between a Sonographer and an Ultrasound Technician?

The terms sonographer and ultrasound technician are often used interchangeably to describe individuals who perform ultrasound imaging. Both titles refer to professionals trained to operate ultrasound machines and interpret results for diagnostic purposes. However, sonographers have additional training requirements.

How Do You Obtain Certification for a Diagnostic Medical Sonographer?

Certification for diagnostic medical sonographers is obtained through the American Registry for Diagnostic Medical Sonography (ARDMS). It involves passing exams relevant to your chosen specialty and adhering to professional standards and continuing education requirements.

How Do You Find a job as a Diagnostic Medical Sonographer?

Networking with professionals in the field, using resources provided by your school's career services department and searching job boards related to health care and sonography can be helpful places to start. Many see these methods as a good way to get your foot in the door.

It's often useful to tailor your resume and cover letter to each job application. Highlighting your specific skills and qualifications relevant to each position can provide a clearer idea of why you're suited for that particular job. This may increase your chances of being hired.

More Resources

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Program outcomes may vary depending on each institution's specific curriculum and employment opportunities are not guranteed.