How to Become a Pathologist

January 9, 2023


Reviewed by:

Rohan Jotwani

Former Chief Resident in Anesthesiology, Weill Cornell Medicine, & Admissions Officer, Columbia University

Reviewed: 01/09/23

Interested in studying diseases and learning exactly how to diagnose them? Read on to learn more about how to become a pathologist.

Often considered the invisible forces working behind the scenes to find the perfect treatment for patients, pathologists are vital parts of all healthcare systems. These professionals analyze tissue, blood, organ, and fluid samples to diagnose and study disease. 

If this career sounds like the perfect fit for you, this guide will cover the steps required to become a pathologist. We’ll go over what the job entails, the different types of pathology you can pursue, and more!

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Steps to Becoming a Pathologist

Considering pathologists are technically doctors, you might be asking yourself, “how long does it take to become a pathologist?”

The short answer is that it’ll take at least 10 years to become a pathologist. However, this timeline gets more complex depending on the type of pathology you’re interested in and the level of specialty. 

Regardless, here are the steps you can expect to take to become a pathologist:

Step One: Obtain an Undergraduate Degree

The first step to becoming a pathologist is getting an undergraduate degree from an accredited university. This is a prerequisite for step three, which is going to medical school. Most medical schools have no preference over the undergraduate major you pursue, but may ask you to have certain science prerequisites. 

Ensure you maintain a high GPA during your undergrad to be considered a competitive med school applicant! You should also seek out various extracurricular, work, and volunteer experiences in order to increase your chances of getting into your top medical schools.

Step Two: Write the MCAT

The majority of medical schools will require you to write the MCAT as part of the admissions process. Aim to write your first MCAT in the summer after your sophomore or junior year to ensure you meet your application deadlines. You should build a comprehensive study schedule to achieve your target score and ace the exam!

Step Three: Go to Medical School

As we mentioned, pathologists are doctors, which means they must complete medical school. Aspiring pathologists may complete either a DO or MD to fulfill this requirement. 

Regardless of which type of medical degree you opt for, you’ll want to maintain high grades and build strong connections in order to get into a good residency!

Step Four: Pass the USMLE or COMLEX

Once you’ve completed medical school, you’ll have to pass the USMLE or COMLEX exams, depending on the type of medical degree you obtained. These exams will give you medical licensure to begin practicing as a doctor!

Step Five: Complete Your Residency

The final step before you can officially become a pathologist is to complete a three or four-year pathology residency. You can choose to complete a three-year residency in either anatomical or clinical pathology. Anatomical pathology involves the analysis of organs and tissue, whereas clinical pathology involves the analysis of blood and fluids.

If you’re interested in both types of pathology, you can alternatively complete a residency that combines these fields. This type of residency takes at least four years to complete. 

Step Six: Pass the ABP Exams

Your MCAT, USMLE, or COMLEX aren’t the only exams you’ll need to worry about during your journey to becoming a pathologist. 

The final exams you’ll have to pass are the ones administered by the American Board of Pathology (ABP).

You’ll have to pass a written and practical exam in order to gain accreditation. You will also have to participate in ABP’s Continuing Certification (CC) program throughout your career. This program ensures pathologists are committed to lifelong learning and keep up-to-date with all medical standards.

What Does a Pathologist Do?

Now that you know exactly how to become a pathologist and how long it’ll take, your next question might be, “what does a pathologist do?”

While the main responsibilities of a pathologist include analyzing bodily fluids and tissue for disease, their more specific duties depend on the type of pathology they specialize in.

Anatomical Pathology

Anatomical pathologists perform the following duties:

  • Gross Examination: analyzing diseased tissue with the naked eye or basic equipment
  • Cytopathology: examining tissues at the cellular level, including tissue obtained through biopsies
  • Electron Microscopy: analyzing the structures inside a cell
  • Histopathology: examining specifically stained tissues to identify abnormal structures
  • Immunohistochemistry: using antibodies matched to antigens to help identify cancer and viral infections
  • Fluorescence in Situ Hybridization: matching RNA or DNA to corresponding RNA or DNA specimens to identify certain cancers or chromosomal abnormalities
  • Flow Immunophenotyping: exposing tissue samples to different antibodies to identify abnormal cell types
  • Tissue Cytogenetics: finding errors in genetic sequences to identify chromosomal disorders

Anatomical pathologists are responsible for not only diagnosing diseases, but also studying their effects on the body.

