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 $112,260 per year. The field of physician assistants is growing rapidly, with an anticipated 31 percent growth between 2018 and 2028.

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.

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: $1940 per credit-hour

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: $754 per credit hour

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: $73,721 for the first year and $54,314 for the second

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 Years)

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

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-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 2019) classifies pathologists’ assistants as physician assistants. On average, the 120,090 physician assistants around the country earned $112,410 per year. Here were the percentiles:

  • 10th percentile: $72,720
  • 25th percentile: $92,800
  • 50th percentile (median): $112,260
  • 75th percentile: $130,530
  • 90th percentile: $157,120
Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson


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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