Samples in lab

A pathologist could...

Review blood tests of a pregnant woman to make sure her baby will be born healthy. Blood tube sample Look at kidney tissue under a microscope to determine if a patient needs a transplant. kideny cells indicating kidney failure
Help chart a patient's course to recovery by diagnosing their type of cancer from a surgical biopsy. Cancer awareness Conduct an autopsy to determine if a person died of natural causes or because of foul play. ID tag on toe of corpse in morgue
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Key Facts & Information

Overview Do you enjoy solving mysteries? Getting to the end of a "who did it" mystery novel can be lots of fun! But are there mysteries in real life? You bet there are! A pathologist is a medical detective, and their job is to figure out the root cause of real-life medical puzzles. Pathologists work in a wide range of fields and can help diagnose types of cancer, find out what killed a person, and investigate how disease progresses on a molecular level. If you enjoy employing cool logic to solve mysteries, then you should seriously consider a career as a pathologist.
Key Requirements Persistence, detail oriented, strong written and oral communication skills, critical thinking skills, must enjoy solving problems
Minimum Degree Doctoral or professional degree
Subjects to Study in High School Biology, chemistry, physics, algebra, geometry, algebra II, calculus
Median Salary
U.S. Mean Annual Wage
Min Wage
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024) More Slowly than Average (3% to 6%)
  • The Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia's website describes, in detail, the nine different areas of pathology. Take a closer look at this site to learn more about the differences and the overlaps in the subareas of study.
  • What it's like to specialize in forensic pathology: Shadowing Dr. Melinek, a forensic pathologist and a featured physician in the AMA Wire® "Shadow Me" Specialty Series.
Related Occupations
Source: O*Net

Training, Other Qualifications

Most pathology residents receive training in both anatomic pathology (AP) and clinical pathology (CP), although it is possible to train in only one. Specialty certification for the medical practice of pathology is the responsibility of the American Board of Pathology (ABP), which offers primary specialty (AP and CP) and sub-specialty examinations for certification. Four full years of approved training are required for AP/CP, and three years for AP or CP alone. All applicants for primary certification are required to have one additional full year of clinical training, clinically related research, or an additional year of pathology training. Pathologists need to be licensed by their state in order to practice medicine, and must also be certified by the American Board of Pathology.

Candidates requesting certification must pass an objective written and practical examination. As in other medical disciplines, board certification is not required for practice, but it is highly prized as evidence of professional competence. A re-certification examination is given 10 years after the initial board certification.

Education and Training

After college, the first step to becoming a pathologist is to attend and graduate from an accredited medical school. Average medical programs last 4–5 years. Medical schools offer elective courses in pathology, in addition to the required basic science courses. Some medical schools offer year-long student fellowships in pathology for medical students, usually following the sophomore year in which the general pathology course is given. Under certain circumstances, candidates for primary certification by the American Board of Pathology may receive advanced pathology training credit for this period. In some cases, medical students can spend up to 6 years in medical school and earn a doctoral degree in pathology, in addition to a medical degree.

Medical school graduates need 4-5 years of accredited residency training to prepare for a career in pathology. There are accredited training programs in many hospitals throughout the United States and Canada, and many varied opportunities for sub-specialty study. During training, the resident becomes familiar with all activities of a pathology department. Pathologists need to be licensed by their state in order to practice medicine and must also be certified by the American Board of Pathology.

Watch this video where Dr. Adrienne Morey shares what her typical day is like as an anatomic pathologist.

Nature of the Work

Pathologists are doctors who specialize in the diagnosis of human disease by studying and testing bodily fluids, blood, and tissue samples, and they contribute to the daily care of patients. They interpret test results to determine the diseases that affect us, find causes of death, and search for other medical conditions. After examining the information from new and highly complex tests, the pathologist passes the findings and offer recommendations for the course of therapy to the patient's physician, who then advises the patient. But many pathologists do interact with patients, sharing their assessment and recommendations directly with them. The pathologist's paramount responsibility is to make sure that the tests they perform are done accurately, interpreted properly, and reported correctly.

Pathologist combines the roles of physician, teacher, and scientist. When working in a hospital setting, pathologists act as physicians by assisting in diagnosing and and treating patients. They are also responsible for passing their knowledge to the next generation of pathologists and spend time reviewing cases with them. As scientists, pathologists use a wide range of cutting-edge technologies from fields such as molecular genetics and biophysics, as well as their own knowledge of anatomy, physiology, and microbiology, to model disease progression and deepen our understanding of the mechanism of disease. Their research can lead to novel disease treatments.

