Ever wondered who interprets lab tests, such as tissue samples, to determine a patient’s health? Pathologists are medical doctors who specialize in the study of tissue, bodily fluids, organs, and blood to understand and diagnose disease and illness. They take samples and run diagnostic tests, working with a care team to develop treatment recommendations based on their findings. 

Pathologists are expert problem-solvers, who work with primary physicians to figure out what’s going with different patients. While they typically do not work directly with patients, they are an essential part of their care team.

Some pathologists may also conduct post-mortem tests, also known as autopsies, to understand the causes or causes of death. Others may research pharmaceutical drugs or work as a medical scientist to research disease. For example, pathologists may work with a private pharmaceutical company to conduct a study on the safety of a drug. Or, they work with private and public research centers to develop vaccines to combat the spread of certain viruses, such as the flu or COVID-19.

Pathologists typically hold a doctor of medicine degree (MD) and are licensed by the state where they work to practice medicine. In addition, they must also complete They must also be certified by the American Board of Pathology (ABP).

The need for pathologists is anticipated to grow faster than average. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2021) expects that openings for physicians and surgeons nationally will grow by 3 percent between 2020 and 2030—adding 24,800 new jobs. Pathologists are categorized under “physicians and surgeons, all other” in the BLS, which boasts a 5 percent projected growth during the same decade, adding 18,700 jobs. Please note that this category contains other types of doctors as well.

To learn more about what it takes to become a pathologist, check out the guide below. 

Pathologist Specializations & Degree Types

A pathologist is a specialty within medicine and requires substantial education. Those who are interested in becoming a pathologist must complete an undergraduate degree in pre-medicine, biology, or chemistry. Then, they must complete a medical degree and residency in a graduate training program for pathology or any sub-specialties accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME). 

Medical degrees take four years to complete, while residency typically takes three to seven years, particularly if a student opts to complete a fellowship. Students who choose to take a fellowship after residency may take an additional one to three years before getting licensed to practice medicine and sitting for their board exams. 

According to the ABP, sub-specialties include:

  • Combined Anatomic Pathology and Clinical Pathology (AP/CP)
  • Combined Anatomic Pathology and Neuropathology (AP/NP)
  • Anatomic Pathology Only
  • Clinical Pathology Only
  • Blood Banking/Transfusion Medicine
  • Chemical Pathology
  • Clinical Informatics
  • Cytopathology
  • Dermatopathology
  • Forensic Pathology
  • Hematopathology
  • Medical Microbiology
  • Molecular Genetic Pathology
  • Neuropathology
  • Pediatric Pathology

After completing residency, pathologists must obtain a license to practice medicine in the state they want to practice in. They must also sit for written and practical exams through the ABP. After passing their exams, pathologists must meet rigorous continuing education requirements to ensure they stay up-to-date on medical trends.  

Admissions Requirements for Pathology Programs

Admission requirements for medical school and residency programs are highly competitive and rigorous. Students should be prepared to commit substantial time to study and prepare to apply to medical degree programs. A number of students begin to prepare for a career in medicine as early as high school by excelling in biology and chemistry courses. Many prospective students major in pre-medicine, biology, human physiology, or chemistry during their bachelor’s degree so they can adequately prepare for a career as a pathologist. 

Prior to applying to medical school, students must get a competitive score on the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) and complete their undergraduate coursework with a high GPA. The average GPA for incoming medical students is 3.64 in science coursework, 3.79 GPA in non-science coursework, and 3.71 GPA overall. The average MCAT score for incoming medical students is between a score of 510 and 511. The highest possible score on the MCAT is 528. Admissions officers will also weigh other factors, such as work and volunteer experience. 

Pathologist Program Accreditation

Accreditation is the process of using peer review to evaluate the educational quality of an institution or program of study at a specific institution. This system does not rank programs against one another. Instead, accreditation examines whether a program has the curriculum, instruction, and practices to set up students for success as medical doctors. 

