Careers in sleep
Just as the sleep industry has grown, so have the careers to support it. Raising awareness and interest in how sleep affects our health has led to the establishment of many university-run sleep laboratories, such as those at University of Pennsylvania, Duke University, and Harvard University. Harvard University alone receives over $20 million per year for sleep research.
There is even a bachelor’s degree dedicated to sleep at the University of North Carolina. The UNC Neurodiagnostics and Sleep Science (NDSS) bachelor degree program congratulated its first graduates in 2013.
Health-related careers are growing across the country. Here’s a look at which states claim the highest numbers of healthcare employment. As you apply to colleges and internships, you may choose to focus your efforts in these states.
Below we review the most common career paths in the following sleep-related fields:
- Sleep science
- Sleep technology
- Dental sleep medicine
- Sleep products
What do sleep scientists do?
Sleep scientists are scientists who work on the latest in sleep research. They may work in a lab, a hospital, or an university. They study animals and humans to learn more about how and why we sleep, how we can sleep better, and how sleep affects our health and wellbeing. The work of sleep scientists often results in new treatments for sleep disorders.
Sleep scientists have their pick of scientific fields to study in college, including biochemistry, biology, endocrinology, epidemiology, genetics, neuroscience, pharmacology, physiology, and psychology. After they receive their bachelor’s degree, they’ll continue on to their doctorate degree and undergo a postdoctoral fellowship.
The professional organization for sleep scientists is the Sleep Research Society.
What do sleep specialists do?
Sleep specialists are doctors who are board-certified in sleep medicine. Sleep specialists often come from one of these medical fields: anesthesiology, family medicine, internal medicine, pulmonary medicine, otolaryngology, pediatrics, psychiatry or neurology.
Sleep specialists often work in a university- or hospital-based sleep center treating sleep disorders, although they may choose to have a private practice. They work with EEG equipment and diagnose sleep issues using polysomnography or Multiple Sleep Latency Tests. Like sleep scientists, they may also work as professors at a university.
After receiving their bachelor’s degree, sleep specialists go to get a MD or DO medical degree, followed by a residency and sleep medicine fellowship.
A sleep specialist’s salary depends on their tenure and where they work (in their own sleep center, an independent lab, or a hospital-based lab).
The professional organization for sleep specialists is the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
Sleep respiratory therapist
- Average annual salary: $58,670-$60,000 (Sleep Review, 2015, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016)
- Education required: Associate’s degree
- Projected job growth outlook: Above average (12%) growth over the next decade (All respiratory therapists, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014)
- Number of people employed: 120,700 (All respiratory therapists, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2014)
What do sleep respiratory therapists do?
Sleep respiratory therapists work with patients who have breathing problems that interfere with sleep, such as snoring and obstructive sleep apnea.
Many sleep respiratory therapists work in hospitals or sleep labs, helping patients understand how to properly use CPAP therapy. They are trained to provide emergency care as well as consultations.
After acquiring an Associate’s Degree, aspiring respiratory therapists may go on to get a Bachelor’s Degree in a health-related field. Regardless, they will need to get a Certified Respiratory therapist (CRT) or Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT) certification as well as a Sleep Disorders Specialist (SDS) certification.
The professional organization for sleep respiratory therapists is the National Board for Respiratory Care.
Sleep center managers/directors
- Average annual salary: $72,000-$82,350 (Sleep Review, 2015, Salary.com, 2017)
- Education required: Bachelor’s degree preferred
- Projected job growth outlook: Positive, given sustained growth of sleep clinics.
- Number of people employed: 100+ (Sleep Review, 2015)
What do sleep center managers do?
Sleep center managers and directors are certified as sleep technologists and manage operations at a sleep disorders center. They work under the medical director to ensure all patients are being evaluated and treated properly and that proper protocols are being followed by the sleep technologists and staff. They typically work during the daytime, hiring and managing staff, developing center policies and procedures, and overseeing billing and operations. They also provide career development and evaluations for staff and ensure the facility and staff maintain accreditation.
