Getting your feet wet in allied health with a job that requires two or fewer years of training can be a wise move if you want to test the waters in your desired allied-health career field before committing to a longer, costlier educational program.
Many allied-health support jobs -- such as phlebotomist jobs and medical assistant jobs -- can serve as launching pads to a wide range of more professional jobs in healthcare, experts say. Other jobs in allied health -- like the four described below -- can be excellent stepping-stones to higher positions within the same discipline:
1. Pharmacy Technician to Pharmacist
It is “incredibly beneficial” for an aspiring pharmacist to gain experience by first working as a pharmacy technician, says pharmacist Megan Sheahan, who is director of professional affairs for the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board.
Sheahan, who worked as a pharm tech for seven years at a community hospital before earning her PharmD degree, says pharmacy schools appreciate applicants who have displayed interest in the profession by working as nationally certified pharmacy technicians. Since pharmacy is a “diverse profession with many specialty areas,” Sheahan says it’s optimal for pharm techs to have worked in a variety of settings -- ranging from community and hospital pharmacies to long-term care -- so they can determine where they want to work as pharmacists.
Employers also value pharmacists who have worked as pharmacy technicians early in their careers because they have a greater understanding and appreciation of their technician colleagues’ contributions, Sheahan says.
Pharmacy technicians who received formal education should contact the school of pharmacy they are interested in attending to determine if any of the credits from their prior educational program will transfer, Sheahan says.
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2. Medical Laboratory Technician to Medical Laboratory Scientist
The journey from medical laboratory technician (MLT) to medical laboratory scientist (MLS) can be smooth for those who plot their route carefully.
Generally, an individual who earns an associate’s degree and becomes certified as a medical laboratory technician can continue his education at a four-year college or university and, with the appropriate clinical experience, earn a bachelor’s degree and become certified as a medical laboratory scientist.
“Some MLTs use their degree to work while seeking higher education and some realize after they have been working for a period of time that they want to advance their careers,” says Cathy Otto, a medical laboratory scientist who is president of the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science.
Many community colleges have agreements with universities guaranteeing that the university will accept courses from the associate’s-degree program as prerequisites for a bachelor’s degree, but it is always best to verify what courses the university program requires, Otto says. “It may take more than two years [for someone with an associate’s degree to earn a bachelor’s], depending upon the courses completed at the two-year level and whether the appropriate general education requirements have been completed,” she says.
Both the MLT and MLS educational programs can be challenging, but the effort pays off with a rewarding career in which you’re providing “a valuable and necessary service to patient care,” Otto says. People thinking about entering the field should have “a love of science, attention to detail, a commitment to lifelong learning, and organizational and problem-solving skills,” she says.
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3. Registered Health Information Technician to Registered Health Information Administrator
Getting an associate’s degree in health information management, along with the Registered Health Information Technician (RHIT) credential, is the best way to gain entrance into the health information management (HIM) field, according to Melanie Endicott, a registered health information administrator (RHIA) and director of professional practice for the American Health Information Management Association. “Entry-level HIM positions are the ideal way for someone entering the field to gain the experience necessary to be able to eventually lead or manage,” Endicott says.
Some students complete a four-year bachelor’s degree in HIM directly (becoming credentialed as an RHIA), but the majority of students begin with a two-year degree and then progress to a four-year degree right away or later on. “Many colleges and universities cater to those students who already have an RHIT and want to progress to an RHIA,” Endicott says.
Typically, most coursework completed in the two-year program is accepted at the four-year level, so students who are already RHITs can complete their bachelor’s degrees in an additional two years, Endicott says. She cautions not waiting too long to begin the four-year program, because some educational institutions may have a time limit for how long a course is valid and can be transferred.
Endicott urges advanced education for highly motivated RHITs. “Having a bachelor’s or master’s degree will open many doors to higher-level positions,” she says.
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4. Dental Assistant to Dental Hygienist
Using a dental assistant job as a stepping-stone to becoming a dental hygienist has its benefits. Not only does the dental assistant gain knowledge of dentistry and the workings of a dental office, but the work experience is also attractive to potential employers when new hygienists apply for their first jobs.
“I think it is an asset for the employer to know that candidates [with experience in dental assisting] obviously liked and understood dentistry and made a commitment to it by pursuing an advanced career,” says Pamela Quinones, a registered dental hygienist who is president of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association.
Because the education and responsibilities of dental assistants and dental hygienists are very different, the coursework to become a Certified Dental Assistant will not transfer to a dental hygiene program, Quinones says.
“For someone who is not set on becoming a dental hygienist, but wants to test the waters of dentistry, a dental assisting program might serve you well,” Quinones says. However, if you know you want to become a hygienist, Quinones recommends using the year it would take to become a dental assistant to take the prerequisites needed to apply to a dental hygiene program.
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