Accreditation is an important part of the medical profession. There are two accrediting bodies relevant for pathologists. The first is the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). The AAMC is recognized by the United States Department of Education as the accrediting body for all medical programs within the United States. The AAMC operates the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME), which sets accreditation standards for all medical colleges within the United States. 

Graduation from an AAMC/LCME-accredited program is required. Residency programs are accredited by ACGME. Completion of an ACGME-accredited graduate training program in pathology or a pathology subspecialty is required to take the ABP examination and receive certification.  

Medical programs with LCME accreditation have demonstrated that they meet professional standards and have adequately prepared students to enter the field.

On-Campus Pathology Degree Programs

Students interested in pursuing pathology have many options to choose from. Every medical school must meet the rigorous standards of the LCME. The curriculum varies by school and is based on the healthcare needs of the community where they are located and the mission of their school. All medical degree programs are intensive four-year graduate degrees that require in-person participation, as medicine is a highly hands-on profession. Each program has significant clinical observation and work requirements.

University of Washington – School of Medicine

Home to several of the most respected medical research clinics in the country, the University of Washington School of Medicine is a top-ranked medical degree program that prepares students for a successful career as a pathologist. Their unique approach to classroom instruction features a “flipped” classroom where students are taught clinical skills early on through immersive classroom, hospital, and outpatient settings. Notably, the University of Washington also offers an MD/PhD dual degree program for medical doctors who wish to work in a research setting.

The curriculum is broken into three phases: Foundations (years one and two), Patient Care (year three), and Explore and Focus (year four). Coursework in the first two years of the program includes pathology/histology, anatomy/imaging or human form and function, and pharmacology. 

In year three, students take on “clerkships” that total 42 weeks of clinical instruction. Students gain direct experience during their clerkships in surgery, family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics, physiatry, and obstetrics/gynecology. In their final year, students must take advanced clerkships in advanced patient care, emergency medicine, and neurology/neurosurgery. They also get to take a “transition to residency” course where students get to continue their education within their specialty areas.

Admission to the University of Washington is highly competitive and selective. Students must complete undergraduate pre-med coursework through a regionally accredited college or university in chemistry and biology, physics, and humanities. They must also take the MCAT and complete their primary application through the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS). Qualified applicants will be sent an invitation to complete a secondary application, where they must submit four personal essays (one personal statement and three supplemental essays), three letters of recommendation, application fees, and complete CASPer, an online interpersonal assessment test.

  • Location: Seattle, Washington
  • Accreditation: Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Four years
  • Estimated Tuition: $96,590 (year one), $114,740 (year two), $127,650 (year three), $127,005 (year four)

University of California, Los Angeles – David Geffen School of Medicine

Ranked as six in the nation for research and eleventh for primary care, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) David Geffen School of Medicine (DGSOM) has a top-notch medical program with clinic locations through the Los Angeles, California area. Students at UCLA will have the opportunity to work with one of the most diverse patient populations in the country and interact with patients from many different backgrounds and cultures. 

While DGSOM is currently redesigning its curriculum to emphasize immersive clinical experiences earlier on in the medical school program and to highlight a foundational approach, the existing program includes innovative coursework that prepares students for a public service-oriented approach to medicine. 

In their first two years, students take classes in foundations of medicine; cardiovascular, renal, and respiratory medicine; gastrointestinal, endocrine, and reproductive medicine; musculoskeletal medicine; and medical neurosciences. They also take special issue coursework in cancer prevention and survivorship, complementary and alternative medicine, cultural components of health and disease, gender-specific health, geriatrics, nutrition, and professionalism. 

In their third year, students take clerkships in ambulatory internal medicine, psychiatry/neurology, family medicine, systems-based healthcare, surgery, inpatient internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, longitudinal preceptorship, longitudinal radiology, and pediatrics. In their final year, students choose to focus on clinical experiences in a “college” that fits their specialty area. This may include working with underserved populations, anatomy, primary care, acute care, and more. 

