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The track to becoming a public health laboratory director

Michelle Landes, Ph.D., EID Research Fellow

By Michelle Landes, Ph.D., APHL/CDC Emerging Infectious Diseases (EID) Laboratory Research Fellow at the Tennessee Department of Health

As a recent graduate of a microbiology doctoral program, I had an interest in using my knowledge to help the community through public health.  It is difficult to make the transition from academia to public health due to the lack of networking available during graduate school.  Fortunately, I learned about the Emerging Infectious Diseases post-doctoral research program, which is a great opportunity for graduates to learn about the public health laboratory and all of its opportunities.  My fellowship program is unique in that it offers the opportunity for research, as well as, training in laboratory management and directorship.  I quickly learned that becoming a laboratory director is not a fast and easy track to complete.   There are many requirements and certifications to obtain.  This was a difficult concept for me to come to terms with, since I just finished a five year PhD program, which gave me the grand total of 22 years of academic training to that point.  So, you can see why I might have thought I was done with tests for life and was a bit taken aback by the idea of studying again.  Well, Henry Ford once said “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty”….and as a woman in her late twenties, I don’t have to tell you how I feel about the latter.

So here is the breakdown of the steps to obtain laboratory director certification if you currently hold a doctoral degree in a biological science. I’ve added a few of the tips I’ve learned along the way, although I am at the beginning with only having one examination attempted under my belt (still waiting for results, cross your fingers).

  1. Have four years of diagnostic laboratory experience working with human specimens.  It is important to point out that after 1 year of experience you qualify to take the Technical Supervisor in Public Health Microbiology examination given by the American Board of Bioanalysis (ABB).  This is a certification that Emerging and Infectious Disease Post-Doctoral Fellows can obtain during the fellowship.  It is a broad examination that covers all aspects of microbiology (Bacteriology, Virology, Mycology, Parasitology, Environmental microbiology, molecular biology, epidemiology in the community, immunology of infectious diseases, and quality control/quality assurance).  This certification gives two benefits to the Post-Doctoral Fellow.  First, you leave the fellowship program with a certification to help you get a laboratory supervisory position at a public health laboratory.  Second, this is one of the exams you must take to obtain director level certification.  With all professional examinations, there is an application fee, so you want to make sure you have one year of experience before you apply, or you’ll be faced with paying another fee for them to re-evaluate your application if you are denied.  I learned the hard way; by assuming that working for five years in a research lab on human specimens with immunological and molecular diagnostic techniques would make me eligible.  There is a fee to apply for the examination and also one to secure your seat for the examination, so you may want to make wise use of your professional funds provided through the fellowship program.
  2. Once you have passed the Public Health Microbiology exam, it gives you Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) certification to be a technical supervisor of a section in a clinical laboratory.  A technical supervisor is someone who is responsible for the technical and scientific oversight of a laboratory performing high complexity testing.  Depending on the state you work in there might be more state certifications to obtain.  This certification at least gives you a document to show future employers that you have the knowledge to supervise a section of a Public Health Laboratory.
  3. The minimum qualification to gain Director Level Certification require at least two years serving as a supervisor or manager over clinical diagnostic testing.  These two years can be served concurrently with the 4 years of diagnostic work with human specimens.
  4. Once you have met the qualifications of a Ph.D. in a Natural Science, 4 years of diagnostic experience with human specimens and 2 years as a supervisor over diagnostic testing with human specimens, then you can apply to take the General Knowledge examination to be a director of a High Complexity Laboratory Director (HCLD) through ABB.  HCLD certification requires passing one Technical Supervisor exam (e.g. Public Health Microbiology, Clinical Microbiology, Molecular Diagnostics, or Immunological Diagnostics) and the General Knowledge exam which covers federal rules governing diagnostic laboratories.
  5. However, if you would like to become a Bioanalyst Clinical Laboratory Director (BCLD), then you would need to pass a total of three Technical Supervisor examinations given by ABB (Public Health Microbiology / Microbiology, Diagnostic immunology, Molecular diagnostics, Clinical Chemistry, or Hematology), as well as, the General Knowledge exam.  This path may give you more flexibility to be employed as director of a large clinical or private laboratory if you choose to leave Public Health.  Also, there are a few states that require BCLD instead of HCLD to direct the State Public Health Laboratory.

So, there you go!  Luckily for me, I have had a great mentor who passed this information along.  Otherwise, I would have never known where to look or what to do in order to accomplish the goal of becoming a laboratory director.  I hope I have been helpful in relaying the information to you.  To find more up to date information please refer to the ABB website. Good Luck!


  • Many thanks for all those Important information.
    Iwant to know “how a foreign educated microbiologist can become a public health microbiologist in usa?
    What is the procedure to attain the Technical Supervisor exam for a green card holder but foreign educated Ph.D microbiologist?

  • Hello,

    Thank you for the advice.
    I have a PhD. in plant genetics and has been in biomedical research for over 20 year. Currently, I am working in a pharmacogenomics company, in a CAP certified doing human genetic testing for over a year ( it will be two years in Sept 2016). I am in the process of applying to Technical Supervisor exam. Somehow the reviewers have different opinions in if I am qualified for the exam for reasons I was not told. Now my application is sent to the 3rd reviewer. Do you have any idea why I am being questioned for the qualification of the exam? If the third reviewer does not quality me, I will miss the Oct exam since my case will be reviewed by the board, which does not have board meeting till Nov. Any suggestions as to what I am supposed to do? I am so ready to take the October exam.

    Thank you,

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