How to Become a Pathologist: A Comprehensive Guide

Updated on January 20, 2024

A pathologist is a medical doctor who diagnoses diseases by examining cells and tissues under a microscope. If you are fascinated by understanding what causes disease at the cellular level, becoming a pathologist may be a rewarding career path for you to consider. First and foremost, aspiring pathologists must complete an undergraduate degree, typically focusing on biology, chemistry, or pre-med. Subsequently, you must attend medical school and obtain an MD or DO. Afterward, you can apply for a pathology residency program, which generally takes three to four years to complete. During this extensive training, you will learn how to accurately perform lab tests and provide diagnoses by evaluating body fluids, tissues, and cells. With commitment and perseverance, you too can have a fulfilling career as a pathologist. The American Society for Clinical Pathology offers more details on the steps to become a pathologist.

What is a Pathologist?

A pathologist is a medical doctor who specializes in studying diseases and how they affect the human body. Pathologists focus on diagnosing diseases and other conditions through laboratory testing of body fluids and tissues.

Anatomic Pathologists

Anatomic pathologists diagnose disease mainly by examining tissues and cells under a microscope. For example, if a surgeon removes a tissue mass, an anatomic pathologist will examine the cells of that mass under a microscope to determine if the mass is benign or malignant. Common specimens anatomic pathologists evaluate include:

In addition to diagnosing disease, anatomic pathologists also provide guidance on selecting proper therapies and predicting how aggressive a disease might become.

Clinical Pathologists

Whereas anatomic pathologists examine actual tissue and cell samples, clinical pathologists analyze body fluids like blood. For example, a clinical pathologist will look at blood cells under a microscope or use molecular diagnostics to diagnose diseases like anemia, leukemia, or an infection. Some of the laboratory tests that clinical pathologists oversee include:

In summary, pathologists are medical detectives who diagnose diseases and guide treatment decisions. They serve a critical function within the healthcare system by unlocking valuable information from laboratory tests.

What do Pathologist Do?

Pathologists are medical doctors who diagnose diseases and study the causes and processes of diseases. They play a vital role in healthcare by helping determine the correct diagnosis and best treatment plan for patients. Here are some of the key things pathologists do:

Educational Requirements for Becoming a Pathologist

Postgraduate Training

Becoming a pathologist requires significant postgraduate training. After completing medical school and obtaining an M.D. or D.O., aspiring pathologists must complete the following:

Skills and Qualities of a Successful Pathologist

Becoming a successful pathologist requires developing a specific skillset and embodying certain qualities that are essential for this medical specialty.

Skills

Foremost, pathologists must have exceptional attention to detail and powers of observation. They analyze tissue samples, blood work, and other tests on a microscopic level to identify abnormalities and disease processes. Mastery of microscopy and interpreting subtle changes in cells and tissues is critical.

Additionally, pathologists must excel at critical thinking and investigative skills. They must know which tests to order and how to put together clues to determine causes of disease. Problem-solving skills enable them to get to the bottom of puzzling symptoms or test results.

Other important skills include:

Qualities

The best pathologists also embody some vital qualities and characteristics. These include:

With the right blend of scientific skills and personal qualities, pathologists can find great success and make a difference through accurate diagnoses and disease detection. The rewarding career allows for continuous learning and advancing medicine through research or academia as well.

Pathologist Salary

When considering a career as a pathologist, most prospective pathologists want to know about the earning potential. Pathology is a relatively lucrative medical specialty, offering competitive salaries.

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average annual salary for pathologists in the United States is $216,090 per year or $103.94 per hour. However, salaries can vary considerably based on factors like geographic location, work setting, years of experience, and subspecialty.

For example, the BLS breaks down average pathologist salaries by work setting as follows:

Salaries also tend to correlate with years of experience, as shown in this table:

Years ExperienceAverage Salary
Less than 1 year$105,000
1-4 years$192,000
5-9 years$198,000
10-19 years$230,000
20+ years$279,000

As you can see, the average pathologist just entering the field can expect to earn around $105,000 per year. However, with every few years added of experience, salaries make significant jumps. After about 10 years in practice, six-figure salaries become commonplace for pathologists.

For pathologists who want to boost earnings, obtaining subspecialty expertise and certification can also lead to higher wages. Some of the most lucrative pathology subspecialties include neuropathology, dermatopathology, and cytopathology. Board certified subspecialists typically report earning anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000+ more per year compared to general pathologists depending on their niche.

