What is a Pathology Degree?

Pathology is the science of the causes and effects of diseases. Pathologists are the medical doctors who analyze organs, tissues, blood, and body fluids to search for medical conditions and diagnose disease and illness. In other words, their job is to solve often complex medical mysteries.

Pathologists typically do not have direct contact with patients, but they work closely with primary care physicians and other medical specialists. This unique position in medical practice has earned them the moniker of the ‘doctor’s doctor.’

Students of pathology choose a concentration in one of the two branches of the field, distinguished from each other by the kind of sample studied. Anatomic pathologists examine samples from organs and tissues. Clinical pathologists test body fluids such as blood, urine, and saliva.

Program Options

Bachelor’s Degree in Any Discipline – Four Year Duration
While they must hold a bachelor’s degree to apply for medical school, aspiring pathologists do not have to earn their degree in a specific discipline. However, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), they are most likely to earn a bachelor’s in a major from these areas:

  • Biological Sciences
  • Social Sciences
  • Physical Sciences
  • Humanities
  • Mathematics / Statistics

Regardless of their chosen undergrad major, students planning to attend medical school must meet med school admission requirements, which typically include:

  • Biology with lab
  • General Chemistry with lab
  • Organic Chemistry with lab
  • Physics with lab
  • Biochemistry
  • Mathematics and/or Statistics
  • English

Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC)

It is common for undergraduates to write the MCAT and begin applying to medical schools in their junior year. Through a set of multiple-choice questions, the MCAT 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.

Master’s Degree in Pathology – Two Year Duration
Students who wish to become a certified pathologist generally do not earn this graduate degree. Instead, they go straight to medical school. The master’s in pathology qualifies individuals to work as an assistant to a certified pathologist, or in biomedical careers in positions such as research assistant or research scientist at academic and private sector laboratories. It does not qualify a person to work as a pathologist.

This program is a combination of coursework and research. Here are examples of required courses:

  • Principles of Molecular and Cellular Biology
  • Introduction to Biostatistics
  • Seminar in Pathology
  • Pathogenesis / Mechanisms of Major Human Diseases
  • Principles of Scholarly Integrity and Ethics in Research

Additional coursework is focused on the area or topic of the individual student’s thesis project.

Doctoral / Medical Degree in Pathology – Eight to Ten Year Duration (see breakdown below)

Medical School – Four Year Duration
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 a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree must take and pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) – Step 1. Those pursuing a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree 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 (USMLE) – Step 2 or the United States Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA) – 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.

Pathology Residency – Three to Four Year Duration
During this period, pathology residents conduct procedures under the supervision of a certified pathologist. These procedures vary depending on whether the resident has chosen to specialize in anatomic (or anatomical) pathology, clinical pathology, or a combination of both. Part of the residency involves collaborating with other medical specialists and primary care physicians.

Anatomic Pathology Residency – Three Year Duration
Students of anatomic pathology learn how to conduct visual, microscopic, and molecular analyses of tissues and organs. Their training is focused on conducting procedures such as these:

  • Gross examination – examination of diseased tissue with the naked eye, a magnifying glass, or a standard light microscope
  • Cytopathology – examination of tissues at the cellular level, comprising tissues and cells acquired via surgical biopsy or fine needle aspiration (a type of biopsy that uses a very thin needle and syringe to remove a sample of cells or tissue)
  • Histopathology – microscopic examination of changes in cell or tissue structure
  • Electron microscopy – a technique for obtaining high resolution images of the structures inside a cell
  • Immunohistochemistry (IHC) – the process whereby immune proteins (antibodies) are used to detect proteins (antigens) in cells within a tissue section; IHC) can help to identify cancer and certain viral infections
  • Fluorescence in situ hyrbridization (FISH) – a molecular technique for detecting and locating a specific DNA or RNA sequence in a specimen to identify cancers or chromosomal abnormalities
  • Tissue cytogenetics – a set of molecular techniques used to identify chromosomal disorders by detecting errors in genetic sequence
  • Flow immunophenotyping – also known as flow cytometry, this is a laboratory method that detects the presence or absence of white blood cell markers called antigens

Clinical Pathology Residency – Three Year Duration
Students of clinical pathology learn how to conduct visual, microscopic, and lab analyses of blood, urine, and other body fluids. Their training involves conducting tests based on a physician’s suspicion and returning results that either confirm or eliminate that suspicion. Procedures in clinical pathology are described as:

  • Macroscopic examinations – visual examination of a specimen to look for abnormalities like color, density, coagulation, and sedimentation
  • Microscopic examinations – use of techniques and stains (examples: bacterial gram staining and FISH) to examine a specimen microscopically
  • Automated analyzers / lab tests – medical lab instruments used to measure the properties of blood and other fluid specimens to determine whether they fall within, above, or below the expected reference range of the general population
  • Lab cultures – the application of a specimen to a culture medium (a solid, liquid, or semi-solid designed to support the growth of microorganisms) to identify bacterial, fungal, and viral pathogens (disease causing organisms)

Combined Anatomic and Clinical Residency – Four Year Duration
There is one subspecialty that is shared by anatomic and clinical pathologists. Molecular Genetic Pathology is a relatively new field concerned with the diagnosis of disease via examination of molecules in organs, tissues, and body fluids.

Pathology Fellowship – One to Two Year Duration
Most pathologists pursue a fellowship in a pathology subspecialty.

