Pathologists’ Assistant

A growing number of healthcare professionals are considered “physician extenders.” These highly trained allied health professionals work with the guidance of licensed physicians to provide essential services and care. Careers in this category include physician assistants, nurse practitioners, and pathologists’ assistants. 

Pathologists’ assistants work in hospitals, private pathology labs, morgues, and medical teaching facilities under the supervision of pathologists. They are responsible for many of the day-to-day tasks including gross (initial) examinations, preparing specimens for testing, collecting samples, photographing specimens, and completing post mortem examinations. Pathologists’ assistants also train other laboratory staff, participate in teaching students, and engage in administrative tasks. They are essential to a smooth-running pathology lab.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, pathologists’ assistants are classified as “physician assistants,” who earn an average of $115,390 per year. The field of physician assistants is growing rapidly, with an anticipated 31 percent growth between 2019 and 2029. 

Continue reading to learn more about pathologists’ assistants, what education is required, common certifications earned, and top programs in the field.

Pathologists’ Assistant Specializations & Degree Types

There are several degrees pathologists’ assistants can earn. The most common is a master of science in pathologists’ assistant (PAA), although some at some school students earn a master’s degree in health sciences with a pathologists’ assistant specialization.

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Admissions Requirements for Pathologists’ Assistant Programs

As there are only a few pathologists’ assistant programs in the US, admission is very competitive. Applicants must have already completed a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution, as well as meet course prerequisites in math, biology, chemistry, anatomy and physiology, and English. Many programs also require GRE scores, minimum GPAs, letters of recommendation, and in-person interviews. Applicants may be required to attend information sessions prior to submitting an application. 

Pathologists’ Assistant Program Accreditation

The National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS) is the main accrediting body for pathologists’ assistant programs. Students should ensure that the program they attend is accredited, as that ensures that their education meets minimum standards of quality and content. Attending an-NAACLS accredited program is a requirement for an American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) certification.

On-Campus Pathologists’ Assistant Degree Programs

West Virginia University – School of Medicine

West Virginia University’s School of Medicine offers a master’s degree in health science (MHS) pathologists’ assistant degree. This is a full-time two-year program. The first year entails intensive classroom coursework in anatomy and physiology, pathology, autopsy techniques, and grossing methodology. During the second year, students engage in clinical rotations in a variety of settings. Graduates of this program are eligible to sit for the ASCP exam. 

Graduates of the MHS program will have the necessary skills to perform post-mortem examinations, complete reports, train additional lab personnel, photograph specimens, and participate in research. 

Required coursework includes an introduction to disease mechanisms, clinical pathology, autopsy and surgical techniques, and advanced microanatomy. Students do not need a GRE score to be admitted to this program, but they will need to complete a surgical lab shadowing experience and be able to articulate what a typical pathologist’s day entails during the admissions interview.  

  • Location: Morgantown, WV
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Science (NAACLS)
  • Tuition: $1,380 per credit

Duke University – School of Medicine

The Duke University School of Medicine awards a master of health science (MHS) degree and a professional certificate as a pathologists’ assistant. The goal of this program is to train allied health professionals who can provide surgical pathology and autopsy pathology services under the supervision of a board-certified pathologist. This program is only offered once a year and starts in August. Since 2014, the program has had a 100 percent graduation rate and a 100 percent job placement rate within six months of graduation. 

Required coursework during the first year of this program includes gross and microscopic human anatomy, microbiology, immunology, and pathology. The second year of the program is a chance for students to gain hands-on experience through clinical rotations in a variety of settings. 

Admission requirements are very high, and students must complete prerequisite courses, provide GRE scores, complete ten hours of anatomic pathology shadowing, and submit three letters of recommendation. 

