How to Become a Pathologist in 5 Steps

Explore the career requirements for pathologists. Learn the facts about job duties, education requirements, board certification and employment outlook to determine if this is the right career for you. Schools offering Anatomy & Physiology degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is A Pathologist?

Pathologists are physicians that perform tests on fluid and tissue samples and use the results to identify diseases that may be affecting a person or group of people. They may also perform studies to determine effective treatments for a disease. Research is a primary part of their focus, and their findings may be used to inform physicians of more effective treatment options or ways to diagnose illnesses. Pathologists typically work at hospitals, government agencies, clinics or medical schools. They may also be responsible for overseeing physicians and lab technicians that work with them.

The following table provides an overview of what you need to know to enter this profession.

Degree Required Bachelor's & MD degrees
Education Field of Study Bachelor's: Any major
MD: Medicine
Residency Required 3-4 years, including focus on pathology
Key Responsibilities Analyze biological specimens to identify disease or medical conditions; prepare pathology reports; work with physicians to develop patient treatment plans
Licensure/Certification Required All states require licensing, specifics vary by state; certifications available in pathology and pathology subspecialties
Job Growth (2018-2028) 7% for physicians/surgeons overall*
Median Salary (2019) $196,129 for pathologists**

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **

What Does a Pathologist Do?

As a pathologist, you'll spend a significant amount of time in laboratories studying tissue and fluid samples to diagnose patient conditions. You'll communicate your results with surgeons and other physicians to determine appropriate treatments. You'll be able to choose from a considerable variety of tests and subspecialties while you analyze and research the source and nature of diseases. In the event of someone's death, you may conduct the autopsy to determine the cause of death. As a physician, you'll be working in clinics, group practices or hospitals.

Step 1: Excel in High School

As a budding pathologist, you can get a head start in your academic achievements by thriving in high school. You may take challenging courses in mathematics and the sciences, such as advanced placement chemistry, calculus, biology and physics. You can also gain familiarity with the medical world by enrolling in summer programs and volunteering at hospitals or clinics.

Step 2: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

After graduating from high school, you will need to earn a bachelor's degree from a 4-year college or university. Although premedical programs are available, you don't have to follow a specific program of study. You will need to maintain a high grade point average and score well on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) at the end of your undergraduate studies, since admission to medical school can be competitive. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2008, you would need to complete college-level courses in mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry and English as a premedical student (

Step 3: Graduate from Medical School

As an aspiring Medical Doctor (M.D.), your first two years of schooling will combine classroom and laboratory experiences, including courses like anatomy, biochemistry, medical ethics, pharmacology and pathology. Your remaining two years will also include clinical supervision under experienced physicians. During medical school and before your residency, you'll also be completing the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). This comprehensive examination consists of three steps or tests, and step three is completed after obtaining a M.D. degree (

Step 4: Complete Your Residency

Pathologists usually spend three or four years in residency, a period when you'll gain first-hand experience practicing pathology under a licensed pathologist's supervision. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) reported you might concentrate on clinical or anatomic pathology, with each concentration requiring three years of residency ( You also have the option of completing a 4-year residency that combines clinical and anatomic pathology. During these years, you'll become familiar with the procedures, tasks and challenges that pathologists face each day.

Step 5: Become Board Certified

Upon completing your residency, you will need to pass written and practical exams offered by the American Board of Pathology to become board certified. These certifications may be in combined clinical and anatomic pathology, anatomic pathology or clinical pathology. You also have the option to pursue certification in subspecialties, such as hematology, forensic pathology, cytopathology, neuropathology or dermatopathology. You may maintain your certification by meeting continuing medical education requirements and professional performance standards (

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Other types of physicians focus on diagnosing and treating illnesses within a variety of different fields, such as surgery or family medicine, or areas of the body, such as cardiology or dermatology. They may use information from reports published by pathologists about treatment options to inform their decisions when caring for their patients. Physician assistants are required to have a master's degree. They work under the supervision of a physician and may be involved in conducting tests to diagnose a patient or developing a treatment plan. Veterinarians must have a doctoral degree, and they diagnose and treat animals. Optometrists are also required to have a doctoral degree, and they focus on the examination and treatment of patients' eyes. As part of their job, they may prescribe treatment to manage diseases or other factors that affect a patient's vision.

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