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According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a minimum of three years of undergraduate study is required for medical school admittance. Most applicants, however, have earned a Bachelor’s degree. Undergraduates do not need to pursue any particular major as long as they successfully complete the pre-medical courses that are prerequisites for admission to medical school. All medical degree programs establish their own admission requirements, but generally they include classes in biology, chemistry, English, math, physics, and social sciences.
The first two years of medical school include foundational coursework in the sciences, providing instruction in bodily systems and major diseases, while the final two years are devoted to clinical rotations in different areas of medicine. Pathology is not a required rotation, but may be taken as an elective.
Pathology residencies typically last four years and comprise training in anatomical and/or clinical pathology. Curricula provide instruction in autopsy, image analysis, molecular diagnosis, and protein biochemistry. Residents are also given opportunities to study electives and participate in research. As they advance, they are given more freedom and responsibility when conducting tests and making decisions.
Pathologists who wish to specialize in areas such as dermatopathology, surgical pathology, or pediatric pathology need to complete a fellowship. These programs last a year or two and are more narrowly focused than are residencies. Fellows have opportunities to conduct research tailored to their specific career interests. Some fellowships, particularly surgical pathology, may include rotations in different sub-disciplines, such as gastrointestinal, breast, soft tissue, and gynecologic pathology.
It is possible to work in the pathology field without obtaining a Doctorate degree. Career opportunities, however, are naturally reduced. Individuals who earn only a Bachelor’s degree may be able to find employment as laboratory technologists, but opportunities for growth are limited. Those with a Master’s degree in biochemistry, microbiology, animal pathology, plant pathology, or another related field may qualify for applied research or teaching positions.
Should I become a Pathologist?
When asked why they chose pathology, practising pathologists often cite these reasons:
the field’s unique blend of imaging, challenging diagnostic dilemmas, and access to and experimentation with cutting edge technologies
the privilege of being the ‘doctor’s doctor,’ the preeminent consultant to other physicians
the privilege of being at the forefront of patient diagnosis and involved in critical decisions that affect patients’ lives
the degree to which pathology allows its practitioners to lead a balanced life, as the time demands are not nearly as pressing as those in surgery and other medical fields which involve more patient interaction
When asked about the attributes that accomplished pathologists possess, physicians in the field from around the world made the following comments [paraphrased compilation]:
I think that you have to be born with a certain visual aptitude. You have to be able to build pictures in your mind. That’s why the training takes a long time, since you must develop this innate visual ability and marry it to rigorous scientific learning. You have to come to appreciate the intrinsic beauty of microscopy itself. A colleague of mine told me that one question she always asks residency applicants is about their hobbies; if they like art or photography in particular she feels they are more likely to be a good pathologist than if they have other orientations.
First of all, I think you have to be good at pattern recognition. You’re constantly looking at patterns, colors, and their relationships to make a diagnosis. You have to be thorough in your thinking: ‘Well, if I haven’t seen this before, what must I do to try and make the diagnosis? Do I need to do more special testing? Do I need to consult somebody else? Do I need to do more reading about this?’
You have to be a good observer. You have to be an observer of minutiae – to look at the little things. Little things make a difference. And you have to know what those little things mean – so that’s where your academic training comes in. Probably the most serious fault in a potential pathologist is not being thorough enough.
You have to have imagination and conviction and should not be afraid to question. If you see something that doesn’t fit any disease you know or that has been written about in medical journals, don’t automatically assume that you don’t recognize it because of a lack of knowledge on your part. Maybe it is something that has not yet been described. A good pathologist is about having an open mind and looking beyond the clinical expectation.
Pathologists need to have patience and take a methodical approach to their work.
A very difficult thing in surgical pathology is to express in words the mental process you use in order to reach a diagnosis, because to some extent, it is instantaneous recognition at a subconscious level. Yet, you have to be skilled at putting what you’re seeing down the microscope into words. When you read a pathology report you should be able to picture what the author of that report is seeing and understand their interpretation.
Microscopic examination of tissue is definitely an art form, and it’s being able to put together pictures in your mind. Even when you may just see one corner of a picture in your biopsy, you have to be able to put that into the whole picture of what’s going on in the organ. By appreciating the patterns and the things that are changing in the tissues, and then bringing in additional scientific information, such as gene expression in the tissues, you can build both the artistic and scientific picture that helps you understand the disease.
The common thread throughout all of these comments from professionals in the field is that the best pathologists combine science and fact with art and intuition. They are keen observers, thorough thinkers, and methodical builders.
What are Pathologists like?
Clinical pathologists are specialized physicians who diagnose diseases by examining and testing cells, bodily fluids, and tissues. They interpret the results of lab tests so that informed decisions can be made regarding patient care. This kind of work strongly suggests that pathologists are predominantly investigative people.
Pathologists by Strongest Interest Archetype
Based on sample of 32 Sokanu users
How long does it take to become a Pathologist?
The process of becoming a pathologist takes between twelve and thirteen years, as follows:
Bachelor’s degree – four years
Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree – four years
Residency – four or five years (four years for anatomic pathology; five years for the recommended combined track of anatomic/clinical pathology)
Steps to becoming a Pathologist
The road to becoming a physician, in general, is long and challenging. Choosing pathology means accepting this path to what is a very particular medical career – one with limited patient contact, but with unlimited potential to contribute to patients’ treatment and recovery.
- High School
- Bachelor’s Degree
- Medical College Admissions Test
- Medical School & National Licensing
- State Licensing
- Board Certification
- Specialized Training / Fellowship (optional)
1 High School
Take plenty of challenging science and math classes including advanced placement courses in biology, chemistry, physics, and calculus.
Enhance communication skills through English composition, speech, foreign language, and drama classes.