  • Location: Durham, NC
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Science (NAACLS)
  • Tuition: $28,334 per year

Loma Linda University – School of Medicine

Students who graduate from the Loma Linda University School of Medicine’s pathologists’ assistant program have all the necessary skills to work in surgical pathology or autopsy. Loma Linda also ensures students are well rounded and have learned core values such as compassion, integrity, and humility. This program can be completed in two years and boasts a 100 percent ASCP National Certification Examination pass rate for the class of 2017.

The first year of studies in this program is predominantly classroom work completing courses such as disease mechanisms, basic pathologic microanatomy, and clinical ethics. The second year of the program is practicums and review courses where students hone their autopsy and pathology skills. Applicants for admission do not need GRE scores but will be required to interview. Prospective students also must complete a surgical shadowing experience and write an essay about it. 

  • Location: Loma Linda, CA
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Science (NAACLS)
  • Tuition: $96,864 for the entire program

Wayne State University – Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences

At Wayne State, students can earn a master’s of science in pathologists’ assistant (PAA) degree. This two-year program teaches students the necessary skills to excel at surgical and autopsy pathology, in addition to being trained to teach, manage budgets, and provide lab supervision. Graduates of this program have a 100 percent employment rate within six months of graduation.  

During the first year of the two-year program, students are required to take courses such as human embryology and pediatric pathology, clinical methodologies, histochemistry, and future trends in pathology.  

Students will need to complete prerequisite coursework prior to applying for admission. All courses must be completed in the six years prior to applying. Other admission requirements include shadowing experience, a 3.0 undergraduate GPA, attend an in-person information session on the program, provide letters of recommendation, and complete an interview with the admissions committee. 

  • Location: Detroit, MI
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Science (NAACLS)
  • Tuition: $128,035.80 for the entire program

Tulane University School of Medicine

The full-time pathologists’ assistant program at Tulane University School of Medicine only accepts nine to 11 students each year. Students who complete this program will earn a master’s of science in anatomic pathology. While the program does have a core required component, there are ample opportunities for elective courses so students can pursue their personal career goals. 

Courses are both didactic and clinical in order to provide students with the necessary education and skills to enter this career. The second year of the program is entirely clinical rotations. Extensive rotations allow students the opportunity to develop their abilities in a variety of settings. The rotations happen at clinical sites across the country so students may be required to travel. There are even specialized rotations in cancer research for students who want to pursue that field. Teaching practicums are also available for students who want to pursue education. 

  • Location: New Orleans, LA
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Science (NAACLS)
  • Tuition: $40,000 per academic year

Quinnipiac University School of Health Sciences

Ninety-nine percent of graduates of the master of health science pathologists’ assistant program at Quinnipiac University School of Health Sciences have work in their field within six months of completing their degree. This program has a unique emphasis on both knowledge and technical skills, including microscope use, biomedical, imaging, tumor triage, and frozen sections. In 2019 100 percent of students passed their licensing exam on the first try. 

The first year of this program consists of classroom and lab coursework where students learn everything they need to know to become pathologists’ assistants. The second year of the program consists of clinical rotations where students apply what they have learned. Training in this program covers both surgical and autopsy pathology, so graduates have a choice as to which field they enter. 

  • Location: Hamden, CT
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Science (NAACLS)
  • Tuition: $1,085 per credit 

Drexel University College of Medicine

Drexel University College of Medicine offers a rigorous two-year master’s of science in pathologists’ assistant degree. After completing a year of intensive studies, students embark on a year of clinical rotations where they put their knowledge to work in pathology labs. This program is ideal for students who have already completed an undergraduate degree in physical science, such as biology or microbiology. This program can also be a great fit for allied health professionals who already work in pathology such as histotechnologists, cytotechnologists, or clinical laboratory technologists. 

Graduates of this program go on to work in medical examiner offices, private pathology labs, medical research centers, and university hospitals. Admission requirements include already holding a bachelor’s degree, prerequisite coursework, at least a 3.0 GPA, and GRE test scores above the 50th percentile. 

