How To Become a Pathologist

Female pathologist researches the causes of illnesses

If a career in medicine appeals to you, a broad and varied spectrum of specialization choices — including pathology — are available to you. Pathology is the study of diseases and injuries, but a pathologist’s work can also help inform the development of new medical treatments and medical technologies.

If you’re passionate about medical science and fascinated by the inner workings of diseases, a career in pathology could be right for you.

The Role of a Pathologist

Pathologists primarily study samples of body tissues, organs and fluids in a laboratory. However, they do provide some direct patient care, such as performing fine-needle aspiration (FNA). Pathologists may also contribute to a patient’s health literacy by helping them understand their diagnosis, treatment options and progress in their recovery.

A pathologist’s main areas of responsibility are as follows:

  • Diagnosis – Pathologists analyze samples of tissues, organs and body fluids using sophisticated laboratory equipment. Their findings will guide the treating physician’s diagnosis.
  • Treatment – Some patients’ conditions require continuous monitoring throughout their treatment. The pathologist can analyze new samples from patients undergoing treatment to determine whether the treatment is effective.

A typical day in the life of a pathologist depends largely on the professional’s chosen specialty.

What Are the Specialization Options in Pathology?

In the field of medical pathology, there are two broad specializations: anatomic and clinical pathology. Anatomic pathologists primarily study tissues. These range in size from individual cells obtained from a Pap test to whole bodies studied during an autopsy.

Clinical pathologists specialize in conducting laboratory tests on body fluids, including blood. If you’re having trouble choosing between anatomic and clinical pathology, you could specialize in both. There are many AP/CP practitioners (anatomic pathology/clinical pathology).

Within the categories of anatomic and clinical pathology, there are opportunities to specialize further. Here’s a look at some of the subspecialties of anatomic pathologists:

  • Forensic pathology – Involves performing autopsies to determine the cause of a natural or unnatural death
  • Cytopathology – Involves the study of diseases at the molecular level
  • Pediatric pathology – The study of diseases in children
  • Surgical pathology – The study of tissue and organ samples harvested during surgery
  • Neuropathology – The study of brain and nerve tissues

Forensic pathology in particular is a major subspecialty for anatomic pathologists. Similarly, clinical pathologists may choose to specialize in one of the following subfields:

  • Cytogenetics – The study of inherited chromosomal disorders
  • Hematopathology – The study of blood samples
  • Clinical microbiology – The study of infectious diseases

Preparing for a Pathology Career

If you’re still in high school and you think you’d like to become a pathologist, you should have a talk with your guidance counselor about your career aspirations. See whether you can adjust your course schedule to add more science and mathematics classes. Your high school may also offer health-related classes.

You can also look for relevant internship and volunteer positions in your local community. For instance, you might volunteer to greet patients at a hospital or lead senior citizens in an art class at a nursing home. These types of positions can introduce you to the healthcare field while simultaneously bolstering your college applications.

All aspiring pathologists must earn a bachelor’s degree that will enable them to apply to medical school. Pre-med programs are popular for those headed to medical school, although they aren’t the only option.

Undergraduate Degree Options for Aspiring Pathologists

After high school, the first step in the process of how to become a pathologist is to earn your undergraduate degree. There is no one universal degree option for aspiring pathologists, although it is necessary to ensure that the program you choose will enable you to meet the eligibility criteria for admission to medical school. For example, you’ll need to take pre-medical courses such as biology and physics.

Because aspiring pathologists must complete medical school, a popular undergraduate degree option is a pre-med degree. For example, you might earn a Bachelor of Science in Biology with an Emphasis in Pre-Medicine. This degree would give you a thorough grounding in medical sciences and related fields.

Although the specific curriculum will vary from one school to the next, you will study topics such as the following:

  • Human anatomy and physiology
  • Biology and microbiology
  • Medical terminology
  • The fundamentals of genetics
  • Pharmacology
  • Chemistry and biochemistry

A pre-med degree is a good option regardless of your chosen pathology specialization. However, if you’re sure that you want to become a forensic pathologist, you may want to major in forensic science instead.

A Bachelor of Science in Forensic Science degree will enable you to develop similar pre-medicine competencies. However, you’ll also study topics such as crime scene processing, toxicology and the analysis of DNA and body fluids.

Pass the MCAT Exam

The MCAT is a standardized test that all aspiring medical school students must pass. It’s customary to take the MCAT during the calendar year prior to your planned attendance at medical school. There are about two dozen test dates each year from January through September, although this is subject to change from one year to the next.