Enroll in a psychology class to learn about human nature and explore the mind-body connection.
Volunteer at a health clinic, hospital, or eldercare facility.
Explore health career summer study programs.
2 Bachelor’s Degree
While there is not a specific degree required for undergraduate study, aspiring pathologists tend to concentrate their coursework in advanced biological sciences to meet admission requirements for medical school. They must graduate from an accredited Bachelor's degree program with pre-med prerequisite courses, such as microbiology, biochemistry, and human anatomy. Also recommended are classes in English, advanced mathematics, and statistics. Most medical schools require a grade point average of at least 3.5 and may choose only those candidates who rank at the top of their graduating class.
During undergraduate study it is also important for students to gain experience that will set them apart from other medical school applicants and prepare them for their chosen career. This experience may include volunteering at a hospital, performing community service, and research work. Especially valuable are job shadowing programs, which allow students to follow pathologists and other doctors throughout a workday. All of these activities demonstrate work ethic and dedication to the medical field. Whenever possible, these experiences should be documented on letters of recommendation, which can be submitted with medical school applications.
While earning their Bachelor’s, aspiring pathologists should begin thinking about a potential specialization. Deciding on a specialty while still in undergraduate school typically helps students choose electives and select the appropriate medical school program. While further subspecialties exist, pathologists will work in one of five main areas:
chemical pathology/clinical biochemistry – study of chemicals in the blood
haematology – study of disorders of the blood
histopathology – study of disease in human tissue
medical microbiology and virology – study of infection
immunology – study of the immune system
3 Medical College Admissions Test
During their junior year of undergraduate study, prospective neurosurgeons must sit for the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) and the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM). Through a set of multiple-choice questions, this standardized exam allows medical schools to evaluate a candidate’s training and skill set. Many schools share their incoming student MCAT score average on their website to inform undergraduates of how well they need to score to compete with other applicants.
To achieve their highest possible MCAT score, students are encouraged to take advantage of assistance available to them. This includes study materials, pre-tests, practice tests, and online and in-person tutoring. These resources are designed to ensure that students attain the best possible score, which will open doors to medical schools.
4 Medical School & National Licensing
Pathologists obtain either a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree.
Medical school is a very challenging four years of study that is divided into two parts. The first part, comprising the first two years of the schooling, is focused on course and lab work that prepares students intellectually for patient interaction. This training is in the biological and natural sciences, physiology, chemistry, medical ethics, and the art and practice of medicine. To test their grasp of this portion of training, in the second year of medical school students pursuing an MD must take and pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) – Step 1. Those pursuing a DO must take and pass the United States Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA) – Level 1. A passing score on the USMLE or COMLEX-USA indicates that students are ready to begin supervised patient visits and gain clinical experience.
The second part of medical school, the second two years, is called Rotations. During this time, students have the opportunity to experience a variety of medical specialties and a variety of medical settings under the supervision of experienced physicians. Rotations further students’ understanding of patient care, situations, scenarios, and the teams that come together to help those that are sick. As they complete rotations, students tend to find out that they gravitate towards certain specialties or environments that fit their particular interests and skill sets. It is important that this time inform their decision of specialty or subspecialty, so that they find complete satisfaction as a physician.
After part two of medical school, students take the United States Medical Licensing Exam –Step 2 or the United States Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination – Level 2. The objective of these exams is to test whether or not students have developed the clinical knowledge and skills that they will need to transition into unsupervised medical practice.
Physicians in pathology residencies typically participate in rotations at hospitals and medical laboratories in areas including microbiology and transfusion medicine/coagulation. Pathology residents eventually have the opportunity to focus on a subspecialty area that interests them. Residents may work on research projects and consult with other doctors on the meaning of lab results.
6 State Licensing
All physicians in every state need to be state licensed. To be eligible to sit for a state’s licensing exam, candidates must have completed medical school and a residency program. While licensing rules and regulations vary from one state to another, periodic license renewal and continuing education are common requirements.
7 Board Certification
Pathologists must be certified by the American Board of Pathology (www.abpath.org), a member of the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS). To be eligible for the Board’s basic certification, applicants must have graduated from an accredited medical school, obtained a medical license, completed a pathology residency, and passed written and practical certification testing. Candidates may pursue certification in anatomic pathology, clinical pathology, or a combination of the two. Additional certification is available in eleven subspecialties.
To retain their professional certifications, licensed pathologists must meet certain requirements. For this reason, the American Board of Medical Specialties administers a Maintenance of Certification (MOC) program. The program involves continuing medical education, testing, and periodic performance reviews to ensure that physicians remain up-to-date on their medical training and knowledge of advances in their specialty.
8 Specialized Training / Fellowship (optional)
A ‘fellow’ is a physician who elects to complete further training or a ‘fellowship’ in a specialty or subspecialty, after or near the end of residency. Pathology subspecialties include:
Head, neck, endocrine pathology
Nerve & muscle pathology
Pulmonary, thoracic pathology
Soft tissue & bone pathology
Education History of Pathologists
The most common degree held by pathologists is Biology. 9% of pathologists had a degree in biology before becoming pathologists. That is over 3 times the average across all careers.
Pathologist Education History
This table shows which degrees people earn before becoming a Pathologist, compared to how often those degrees are obtained by people who earn at least one post secondary degree.
|Degree||% of pathologists||% of population||Multiple|
Pathologist Education Levels
|High school diploma||0%|
How to Become a Pathologist
How Do I Become A Pathologist?
There are three main routes to become a pathologist.
Pathologist: Educational Requirements And Career Summary
Pathologists have significant educational requirements that include completing medical school, residencies and possibly fellowships.
Compare Pathology Medical Schools
Compare Pathology Medical Schools in the USA