  • Location: Philadelphia, PA
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Science (NAACLS)
  • Tuition: $9,607 per semester for tuition

University of Maryland School of Medicine

Upon completing the master’s of science in pathologists’ assistant program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, students are eligible to sit for the ASCP certification exam.  This NAACLS accredited program combines one year of classroom learning with a year of clinical rotations, in order to meet the requirements to sit for the exam. Currently, this program has a 97 percent pass rate for the ASCP exam. 

In total, students will complete 38 semester-credits in order to earn this degree. Courses encompass six semesters over two years and include summer classes. Required classes include clinical pathology and microbiology, cell and systems physiology, laboratory management, and surgical pathology. 

  • Location: Baltimore, MA
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Science (NAACLS)
  • Tuition: $1,305.70 per credit 

Eastern Virginia Medical School

The master’s in health science pathologists’ assistant program at Eastern Virginia Medical School is the only program of its kind in the state. This program is specifically designed to help meet the shortage of pathologists in the US by graduating competent pathologists’ assistants who can work as physician extenders. Graduates of this program can work either in surgical pathology or in autopsy pathology. 

In addition to completing the master’s degree, students in this program will also earn certification in pathology informatics and lab management. These additional certifications can help increase employability, as they demonstrate that students have attained skills crucial to a well-running pathology lab.  

  • Location: Norfolk, VA
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Science (NAACLS)
  • Tuition: $27,166 per year

University of Toledo College of Graduate Studies

One of the shorter pathologists’ assistant master’s programs is found at the  University of Toledo College of Graduate Studies. This program can be completed in only 20 months, making it four months shorter than most other programs. This NAACLS program still meets all of the requirements to sit for the ASCP certification exam. The three areas of concentration in this program are forensics, hospital autopsies, and surgical pathology. 

Students complete their coursework at the University of Toledo’s Medical school and alongside physicians’ assistants. Classes are held in the classroom, anatomy labs, and the state-of-the-art innovative simulation center. One hundred percent of graduates have passed the ASCP exam on the first try. 

  • Location: Toledo, OH
  • Duration: 20 months
  • Accreditation: National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Science (NAACLS)
  • Tuition: $1,104.84 per credit 

Online or Hybrid Pathologists’ Assistant Degree Program

Due to the hands-on nature of pathologist assistant programs, there are no fully online or hybrid programs. All programs must be completed in-person and on campus, although there may be opportunities to complete some general education requirements at a distance.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Pathologists’ Assistant?

It takes roughly six years of education (after high school) to become a pathologists’ assistant. Four of those years are to earn a bachelor’s degree and two are to earn a master’s degree.

How To Become a Pathologists’ Assistant – Step-by-Step Guide

Step 1: Graduate from High School or Complete a GED (Four Years)

It is necessary to complete high school or obtain a GED in order to pursue a career as a pathologists’ assistant. Students should focus on classes such as biology, chemistry, and anatomy and physiology to help prepare them for further studies. 

If advanced placement (AP) classes are available, students should take advantage of them because they can boost one’s college application as well as provide college credit prior to completing high school. 

Step 2:  Obtain a Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years) 

A bachelor’s degree is required in order to be a pathologists’ assistant. While students may pursue any major they desire, there are prerequisite course requirements for admission to master’s programs. The most common majors for this field are biology, chemistry, pre-medicine, or health sciences. Most graduate programs also require applicants to shadow a pathologist or observe an autopsy. As many of the master’s degree programs are very competitive, it is important for students to earn good grades and maintain at least a 3.0 GPA.  

Step 3: Complete a Graduate Degree (Two Year)

Prospective pathologists’ assistants must complete a master’s degree in pathologist assistant or a master’s of health sciences with an emphasis in pathologist assistant. 

Currently, there are only 12 programs in the US and Canada that offer this degree program. Cohorts in these programs are generally very small with only six to 14 students in an average group. Typically, the first year of studies is lecture- and lab-intensive where students learn the necessary skills to practice in this field. The second year consists of clinical rotations where students gain hands-on experience working in pathology and autopsy labs. 