Clinical Pathologists

On the other hand, common procedures clinical pathologists perform are:

  • Microscopic Evaluations: analyzing specimens microscopically using different techniques and stains
  • Macroscopic Evaluations: examining specimens with the naked eye for visual abnormalities
  • Automated Analyzers: using specific equipment to determine whether specimens fall above, below, or within the expected values of the general population
  • Lab Cultures: adding specimens to a culture medium to grow and identify pathogens

Clinical pathologists generally conduct tests to confirm or deny physicians’ suspicions.

Types of Pathologists

Since there are so many different applications of pathology, there are several subspecialties pathologists can pursue:

  • Blood Banking Pathology: the monitoring, analyzing, and processing of blood products
  • Clinical Informatics Pathology: the study of informational systems, databases, and quality control 
  • Chemical Pathology: analyzing organic and inorganic substances in bodily fluids, including toxicology
  • Forensic Pathology: studying the tissue of those who passed away in sudden or violent ways
  • Cytopathology: analyzing cells and is usually used to diagnose cancer
  • Dermatopathology: interpreting skin biopsies
  • Hematology: investigating the disease, illness, and dysfunction of blood
  • Molecular Genetic Pathology: evaluating genetic markers and testing
  • Medical Microbiology: analyzing infectious organisms and antibiotic susceptibilities
  • Neuropathology: studying the nervous system to diagnose neurological disease
  • Pediatric pathology: the study of pathology in children

Depending on your interests, you can obtain specialized certifications in any of these subspecialties through ABP. 

Pathologist Salary and Career Outlook

While joining this profession is a lengthy, challenging, and expensive process, pathologists are well-compensated for their hard work!

The median salary for pathologists is $267,180 a year, with those working in diagnostic or medical laboratories earning $329,680 a year on average.

Not only is this career high-paying, but it’s also in high demand! Employment in this field is expected to increase by about 9.2% within the next decade.

For those eager to join this field as easily and quickly as possible, you may want to consider working in a physician's office. These offices tend to have significantly more job openings each year than any other type of pathology setting. These types of pathologists also make the second-highest median income, at around $306,440 a year.

FAQs: Becoming a Pathologist

We’ve covered the basics of how to become a pathologist. But, in case you have any remaining questions, here are the answers to frequently asked questions about this profession!

1. How Long Does It Take to Become a Pathologist?

It will take 10 to 11 years at minimum to become a pathologist: four years to complete your undergrad, three years to complete your MD or DO, and at least three or four years to complete your desired pathology residency. Gaining additional certifications and passing your ABP exams may increase this timeline.

2. Is It Hard to Become a Pathologist?

Yes, the road to becoming a pathologist will be long and bumpy. You will have to be diligent, focused, and determined to get past the various milestones involved in this journey. 

Getting into medical school is difficult and highly competitive, pathology residencies are even more coveted, and landing a career in this field will also require hard work and strong connections!

3. Is a Pathologist a Doctor?

Yes, pathologists must attend medical school, pass their medical licensing exam, and complete a residency in order to practice. 

4. What Should I Major In to Become a Pathologist?

There is no specific major you must pursue in order to become a pathologist. However, most medical schools have several science prerequisites so the majority of medical students pursue science-related degrees.

But, as long as you complete your prerequisites, you can major in any degree! Choose one you have a genuine passion for to increase your chances of maintaining a high GPA.

5. Do Pathologists Get Paid Well?

Yes, pathologists get paid extremely well. The median salary for pathologists is well over $200,000 a year! Many pathologists make much more than this, depending on their specialty. 

6. Where Are Pathologists Paid the Highest?

California offers the most opportunity and pay for pathologists. Pathologists in this state make $350,980 a year on average, which is almost $100,000 over the national average!

Final Thoughts

Pathologists may not receive the same spotlight as physicians and surgeons that work directly with patients, but they are equally as important in providing patients with the best and most accurate care!

If you choose to embark upon the extensive journey of becoming a pathologist, rest assured, your hard work will result in a highly rewarding career!

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