Associate’s degrees are required, although bachelor’s are preferred. Related certifications include Registered Sleep Technologist (RST), Registered Polysomnographic Technologist (RPSGT), Certificate in Clinical Sleep Health (CCSH), and Sleep Disorders Specialist (SDS).
The professional organization for sleep center managers is the American Association of Sleep Technologists.
Sleep health educator
What do sleep health educators do?
Sleep health educators primarily work in sleep disorders centers. They are fully knowledgeable on all aspects of sleep technology and any sleep disorders the center diagnoses and treats. They interface with patients to provide them with additional information on their disorder and assist them with treatment, including modifications as needed. They also communicate and work with the doctors and other staff.
While other sleep center roles are focused more on diagnosis and suggested treatment, the sleep health educator focuses on ensuring patient compliance with their treatment. This is a more tenured position that favors individuals with a bachelor’s degree and a Certification in Clinical Sleep Health (CCSH). Associate’s degrees are accepted, when combined with a Registered Sleep Technologist (RST), Registered Polysomnographic Technologist (RPSGT), or Sleep Disorders Specialist (CEDS) certification.
Sleep technologists/polysomnographic technologists
What do sleep technologists do?
Sleep technologists, also known as polysomnographic technologists, work in sleep labs at disorder centers. They operate the special equipment used during a sleep study, and monitor a patient’s vital signs such as their brain waves, heart activity, oxygen level, breathing, and eye and muscle movement. They typically work under the direction of a sleep specialist doctor. The technologist records all of the data for the doctor, who then interprets the results and issues a diagnosis for the patient.
Sleep technologists are trained in clinical protocols for Multiple Sleep Latency Tests, parasomnia exams, and polysomnography. Besides sleep studies, they help patients with obstructive sleep apnea learn how to use CPAP devices.
The majority of their work is done at night, with three or four shifts per week of ten or twelve hours each. As they become more tenured, they may get to work more daytime hours or become managers of the sleep center.
Polysomnographic technologists may supervise sleep technicians or sleep trainees, which describe training roles a person may undergo as they study to become certified as a full sleep technologist. Individuals may have six months of on the job training as a sleep trainee or have received a Certified Polysomnographic Technician (CPSGT) credential. Sleep trainees are typically currently undergoing certification or getting their associate’s degree.
After receiving their high school diploma or GED, sleep technologists graduate from an associate’s degree, CAAHEP, or A-STEP program.
- The Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) accredits over 2,100 education programs in 30 occupations, including polysomnographic technologists and neurodiagnostic technology. Certifications include Registered Sleep Technologist (RST), Registered Polysomnographic Technologist (RPSGT), and Sleep Disorders Specialists (SDS).
- The Accredited Sleep Technologist Education Program (A-STEP) was developed by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Aspiring sleep technologists undergo a 80-hour in-person course that includes hands-on training, followed by a three-hour online exam. Finally, individuals complete online self-study modules at their own pace while receiving 18 months of supervised on-the-job training at a sleep disorders center.
Industry experts expect the scope of skills required for sleep technologists to grow in coming years, perhaps due to pioneering programs like UNC’s new bachelor degree program for neurodiagnostics and sleep science. At the 2013 American Association of Sleep Technologists (AAST) Sleep Technology Summit, 83 percent of members agreed that “education requirements for sleep technologists will increase in the next 5-10 years.”
The professional organization for sleep technologists is the American Association of Sleep Technologists.
What do sleep neurologists do?
Neurologists specialize in treating damage to the brain, spinal cord, and nervous system and related disorders. Many people with neurological disabilities experience fragmented sleep and suffer from sleep disorders like insomnia, sleep apnea, and restless leg syndrome.
Sleep neurologists are trained in both sleep medicine and neurology. In addition to diagnosing sleep issues using EEG equipment, polysomnograms, and Multiple Sleep Latency Tests, they will also diagnose symptoms through psychological screenings and questionnaires like the Epworth Sleepiness Scale.
