A New MLS Graduate's Experience

I wrote last as a student in the medical technologist program at NorthShore University Healthcare System in Evanston. Now, as my first post as a certified medical technologist, I wanted to share what the journey was like becoming certified, finding a job, and transitioning into the professional arena.

Throughout the program, I felt relatively confident in the material and what we were learning and applying in rotations. We took about 1000 tests over the course of the program – at least that’s what it felt like. When the ASCP BOC exam began peaking its head, I wasn’t too intimidated. To me, it was just another test.

The first step was registering for the exam. My intention was to take the exam the day after I graduated, but I was bad and waited one month prior to graduation to register (it can take up to 45 business days to process). Don’t do as I did! Thankfully, the process was quicker than expected and I was only delayed one week after graduation.

The last four weeks of my program were intimidating to say the least! We had cumulative finals in addition to simulated board exams. Therefore, my BOC exam studying began through preparing for these. One of the most valuable resources that I cannot recommend enough is LabCE by MediaLab. I first discovered LabCE through their manual UA and differential simulators, but then discovered that they have testing simulators which our program director used to create practice exams for subjects and for the BOC exam. Their questions range in difficulty and each one has an explanation, which presents a great way to study (at least for me). It helped me develop study guides on material I consistently got wrong or completely forgot.

Two weeks before my exam, I discovered the BOC CLS study guide. I immediately paid for overnight shipping and received it the next day. This turned into my main study tool – I do best quizzing myself, then reading up on topics I got wrong. I would be lying if I said I felt confident when I received that book and went through the first 50 questions. I felt incompetent. Despite my previous review and studying, I felt as if I discovered an entirely new language. The book is very detailed and covers everything from a to z for laboratory science, with some topics only being covered briefly in school. As time went on, the shock factor wore off and I continued to focus on the things I no longer remembered and believed were important.

Despite the endless hours studying, I felt that there was much left to cover and the night before my exam I remember feeling overwhelmed. There is only so much information the human brain can store without the hands-on experience that ingrains what you learn. Throughout the test I felt as if I were failing, something that seems to be common place among BOC test takers. When it was time to see my score, my hands became clammy. Despite the suspense, I passed! When I received my scores later, I did much better than expected!

So, my concluding advice while preparing for the BOC exam is to focus on summarizations of your notes and to review all your formulas throughout your program. Go through as many practice exams as possible to help you see where you’re lacking and to prepare you for the wording on the BOC exam. Throughout my program, I would type up one to two-page notes for exams for later review. These were helpful when I had to go back and review things I did not remember. Additionally, despite the amount of studying you do, there is bound to be information you will not know and that’s okay. You know more than you think you know and through review you will only increase the recoverable information that is already in your head.

Lastly, I wanted to speak about the process of a new grad finding a job and transitioning from a student to a health professional. As I went through rotations, my passion for each specialty changed. At first, I wanted to be a generalist because I wanted to be more marketable and do everything. Then it was blood bank, then micro, and then came molecular (yay!). I began my job search about 2 months before graduation, and applied for those jobs about a month and a half before graduation. Being a soon-to-be new grad, I knew that I might not end up in the exact field I desired right away (which was molecular). I applied for mostly blood bank, micro, and molecular jobs – as these were of the most interest to me.

I applied for about 6-7 jobs in total and I ended up discovering, and eventually obtaining, my current position as an HLA molecular scientist at Northwestern’s transplant lab in Chicago. Throughout the interview process, being 100% honest of what you do and don’t know is the most important advice. Most employers ask a lot of detailed questions only to gauge where they need to start in your training. A good rule of thumb to remember is that if you’re a new grad being interviewed, then the employer is already okay with the fact that you don’t have much experience or knowledge of the specialty.

Before starting, a lot of people warned me about specializing immediately after graduating. While I hear their concerns, for me I plan on staying in the molecular field for the rest of my career – there are many opportunities and molecular is only becoming more and more advanced/widespread.

Now that I am 2 months into my job, I have fallen in love with it. There is endless opportunity to continue learning and to challenge myself. Walking into this specialty, I had two HLA lectures and nothing more. While my first month and a half mostly consisted of DNA isolation and cell lineage DNA isolation for chimerism tests, I have finally started training on an assay and data analysis for engraftment monitoring (chimerism). As a new grad in such a specific specialty, I have accepted that there will be a large learning curve. My advice is to keep your mind open to learning new things and fuel your motivation to learn more and more. Never stop asking questions and never turn down resources others hand you that have helped them.

As I gain more experience in the HLA world, I plan on writing articles tailored to this field and sharing what I learn. I hope my experience as a new grad helps others approaching this new time in their lives and gives them a sense of direction/confidence.

-Ben Dahlstrom is a recent graduate of the NorthShore University HealthSystem MLS program. He currently works as a molecular technologist for Northwestern University in their transplant lab, performing HLA typing on bone marrow and solid organ transplants. His interests include microbiology, molecular, immunology, and blood bank.

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