The MCAT is a seven-and-a-half-hour exam that tests your knowledge of physical and biological sciences, writing skills and verbal reasoning. There is also a section that covers the psychological, biological and sociocultural influences on social interactions and human behavior.

Because the MCAT is a challenging and rigorous exam, and because attaining a strong score is necessary for being accepted into medical school, it’s best to prepare for it well in advance. You may wish to begin studying for the MCAT as early as your sophomore or even your freshman year in college. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) offers MCAT preparation guides and resources.

Earn Your Medical Degree

After passing the MCAT and gaining acceptance to medical school, you’ll undertake another four years of education. The majority of medical schools have their students complete two years of pre-clinical training, followed by two years of clinical training. In some schools, there is one year of pre-clinical training and three years of clinical training.

In the pre-clinical phase, you’ll have rigorous classroom and lab instruction in medical sciences. You’ll learn:

  • Human anatomy and physiology
  • The progression of diseases
  • The application of treatments
  • The basics of patient care and interactions (such as taking medical histories)

The clinical phase of your medical degree program involves completing a series of clinical rotations, each with a specialization focus. You will:

  • Work at hospitals and clinics affiliated with your school
  • Assist the medical residents
  • Interact with patients
  • Perform medical procedures

Some examples of clinical rotations include internal medicine, pediatrics, surgery and psychiatry.

At this stage in your education, it’s not necessary to take only those clinical rotations that pertain to your specific career aspirations. Rather, the goal of clinical rotations is to give future medical doctors a broad base of knowledge across many subfields. After medical school, you’ll obtain a medical license before moving on to a residency.

Obtain Your Medical License

After graduating with your medical degree, but before you can become a resident at a hospital or clinic, you’ll need to obtain your medical license. Look up the requirements for the state where you plan to work. Although the individual state requirements can vary, all states require proof of medical education and the successful completion of a medical licensing exam.

You’ll need to pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), which is a national examination recognized by all of the states. It consists of three separate exams given sequentially as you complete medical school. They are as follows:

  • Step 1 – This is an eight-hour exam that tests your ability to understand and apply scientific concepts to the practice of medicine.
  • Step 2 – This is a nine-hour exam that tests your ability to apply medical knowledge and skills to the delivery of patient care, with a focus on the prevention of disease and promotion of health.
  • Step 3 – This is a two-day exam involving a seven-hour session and a nine-hour session. It examines your knowledge of biomedical and clinical science, focusing on the management of patients within ambulatory settings.

Complete Your Residency

After successfully obtaining your medical license and becoming a physician, the final required step in the process of becoming a pathologist is to complete a residency. Residencies can last anywhere from three to seven years. In the field of pathology, they typically last three to four years.

At this stage in your career, you’ll need to make a choice between residencies in anatomic or clinical pathology. Alternatively, if you’re genuinely passionate about both of these specializations, you can choose a combined AP/CP residency. A combined residency may take one to two years longer than either an AP or a CP residency.

Residents aren’t full-fledged doctors just yet, although they are licensed physicians. The purpose of a residency is to gain experiential learning through hands-on training and practice. The best way to develop your knowledge and skills is to work on as many cases as possible.

However, it’s also important to remember that no one can possibly learn everything there is to know about pathology in just a few years. No matter how long your career ends up being, you’ll learn new things continuously. Keep an open mind, develop a sense of professionalism and treat every mistake as a learning experience.

Consider Pursuing Board Certification

Board certification isn’t a requirement for pathologists. However, you may wish to pursue it. Obtaining board certification indicates that a professional has achieved exceptional knowledge and skills in a specialty area.

If you decide to become a board-certified pathologist, you’ll need to refer to the criteria established by the American Board of Pathology. You can choose to pursue board certification in a subspecialty, such as chemical pathology or dermatopathology. Do note that if you decide not to become board certified now, you may need to complete additional training if you opt to pursue board certification after a certain number of years following the completion of your residency.

If you feel drawn to the field of medical pathology, you can build a solid foundation for pursuing professional success at Grand Canyon University. Future medical school students can apply for enrollment in the Bachelor of Science in Biology with an Emphasis in Pre-Medicine program, the Bachelor of Science in Forensic Science degree, and the Master of Science in Forensic Science degree. All of these options instill critical competencies in biology, human anatomy, physiology and scientific inquiry.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.