After receiving their bachelor’s degree in biology or another health-related field, neurologists attend medical school. Next, they complete an internship, residency, and fellowship. Finally, they become board-certified.
The professional organization for sleep neurologists is the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
What do neurodiagnostic technologists do?
Neurodiagnostic technologists work with sleep scientists, sleep specialists, and neurologists to monitor and collect data recordings of the nervous system. They administer electroencephalography, polysomnography, evoked potential, long term monitoring, and intraoperative neuromonitoring tests. They calibrate the equipment and apply electrodes to the patients, whom they monitor during the study to take notes that they’ll later share with the physician.
Neurodiagnostic technologists work in neurology departments at hospitals, or in clinics and private practices of neurologists and neurosurgeons. Typically they work a 40-hour week, with occasional 12-hour days to monitor sleep studies.
After graduating high school or passing their GED, sleep technologists undergo an associate’s degree program or get a CAAHEP with a focus on anatomy, physiology, and neuroanatomy.
Projected job growth for this field is positive, considering the increased use of EEG and EP recordings in surgery and in diagnosing epilepsy and sleep disorders.
The professional organization for neurodiagnostic technologists is ASET (American Society of Electroneurodiagnostic Technologists) – The Neurodiagnostic Society.
Behavioral sleep medicine specialist
What do behavioral sleep medicine specialists do?
The American Psychological Association began promoting this career in 2007, as many sleep disorders are triggered by or co-exist with psychological disorders like ADHD, depression, and schizophrenia. Behavioral sleep medicine specialists are trained in cognitive and behavioral therapies that help alleviate symptoms of insomnia, nightmares, and anxiety.
Cognitive therapy helps the patient reframe their emotions and thoughts surrounding sleep to reduce fears, anxiety, or racing thoughts. Behavioral therapies focus on changing the patient’s actions or habits that prevent them from sleeping well, such as drinking less alcohol or establishing a bedtime routine.
Behavioral sleep medicine specialists may work directly with patients in a sleep disorders center, advising on treatments. They can also teach as professors at universities, or perform research in a university or hospital.
After receiving their bachelor’s degree, behavioral sleep medicine specialists go on to get their doctorate degree as a PhD or PsyD and undergo a postdoctoral fellowship. Then they pass the American Board of SLeep Medicine exam to get certified.
The professional organization for behavioral sleep medicine specialists is the Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine.
Dental sleep medicine
Dental sleep medicine specialist
What do dental sleep medicine specialists do?
Many sleep disorders are directly related to the mouth, jaw and throat, such as sleep bruxism (teeth grinding during sleep), snoring, and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Dental sleep medicine specialists are dentists who help diagnose these individuals and help them find appropriate treatment.
While CPAP machines are the recommended treatment for sleep apnea, about half of patients won’t use them because they’re so uncomfortable. The oral appliances provided by dental sleep medicine specialists offer these individuals an alternative way to alleviate symptoms. These devices move the lower jaw and tongue forward, freeing up the airways and improving airflow. Dentists fit these to the patient’s mouth by taking a mold.
Oral and maxillofacial surgeons help individuals with severe OSA by performing tonsillectomies or reconstructive jaw or nose surgeries that free up the airways and reduce symptoms.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree, aspiring dental sleep medicine specialists go to dental school and get licensed in their state.
The professional organization for dental sleep medicine specialists is the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine.
What do dental technicians do?
Dental technicians work under the supervision of a dentist to construct, fit or repair oral appliances. They often work in laboratories to create appliances based off of models of the patient’s teeth.
After high school, aspiring dental technicians can get an Associate’s Degree in dental science or a related field. There is also a Certified Dental Technician (CDT) certification available which requires 5 years of on-the job training or graduation from an accredited program, followed by 3 exams.
If you’re interested in sleep, but don’t wish to pursue a career in healthcare or research, consider a job at a sleep products company. Positions are as multifaceted as at any other company, and include marketing, sales, human resources, accounting, operations, web development and design, and more. Bachelor’s degrees are preferred for all of these positions, with some additional certification required for human resources and accounting.