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What Does a Pathologist Do?

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Beyond the Drama of Crime Scene Investigation

A pathologist is a medical doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of patients through the practice of laboratory medicine. Because their hours are more regular and their workdays shorter than those of most other physicians, pathology gives its practitioners, including working mothers, the opportunity to achieve a healthy balance between work and family life.

Job Description

A pathologist is sometimes called “a doctor’s doctor” because there is little-to-no direct patient contact. Instead, pathologists evaluate blood, urine, cerebrospinal fluid, pleural fluid and tissue samples that have been taken under the direction of physicians and surgeons practicing in other specialties. Pathologists perform autopsies to determine cause of death, although, unlike the pathologists portrayed in television dramas, this is a small part of their practice. Some pathologists specialize in genetic testing to help people assess their risks for certain diseases, such as cancer.

Education Requirements

Pathology requires a minimum of four years in residency after completion of a medical degree from an accredited college of medicine or osteopathy. The residency consists of classes, training and rotations within the fields of clinical and anatomical pathology, including forensic pathology, hematology, immunology, medical microbiology, transfusion medicine, and other required and elective topics.

The medical degree, earned before a residency can begin, requires four years of study beyond the bachelor’s degree. Although there is no requirement for a specific major to prepare for medical school, successful applicants have typically earned a minimum of a bachelor’s in one of the life sciences, chemistry or mathematics. Admission to medical school is competitive; most students enter with an undergraduate grade point average of at least 3.7.

All physicians must be licensed by a state medical board to practice. Certification by the American Board of Pathology (ABP) is not required, although it is a very desirable credential that attests to the practitioner’s training and expertise. As such, certification can enhance employment opportunities and salary, and it may be mandated by some employers. Only pathology training undertaken in the U.S. or Canada is acceptable toward meeting ABP requirements. Additional training, in the form of residencies or fellowships, is required for certification in pathology sub-specialties.

Pathologists must participate in continuing education to maintain their certifications and to stay abreast of the latest medical research. The American Board of Pathology offers professional hours through seminars and conferences. Additional training is available through medical schools and large medical centers.

About the Industry

Pathologists use their specialized knowledge and skills along with sophisticated technology, such as electron microscopes and computer modeling. Most pathologists work in hospitals, but they also perform the same tasks in independent laboratories. Hospital pathologists may have to be on-call and work some nights and weekends. Pathologists sometimes teach in medical schools, lecture and supervise clinical rotations. Some pathologists conduct research for industry or government agencies.

Years of Experience

Geographic location, employer and type of position affect pay for pathologists, whose average annual salary ranges from $187,787 to $358,629. The median annual salary is $262,954, which means that 50 percent of pathologists earn more, while 50 percent earn less. Average salary ranges, based on years of experience, are:

  • Less than 1 year of experience: $234,179–$257,082
  • 3–4 years of experience: $235,941–$258,843
  • 7–9 years of experience: $240,639–$262,954
  • 15–19 years of experience: $255,907–$281,641
  • 20+ years of experience: $258,843–$285,378

Job Growth Trend

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for all physicians, including pathologists, is expected to increase faster than average over the next decade. The aging of the general population is thought to be largely responsible for this trend, as senior citizens are more susceptible to diseases such as cancer, which pathologists help diagnose.