Admissions requirements to UCLA are intensive and only top students are chosen. Students must complete undergraduate coursework through a regionally accredited college or university in physiology and biology; chemistry, biochemistry, and physical sciences; humanities; and math and statistics with a competitive GPA. They must also take the MCAT and complete their primary application through the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS). Qualified applicants will be sent an invitation to interview with the admissions committee. They must also submit multiple letters of recommendation, curriculum vitae, and an application fee.

  • Location: Los Angeles, California
  • Accreditation: Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Four years
  • Estimated Tuition: $45,306 annual tuition

Michigan State University – College of Human Medicine

With a focus on community-based education, the College of Human Medicine at Michigan State University provides students with comprehensive primary and specialty education through immersive experiences at their seven clinical campuses located through Michigan. As a result, students get to work with different populations and settings, including outpatient and hospitals, to gain a variety of experience that prepares them for their career in pathology.

The College of Medicine provides students with a “shared discovery” curriculum, which focuses on integrating the underlying necessary basic and disease sciences along with clinical experience throughout four years of the program. Coursework is designed to build upon and reinforce previously learned concepts. Notably, the College of Medicine provides a robust teacher-to-student ratio that emphasizes ongoing assessment through relationship-building, as opposed to tests. 

In this program, students are split into “academies” where they get greater one-on-one time with faculty to debrief clinical experiences, engage in small group learnings, conduct clinical demonstrations, teach core concepts, and observe students in clinical settings. Coursework includes diverse populations, evidence-based medicine, foundations of histology and pathology, clinical anatomy, medical humanities, frontiers of bioethics, and more.

As with many medical programs, admission to this program is highly competitive. Michigan State University offers two prerequisite coursework models for students. Generally, they must complete undergraduate coursework through a regionally accredited college or university in physiology and biology; chemistry, biochemistry, and physical sciences; humanities; and math and statistics with a competitive GPA. 

They must also take the MCAT and complete their primary application through the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS). Qualified applicants will be sent an invitation to apply through a secondary application. They must submit multiple letters of recommendation, curriculum vitae, consent for a criminal background check, and an application fee.

  • Location: Grand Rapids, Michigan
  • Accreditation: Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Four years
  • Estimated Tuition: $58,108 annual tuition

New York University – Grossman School of Medicine

The Grossman School of Medicine at New York University (NYU) is ranked fifth in the nation for research and is known for its groundbreaking tuition program. The Grossman School of Medicine provides all students offering full-tuition scholarships to all current and future matriculated students. Furthermore, their location in New York City provides a diverse patient population that is also located within the East River Biotechnology Corridor.  

The Grossman School of Medicine offers a unique curriculum called “Curriculum for the 21st Century”, or C21. Students have a number of options to customize their MD program. NYU provides an accelerated three-year MD track, dual MD/PhD programs for those who wish to pursue medical research, and dual MD/master’s programs for those who may want to simultaneously pursue an MBA or public policy graduate degree. 

Coursework emphasizes patient-centered and disease-focused learning that bridges basic science concepts learning with rich clinical experiences. Furthermore, NYU prioritizes diversity and health disparities as part of its curriculum, training future medical doctors to understand how history and policy impact health outcomes. Topics include DNA, organelles, and cells; living anatomy; pulmonary studies; and the nervous system. Students are able to take clerkships (clinical experiences) starting in their second year.

Admission to NYU is selective. Students must complete undergraduate coursework through a regionally accredited college or university in inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, and biochemistry; biology; physics; statistics; and English. They must also take the MCAT and complete their primary application through the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS). 

Qualified applicants will be sent an invitation for several “mini-interviews” with a small committee. Students must also provide two letters of evaluation (recommendation letters), application fees, and complete CASPer (an online interpersonal assessment test).

