What is a Cytologist?

Cassie L. Damewood

A cytologist is a medical professional who specializes in the study of cells. He may concentrate his work in the examination of animal cells, plant cells or both. A cytologist normally works in a medical laboratory in a hospital, clinic or medical research company.

Types of human cells, all of which are studied by cytologists.
Types of human cells, all of which are studied by cytologists.

A microscope is the main tool used by a cytologist. A large part of his work involves sectioning cells and examining them on slides. He regularly uses a microtome to slice the tissues into minuscule pieces to better observe their activity. Staining, a method by which tissues are exposed to different substances and analyzed based on the colors that emerge, is another major part of his job.

A cytologist's primary tool is a microscope.
A cytologist's primary tool is a microscope.

A person in this profession typically has minimal patient contact. In the laboratory, he frequently works in unison with one or more pathologists. Physicians often consult with him when they are attempting to make a diagnosis more concise so they can more precisely treat the malady.

Cell analysis is instrumental in the discovery of new diseases. It is also commonly the key to finding cures for new and existing ailments. A cytologist is often the first person who notices changes in cells that frequently lead to medical breakthroughs.

His work may also link certain changes in cell tissues or activity to precancerous tissue formation or other health risks. His job also commonly entails analyzing how chemicals and external influences affect malignant cancer cells. These discoveries sometimes lead to improved treatments or eradication of some diseases.

Reproductive cell formation and chromosomal activity are other areas of concentration often chosen by a cytologist. Observing how eggs and sperms bond and watching chromosomes divide and fuse under a microscopic lens often help him discover how and why mutations occur and how to prevent them. Single cells such as protozoa and amoebas that affect human, animal and plant growth patterns are also a common area of concentration for a cytologist.

Aside from studying cells under a microscope, a cytologist is generally responsible for keeping his laboratory clean and orderly. Since he typically has several research projects underway at the same time, a cytologist is normally required to be organized and fastidious in his control of specimens. He is also typically expected to keep meticulous records of his data and prepare reports for review by physicians and pathologists.

A bachelor’s degree in cytology or cytotechnology is typically required for this position. Some employers require a master’s degree in these areas of concentration. In certain regions, a license or certificate in pathology is also a requirement.

A cytologist may study plant cells exclusively.
A cytologist may study plant cells exclusively.

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Discussion Comments


@MrsPramm - I think most qualified cytologists are involved in research as well as helping to identify samples. And it's not like all the samples they'd be identifying would be the same cell type.

I think it would be a fairly satisfying job, actually, although I'd be worried about the responsibility. I know that they probably have to ID different cancer cells and so forth for patients and sometimes they get it wrong (because they are only human).

I'd hate to have that on my conscious, especially if it's a false negative. I've heard of people who got a false negative and ended up dying because they didn't get the treatment in time.


I was always really fascinated by cells when I was a kid, but I'm not sure I'd like to be a cytologist. It seems like they mostly spend their whole day identifying samples and that would be pretty monotonous after awhile.

If you were guaranteed a research position, that would be cool. But otherwise the job might not be all that different from a file clerk.

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