Anatomic Pathology Subspecialties

  • Cytopathology – the study of disease on a molecular level
  • Forensic Pathology – examination of the bodies of people who died to determine the cause of death (homicide, suicide, accidental, natural, or unknown); forensic pathologists are also known as medical examiners and coroners
  • Neuropathology – the study and identification of diseases in the central (brain and spinal cord) and peripheral nervous systems, and skeletal muscle
  • Pediatric Pathology – the study and identification of diseases affecting the fetus, newborn, and child
  • Surgical Pathology – the study of tissues removed from living patients during surgery to help diagnose a disease and determine a treatment plan

Clinical Pathology Subspecialties

  • Bloodbanking and Transfusion Medicine
  • Chemical Pathology – the use of lab tests to diagnose and monitor disease; also known as clinical biochemistry
  • Clinical Microbiology – focuses on all aspects of infectious diseases
  • Cytogenetics – the study of chromosomal structure, location, and function in the cells and inheritance of chromosomal disorders
  • Hematopathology – the study, evaluation, and diagnosis of blood disorders

Board certification of pathologists is awarded by the American Board of Pathology (ABP).

Degrees Similar to Pathology

There is no distinct pre-medicine degree. ‘Pre-medicine’ or ‘pre-med’ is merely a term that students planning to go to medical school use to describe their undergraduate studies. In fact, aspiring doctors enter med school having earned many different bachelor’s degrees.

A science program such as biology or chemistry is certainly a common choice, but it is not mandatory. In other words, a pre-med student can be a psychology major, a statistics major, or a Spanish major. The key for students is to incorporate into their studies the classes needed to apply to medical school.

The focus of biochemistry is the chemical processes and reactions that occur in living matter. Biochemists apply principles of both biology and chemistry to issues in many different sectors, including the environment, medicine and health, industry and manufacturing, agriculture, biofuels, and marine science.

A general biology degree program may include subjects like animal biology, invertebrate biology, vertebrate biology, cellular and molecular biology, evolution, microbiology, and ecology.

Cytotechnology is the study of cells and cellular anomalies. Cytotechnologists use a microscope to examine slides of human cells to uncover evidence of abnormalities that may reveal inflammation, infection, or disease.

Genetics is the study of heredity. It attempts to answer questions about how inherited traits are transmitted from parents to offspring.

Microbiology is the study of all living organisms that are too small to see with the naked eye. These ‘microbes’ include bacteria, archaea, viruses, fungi, prions, protozoa, and algae.

Molecular Biology
Degree programs in molecular biology teach the composition, structure, and interactions of cellular molecules like nucleic acids and proteins that are essential to cell function.

Nuclear Medicine Technology
Nuclear medicine technology uses radioactive drugs or radiopharmaceuticals to help diagnose and treat illnesses. Programs in the field include courses in anatomy and physiology, physics, medical microbiology and immunology, radiobiology, and pathophysiology.

Nutrition Science
This degree field is concerned with the complex relationships between the body, nutrients, and health. Classes cover human nutrition and how the body processes nutrients.

Degree programs in this field are concerned with how the parts of the body work to keep it alive. Physiology, a subsection of biology, covers a variety of interconnected topics including, organs, anatomy, cells, and biological compounds.

We are all exposed to chemicals. Many of them benefit society. Some, however, may threaten our health. Pesticides in the food we eat, pollutants in the air we breathe, chemicals in the water we drink, adverse effects of drugs used to treat disease – these are the subjects of toxicology. These are the concerns of toxicologists, who seek to understand the effects of exposure to harmful substances, to improve the health and safety of humans and other living organisms, and to protect the environment in which we live.

Toxicology connects knowledge from biology, chemistry, medicine, veterinary medicine, pharmacology, public health, and environmental science.

Skills You’ll Learn

  • Visual aptitude / the ability to build pictures in your mind
  • Pattern recognition
  • Ability to work both independently and in teams
  • Observation
  • Investigation and interpretation / analysis
  • Patience
  • Methodical approach
  • Conviction, imagination, an open mind, and capacity and willingness to question
  • Synthesizing and communicating information
  • Stress management
  • Organization
  • Problem solving
  • Ability to combine science and fact with art and intuition
  • Thoroughness
  • Extreme attention to detail
  • Information technology
  • Understanding statistical data

What Can You Do with a Pathology Degree?

Employment options for pathology graduates can be divided into two career sectors: medical laboratory science and medical practice. Here are some possible roles within each of these sectors:

Medical Laboratory Science
These positions are generally with academic, clinical/medical, biotechnology, or pharmaceutical laboratories, and are often occupied by grads holding a master’s in pathology:

  • Clinical / Medical Laboratory Technician
  • Clinical / Medical Research Associate
  • Cytotechnologist
  • Forensic Technician
  • Histotechnologist (prepares surgical specimens for microscopic screening by a surgical pathologist)
  • Laboratory Manager
  • Medical Lab Technician
  • Medical Technologist
  • Pathologist Assistant
  • Research Assistant / Technician
  • Research Coordinator
  • Research Laboratory Scientist
  • Research Laboratory Technologist
  • Researcher
  • Toxicologist

Medical Practice
Medical school / pathology graduates typically work in hospitals, labs, or morgues. Here are some of the titles commonly held by these medical doctors:


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