  • Location: New York, New York
  • Accreditation: Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Four years
  • Estimated Tuition: $58,226 annual tuition. However, full scholarships for tuition are available to all students, regardless of need, as long as they maintain satisfactory academic progress. 

Thomas Jefferson University – Sidney Kimmel Medical College 

Medical school graduates can complete their pathology residency at the Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University. As with all the medical residency programs, the pathology residency strives to train doctors who are leaders in their field as well as have a high degree of adaptability. Since medicine and pathology are ever-evolving fields, it is imperative that residents are lifelong learners who stay abreast of the latest research and developments. 

In addition to residencies, Thomas Jefferson also offers clinical fellowships for students who wish to continue their training. The fellowship emphasizes one-on-one interaction with faculty and an individualized learning plan so students can accomplish their educational goals. This program is incredibly flexible and fellows can pursue most areas of interest or investigation.  

  • Location: Philadelphia, PA 
  • Accreditation: Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Four years
  • Estimated Tuition: $60,314 annual tuition

Online or Hybrid Pathology Education Options

While there are no hybrid or fully online programs accredited by LCME, there are some programs that offer distance-based pathology education. These programs are in addition to pathology education through medical school or residency. They can be continuing education, a program before med school to help students determine if pathology is for them, or for allied health professionals who need pathology education. 

Johns Hopkins University – School of Medicine

While the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine is a traditional on-campus medical school program, they do offer several pathology courses through distance education. This affords students a high degree of flexibility on completing core coursework that is required for pathology training. The three courses currently offered virtually include equitable healthcare, virtual surgical pathology, and virtual blood bank and transfusion medicine. 

The virtual surgical pathology course was pioneered at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic as a way to allow pathology students to complete their education without having to enter into a classroom or operating room. Students must have already completed a preclinical curriculum in order to be eligible for this course. 

Each week, students will need to preview and sign out cases. In order to simulate a pathology residency experience, students are still required to attend pathology grand rounds, daily QA conferences, live sign-outs, and resident lectures through Zoom.   

  • Location: Baltimore, Maryland
  • Accreditation: Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Four years
  • Estimated Tuition: $58,000 annual tuition

University of Minnesota Medical School

The University of Minnesota Medical School offers allied health professionals who need or want education and training in pathology an opportunity to do so without having to attend medical school. Each spring and summer, they offer a three-credit online pathology course for non-MDs called ​​the Nature of Disease: Pathology for Allied Health Students. This course is marketed as a foundational course in pathology for those pursuing other allied health career degrees such as nursing, public health, medical laboratory science, pharmacy, occupational therapy, food science and nutrition, or physical therapy.

The online format of this class allows students to complete it on their own time. Students will study the mechanism of disease and will receive a foundation in pathobiology and medical terminology. Students don’t have to be enrolled at the University of Minnesota in order to take this class. 

  • Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • Accreditation: Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME)
  • Expected Time to Completion: One semester
  • Estimated Tuition: $2,301 per credit 

University of Massachusetts Lowell

In just one year, aspiring doctors, allied health professionals, or biomedical scientists can complete the online graduate certificate program in clinical pathology at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Although this isn’t a medical degree in pathology program, many students may choose to complete this certificate as a stepping stone to medical school or additional education. 

Through this program, students will gain theoretical and technical knowledge of human anatomy, genetics, immunology, hematology, microbiology, and other fields. They will also have a working knowledge of diagnosis, monitoring, and prevention of disease. 

To earn this certificate, students must complete four online classes. There is only one required class in clinical pathophysiology. Students can then select from a list of electives for their remaining three classes. There is a list of approved electives, but students can take related courses as long as the program coordinator has approved them. 

  • Location: Lowell, Massachusetts 
  • Accreditation: New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE)
  • Expected Time to Completion: One year
  • Estimated Tuition: $575 per credit 

Mayo Clinic School of Continuous Professional Development

Pathologists must complete continuing medical education in order to maintain their board certification. The Mayo Clinic School of Continuous Professional Development offers several online options, including conferences, podcasts, live courses, and online classes. These continuing education options vary in costs and duration, but all meet the requirements for ABP continuing education. 

