CareerExplorer’s step-by-step guide on how to become a pathologist.
Is becoming a pathologist right for me?
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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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
How to become a Pathologist
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.