How to Become a Pathologist

Is a Career in Pathology Right for You?

pathologist pipetting liquid in test tube
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Many people's introduction to the career of a pathologist is through a true-crime TV show or crime drama. That's because many pathologists work as coroners or medical examiners—remember Quincy from the same-named television show of the 1970s? But that perception isn't correct: Not all pathologists work as coroners or medical examiners, and all coroners and medical examiners aren't trained as pathologists.

One thing that is true of all pathologists: They're medical doctors. In addition to completing a medical degree from an accredited medical school, pathologists also do a four- to five-year residency program. In 2011, there were 145 accredited pathology residency training programs nationwide. According to one 2011 survey, 87 percent of residents go on to pursue even more training by applying for a fellowship. All said, becoming a pathologist entails one of the lengthiest education and training tracks of all medical professions. 

What Pathologists Do

Pathology includes the examination and analysis of human tissue, bone, and bodily fluids for abnormalities, or evidence of disease or infection. The field is critical to the accurate diagnosis of patients in a clinical setting, as well as to determine the cause of death of the deceased.

The job description depends on the type of pathologist you become. There are three general types:

•Forensic pathologists: They specialize in performing autopsies of crime victims and gathering evidence to solve crimes.

•Anatomical pathologists: In addition to performing autopsies, they analyze organs and tissue to determine if they're diseased, cancerous (malignant), or benign.

•Clinical pathologists: They perform testing of blood, urine, and other bodily fluids, as well as microscopic evaluation of individual cells.

Job Opportunities and Salary

If you're considering a career in pathology, the job market is excellent: Beginning in 2015, there will be a shortage of pathologists for the next two decades.

The average base compensation for a pathologist is $257,850 a year. But salaries depend on experience: The base salary for a pathologist with up to 10 years of experience is $201,775. The base salary jumps to $260,199 for those with 11 to 20 years of experience, and to $279,011 for those with 21 to 30 years of experience.

Coroner Versus Medical Examiner

Forensic pathologists who are employed by a state or county government are known as coroners or medical examiners. The two roles are very similar but not identical. Medical examiners are required to be physicians and are appointed to their position, whereas coroners are elected officials and aren't required to be a physician to fill the role. In that case, the coroner wouldn't be as involved in the science and forensics of a death as a medical examiner would be.

Careers Related to Pathologists

If you're interested in pathology but aren't able to obtain a medical degree and become a physician, there are several other related careers that don't require a doctorate-level degree. Some potential options are:

Forensic nursing: This specialty applies the science and art of nursing to criminal and civil investigations and legal matters.

•Pathologist's assistant: P.A.s perform a variety of tasks including dissection and preparation of specimens, obtaining clinical histories, and preparing tissue for processing.

Cytotechnologist: This medical technician is trained in the identification of cells and cellular abnormalities, such as in cancer.

Should You Pursue a Career in Pathology? 

The field of pathology is wide-ranging, with a number of subspecialties, and there are many opportunities for people who are detail-oriented, science-loving, methodical, and analytical. However, if you're seeking a healthcare-related career that entails a great deal of patient interaction, pathology probably isn't a good fit for you. Especially if you're a forensic pathologist, most of your "patients" will be deceased. Even for pathologists who analyze tissue and cells of live patients, there's not a great deal of patient interaction. Clinical and surgical pathologists would more likely be consulting with other physicians than interfacing directly with patients.

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Article Sources
  • Intersociety Council for Pathology Information. Career Opportunities in Pathology.