One option pathologists can complete is the online course in myeloma and related diseases. This program is primarily targeted towards those working in oncology and pathology and gives students up-to-date options for myeloma diagnosis and disease management. Since this is a self-paced course, students can complete it on their own schedule, although it must be completed within four months. The cost for this program is $895 and awards students 13.25 continuing education hours. 

  • Location: Online
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education
  • Expected Time to Completion: Varies
  • Estimated Tuition: Varies

College of American Pathologists

The College of American Pathologists is a member-based physician organization for pathologists. They serve many purposes, including advocacy, improvement, and education of pathologists. To help pathologists with their education, they provide high-quality online continuing education coursework. These courses cover a variety of topics including anatomic, molecular, and clinical pathology. Classes vary in cost and length in order to accommodate the needs and schedules of pathologists. 

Courses pathologists can choose to complete include head and neck biopsy pathology, forensic pathology, hematopathology, ultrasound-guided fine-needle aspiration advanced practical pathology, and more. Joining the College of American Pathology is not necessary to complete these courses, although it can provide several benefits, including reduced tuition. 

  • Location: Online
  • Accreditation: Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education
  • Expected Time to Completion: Varies
  • Estimated Tuition: Varies

How Long Does it Take to Become a Pathologist?

Not including completion of a four-year undergraduate degree, it takes roughly seven to eleven years to become a pathologist. A medical degree takes four years to complete. During medical school, students also take the USMLE exam and apply to residency programs in their final year. Residency programs take roughly three to four years to complete, although some programs may take longer. 

Those interested in a subspecialty area of pathology or who choose to take on a fellowship program after residency should anticipate taking an additional one to three years before sitting for their ABP certification exams.

How To Become a Pathologist – Step-by-Step Guide

Step One: Complete Undergraduate Degree (Four Years)

After graduating from high school, prospective medical students will need to earn a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college or university. While students are not required to get a degree in a certain major, most medical schools require prerequisite coursework in science, math, and humanities. 

Step Two: Take MCAT (Six Months)

Study for the MCAT. Be prepared for rigorous, intensive study to have a competitive application for medical school.

Step Three: Apply to an Accredited Medical School (Six Months)

After completing undergraduate coursework with a high GPA and getting a competitive score on the MCAT, apply for accredited medical schools. Medical schools use a common application, the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS). Some schools may require students to interview with a committee or submit a secondary application. They must also submit multiple letters of recommendation, curriculum vitae, and an application fee.

Step Four: Complete Medical School and the USMLE Exam (Four Years)

A medical degree is a four-year program. The first two years of schooling consist of on-campus classroom and clinical experience, where students take coursework that includes anatomy, biochemistry, medical ethics, pharmacology, and pathology. The final two years included clinical supervision under physicians. 

During medical school and prior to beginning residency, students must pass the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE). The first two parts are completed during school, while the final part is completed after obtaining a medical degree.

Step Five: Apply to and Complete an Accredited Residency Program in Pathology (Three to Four Years)

Pathologists must complete an ACGME-accredited program in pathology or a pathology subspecialty. Residency programs receive hands-on, highly specialized training at a hospital or clinic. These programs take three to four years to complete depending on the specialty.

Step Six: Apply and Attend a Fellowship Program (Optional, One to Three Years)

Some students choose to apply to and attend a fellowship program after completion of a residency program. These programs provide additional study in a specialty or subspecialty. 

Step Seven: Sit for Board Certifications (Six Months)

After residency, prospective pathologists will need to pass written and practical ABP exams. Those interested in a subspeciality of pathology may need to pass additional examinations.