Students should ensure they attend a NAACLS-accredited program as it is required in order to obtain certification.

Step 4: Obtain ASCP Certification (Timelines Vary)

Upon graduation from an NAACLS-accredited program, graduates may sit for the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) pathologists’ assistant exam. This 100-question two-and-a-half-hour exam covers all aspects of pathology including fundamentals, anatomy, autopsy, and lab operations. This exam costs $350 and is administered year-round at testing centers across the US. 

Step 5: Obtain State Licensing if Required (Timelines Vary)

Most states do not require pathologists’ assistants to be licensed. However, there are several states that require clinical laboratory personnel to be licensed and pathologists’ assistants may fall under that category. 

Requirements vary by state, so prospective pathologists’ assistants should check with their local board to ensure they meet all the requirements.

What Do Pathologists’ Assistants Do?

Pathologists’ assistants primarily work in public or private hospitals, although some may be employed in labs, morgues, or in medical teaching facilities. Typical day to day duties include:

  • Performing gross (initial) examinations of specimens 
  • Completing a full post mortem examination
  • Preparing tissues for triage or other tests
  • Photographing specimens 
  • Participating in research
  • Collecting samples for analysis
  • Maintaining careful records
  • Assisting with administrative tasks such as budgeting, staff scheduling, teaching, or supervising other staff

Pathologists’ Assistant Certifications & Licensure

Certification for pathologists’ assistants is an industry-standard and required for most jobs. 

Pathologists’ assistants are certified through the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP). Candidates for certification must have graduated from an NAACLS-accredited program and pass the pathologists’ assistant ASCP exam. Once issued, certificates are valid for three years. To renew, pathologists’ assistants must earn 45 “Credential Maintenance Program” points, complete a renewal application, and pay a $95 renewal fee. 

As mentioned above, specific licensing for pathologists’ assistants is required in a few states. However, there are several states that require clinical laboratory personnel to be licensed, and often pathologists’ assistants can fall under that designation. Prospective professionals in this field should check with their local licensing boards to learn more about licensing requirements. 

How Much Do Pathologists’ Assistants Make?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2020) classifies pathologists’ assistants as physician assistants. On average, the 125,280 physician assistants around the country earned $116,080 per year. Here were the percentiles:

  • 10th percentile: $76,700
  • 25th percentile: $95,730
  • 50th percentile (median): $115,390
  • 75th percentile: $135,220
  • 90th percentile: $162,470

Pathologists’ Assistants Career Alternatives

Here are few alternatives to a career as a pathologists’ assistant. 

Become a Medicolegal Death Investigator

Medicolegal death investigators are medical professionals who are called to the scene of a death in order to determine the cause of death. They are responsible for removing and releasing the body, completing a thorough investigation, and writing a report detailing why the death occurred. Often, medicolegal death investigators work closely with the coroner or medical examiner. 

  • Typical Education: Associate or Bachelor’s
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators (ABMI)

Become a Registered Nurse

According to a 2018 Gallup Poll, most trusted medical care professionals are registered nurses. Nurses provide care to patients under the direction and supervision of a physician. There are over three million nurses working in the US in a variety of settings, including hospitals, physicians’ offices, outpatient clinics, government agencies, long-term care facilities, and schools. 

  • Typical Education: Associate or Bachelor’s degree
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization:  National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN)

Become a Physician’s Assistant

Physicians’ assistants perform many of the basic tasks physicians can in evaluating and caring for patients. They can perform exams, diagnose illnesses, order laboratory tests, and even prescribe medication. They require less schooling than physicians and can enter the workforce with approximately ten years of education post-high school.  

  • Typical Education: Master’s degree
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA).
Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson

Writer

Kimmy is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about healthcare careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.

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