Pathologist

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 autospies, 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) expects that openings for physicians and surgeons nationally will grow by 7 percent between 2018 and 2028—adding 55,400 new jobs. Pathologists are categorized under “physicians and surgeons, all other” in the BLS, which boasts an 8 percent projected growth during the same decade, adding 33,700 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-specialities 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 APB, sub-specialities 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 studying and preparing 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 a 3.64 in science coursework, a 3.79 GPA in non-science coursework, and a 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 a 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 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. Curriculum varies by school and are 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.

Please note that there are no hybrid or fully online programs accredited by LCME, although some coursework may have distance-based components.

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 a 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: $65,501 (year one), $76,350 (year two), $85,459 (year three), $88,234 (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 their curriculum over the course of 2020 to emphasize immersive clinical experiences earlier on in their medical school program, as well as emphasize a foundational approach, their 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: $ 54,511 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 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: $88,930 (year one), $91,374 (year two), $92,091 (year three), $87,249 (year four)

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 their 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 a 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 their curriculum, training future medical doctors to understand how history and policy impacts 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: $57,476 annual tuition

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 a 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 everyday. 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, as well as conduct genetic testing.
  • Perform autopsies to understand cause of death, as well as 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 impacts of certain treatment, 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 subspeciality 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 2019), there were 390,680 of these “other” physicians nationally, with an average annual salary of $203,450. They had the following salary percentiles:

  • 10th percentile: $60,910
  • 25th percentile: $112,210
  • 50th percentile (median): $206,500
  • 75th percentile: (Not available)
  • 90th percentile: (Not available)

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

Bree Nicolello

Bree Nicolello

Writer

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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