Step Eight: Obtain State Licensure and Complete Continuing Education Requirements (Ongoing)

Congratulations! You are now able to practice pathology (well, almost). Pathologists must apply for a medical license for the state where they are interested in practicing. Last, make sure you maintain your pathology and MD licensure by meeting all continuing education requirements. 

What Do Pathologists Do?

There’s a lot of variation in what pathologists do every day. While pathologists don’t typically see patients, they work in a variety of different settings. Many pathologists work in a clinical setting, where they help diagnose illness and injuries. Some may work for pharmaceutical manufacturers or in research. 

However, pathologists can generally expect the following job duties:

  • Go over referrals, notes, and medical history provided by patients’ care teams. This could include information provided by surgeons, primary care physicians, and more.
  • Supervise or perform tests to take tissue, organ, fluid, or blood samples. Based on findings, work with patients’ care team to diagnose and provide treatment and recommendations.
  • Examine biopsies and samples to understand and diagnose the cause of illness or infection. They may also test to see if tissue is benign or cancerous, and conduct genetic testing.
  • Perform autopsies to understand the cause of death, as well as the genetic progression of a disease or illness. This can help researchers and families take preventive action or develop treatment. 
  • Monitor patient progress and update care plans as needed.
  • Conduct research through clinical trials to understand the impacts of certain treatments, including pharmaceutical drugs on an illness or injury. 

Pathologist Certifications & Licensure

Pathologists must be certified by the American Board of Pathology (ABP) to practice. They must also be licensed as a medical doctor in the state where they wish to practice medicine. 

To obtain ABP certifications, prospective pathologists must sit for written and practical exams after completing their medical degree, passing the USMLE, and completing residency. If they wish to practice a subspecialty area, they will also need to prepare for additional examinations. 

States require pathologists to complete their medical degree, pass the USMLE, complete residency, and pass all board certification requirements prior to getting licensure.

How Much Do Pathologists Make?

As mentioned in the introduction, pathologists are categorized under “physicians and surgeons, all other” in the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). 

According to the BLS (May 2020), there were 375,390 of these “other” physicians nationally, with an average annual salary of $218,850. They had the following salary percentiles:

  • 10th percentile: $61,380
  • 25th percentile: $126,470
  • 50th percentile (median): (Not available)
  • 75th percentile: (Not available)
  • 90th percentile: (Not available)

Please note that the final three percentiles are unavailable because they exceed $208,000.

Pathologist Career Alternatives

Here are a few alternatives to a career as a pathologist. 

Become a Pathologists’ Assistant

Pathologists’ assistants perform many of the same duties as pathologists. However, they work under the supervision of a pathologist and have completed pathology assistant school rather than a four-year medical degree and residency. They are highly valued physician extenders and work in labs, morgues, and medical teaching facilities. 

  • Typical Education: Master’s of science in pathologists’ assistant (PAA)
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP)

Become a Dermatologist

Doctors who specialize in treating medical conditions related to hair, skin, and nails are called dermatologists. Like pathologists, they have completed medical school and residency, just in a different specialty. Dermatologists work in a variety of settings including hospitals, clinics, outpatient surgical centers, and medical schools. 

  • Typical Education: Doctors of osteopathic medicine (DO) or doctors of medicine (MD) 
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Board of Dermatology

Become a Medicolegal Death Investigator

Deaths due to an unknown cause must be analyzed by a medicolegal death investigator. These highly trained professionals can be called to a crime scene to investigate a death or can work in a lab or morgue. They often are the person who decides if a criminal investigator into the death should be pursued or not. A combination of training in law enforcement and medicine is essential. 

  • Typical Education: Master’s degree
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators (ABMI)
Bree Nicolello

Bree Nicolello


Bree is an urban planner and freelance writer based in Seattle, WA. She has worked on land use and housing policy issues throughout the Pacific Northwest. She previously led Run Oregon Run, a nonprofit dedicated to helping Oregonians run for office and apply to boards and commissions. When not writing, she is lovingly tending to her cast iron pans.

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