Career Opportunities and Advancement

Pathology is a growing and dynamic field with excellent career opportunities for those willing to undertake the required training. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of pathologists is projected to grow 7 percent from 2020 to 2030, faster than the average across all occupations. This growth will lead to an estimated 2,500 additional jobs for pathologists in the coming years.

After completing medical school and a pathology residency program, there are several potential career paths a pathologist can pursue. Many pathologists choose to work in hospital laboratories where they analyze tissue samples and bodily fluids to help diagnose diseases. With experience, they may advance to serve as the chief pathologist or lab director. Besides hospitals, pathologists are also employed in group physician practices, government agencies, pharmaceutical companies, and universities.

Some pathologists pursue subspecialty fellowship training beyond the base residency. Examples of subspecialties include forensic pathology, neuropathology, dermatopathology, and hematopathology. These subspecialists are able to command higher salaries and leadership roles in their niche area of expertise. Forensic pathologists, for instance, typically serve as appointed or elected county medical examiners. Neuropathologists often direct specialized laboratories dedicated to the study of diseases of the nervous system.

For pathologists seeking to advance into administrative roles, optional fellowship training in pathology informatics can equip them to effectively manage laboratory technology systems. With strong leadership abilities and business acumen, some pathologists establish their own private histology or testing laboratories. Overall, the field offers bright, motivated pathologists diverse career possibilities along with lucrative salaries well above the average for physicians.

Conclusion

In summary, becoming a pathologist requires dedication and many years of education and training. The road starts with obtaining a bachelor’s degree in a scientific field, followed by four years of medical school and a pathology residency program. After residency, you may choose to pursue a pathology subspecialty fellowship for an additional year or more of specialized training. With hard work and commitment to lifelong learning, a career as a pathologist can be very rewarding. You’ll get to apply scientific knowledge to diagnose diseases, guide treatment decisions, and make a real difference in patient care. If you’re interested in learning more, the American Society for Clinical Pathology offers a wealth of resources on training and career paths for pathologists.

Resources

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What is a Pathologist?

A pathologist is a medical doctor who specializes in diagnosing diseases and studying their causes and processes. They play a critical role in healthcare by analyzing tissue samples, blood work, and other tests to help determine the correct diagnosis and best treatment plan for patients.

What is the difference between Anatomic Pathologists and Clinical Pathologists?

Anatomic pathologists diagnose disease mainly by examining tissues and cells under a microscope. Clinical pathologists, on the other hand, analyze body fluids like blood to diagnose diseases.

What are some of the key responsibilities of a Pathologist?

Pathologists are responsible for examining tissue samples from biopsies or surgeries to identify abnormalities and disease processes, interpreting laboratory tests on bodily fluids, conducting autopsies to determine the cause of death, managing pathology laboratories, and conducting research to investigate diseases and develop new diagnostic tests and treatments.

What is the educational path required to become a Pathologist?

Becoming a pathologist requires completing a bachelor’s degree, medical school, and a pathology residency program. Some pathologists also choose to complete a subspecialty fellowship for an additional year or more of specialized training.

What is the average salary of a Pathologist?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average annual salary for pathologists in the United States is $216,090 per year or $103.94 per hour. However, salaries can vary considerably based on factors such as geographic location, work setting, years of experience, and subspecialty.

What are some of the skills and qualities needed to be a successful Pathologist?

Pathologists must have exceptional attention to detail, critical thinking skills, dexterity, interpersonal skills, communication skills, organizational skills, and computer literacy. They should also be patient, curious, meticulous, decisive, compassionate, and dedicated to continued education.

What is the job outlook for Pathologists?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment of pathologists will grow by 7% from 2020 to 2030, faster than the average across all occupations. This growth will lead to an estimated 2,500 additional jobs for pathologists in the coming years.

Where do Pathologists typically work?

Pathologists can work in a variety of settings, including hospital laboratories, group physician practices, government agencies, pharmaceutical companies, and universities.

What is a subspecialty in Pathology?

A subspecialty in pathology is a specific area of expertise within the field. Examples of subspecialties include forensic pathology, neuropathology, dermatopathology, and hematopathology.

What is the American Society for Clinical Pathology?

The American Society for Clinical Pathology is a professional association for pathologists that provides certification, education, and advocacy. It offers a wealth of resources on training and career paths for pathologists.