Pathologists can specialize in the following subfields of anatomic or clinical pathology.

  • Surgical pathology: The study of tissue removed from the body during surgery in order to determine the illness that required its removal from the body. Surgical pathologists work hand in hand with surgeons, often while a patient is still on the operating table. Armed with the information from a surgical pathologist, a surgeon can modify the course of surgery and post-operative treatment.
  • Forensic pathology: The process of retrieving evidence and information from bodies through autopsy. Forensic pathologists can be asked to give and discuss evidence in legal court. Forensic pathologists also work in the interest of public health. These professionals examine bodies in order to determine if an infectious disease is a threat to public health. Forensic pathologists can also work as medical examiners and coroners.
  • Cytopathology: The branch of pathology that studies and diagnoses disease on a cellular level. A common cytopathological test is the Pap smear, which is used to determine cervical cancer. A cytopathologist examines cells from body cavities, such as urine and fluids from the chest or abdomen.
  • Neuropathology: The diagnosis of diseases of the nervous system and skeletal muscles. These pathologists are familiar with both the nervous and neuromuscular systems.
  • Dermatopathology: Experts who diagnose infectious, immunologic, and degenerative diseases of the skin. Dermatopathologists interpret tissues, cellular scrapings, and smears of skin.
  • Chemical pathology: The branch of pathology dealing with the biochemical basis of disease and the use of biochemical tests for diagnosis and disease management.
  • Molecular genetic pathology: The area of pathology that focuses on the evolution of disease on a molecular level. These pathologists investigate the genetic material of the patient and can determine the risk of the patient developing a genetic disease such as breast cancer. They are also involved in monitoring the effect of therapy.
  • Hematology: The study of all aspects of blood, including plasma, red cells and white cells, and blood marrow. Hematologists are responsible for the care of patients who suffer from a wide range of blood disorders, such as leukemia, lymphoma, hemophilia, and anemia. These professionals are also responsible for blood banks and provide blood for surgeries and transfusions.
  • Immunopathology: The diagnosis of diseases related to the body's immune system. They investigate diseases where the immune system is overactive or under-active, or where the immune system is reacting to things in the environment.
  • Medical microbiology: Deals with the study and diagnosis of diseases in humans that are caused by microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, viruses, and parasites.

Work Environment

Pathologists spend their time in laboratories, hospital wards, offices, and classrooms. In general, they work 40-hour weeks, but their hours are flexible and the work week can total more than 40 hours. Pathologists have more regular hours than a physician, even though they work rotating shifts.

Pathologists are part of a patient's medical team. They attend meetings to share information on diagnoses with the other physicians who make up a patient's medical team.

Pathologists work in laboratories where there are chemicals present, and use highly accurate and precise equipment. They also work with human tissue, blood, and bodily fluids.

On the Job

  • Diagnose diseases or study medical conditions using techniques such as gross pathology, histology, cytology, cytopathology, clinical chemistry, immunology, flow cytometry, and molecular biology.
  • Examine microscopic samples to identify diseases or other abnormalities.
  • Consult with physicians about ordering and interpreting tests or providing treatments.
  • Communicate pathologic findings to surgeons or other physicians.
  • Write pathology reports summarizing analyses, results, and conclusions.
  • Analyze and interpret results from tests such as microbial or parasite tests, urine analyses, hormonal assays, fine needle aspirations (FNAs), and polymerase chain reactions (PCRs).
  • Conduct genetic analyses of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) or chromosomes to diagnose small biopsies and cell samples.
  • Diagnose infections, such as Hepatitis B and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), by conducting tests to detect the antibodies that patients' immune systems make to fight such infections.
  • Identify the etiology, pathogenesis, morphological change, and clinical significance of diseases.
  • Obtain specimens by performing procedures such as biopsies and fine need aspirations (FNAs) of superficial nodules.
  • Perform autopsies to determine causes of deaths.
  • Plan and supervise the work of the pathology staff, residents or visiting pathologists.
  • Conduct research and present scientific findings.
  • Develop or adopt new tests or instruments to improve diagnosis of diseases.
  • Educate physicians, students, and other personnel in medical laboratory professions such as medical technology, cytotechnology, and histotechnology.
  • Read current literature, talk with colleagues, or participate in professional organizations or conferences to keep abreast of developments in pathology.
  • Manage medical laboratories.
  • Review cases by analyzing autopsies, laboratory findings, or case investigation reports.
  • Testify in depositions or trials as an expert witness.

Companies That Hire Pathologists

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Additional Information

For more information about pathology and careers in pathology, check out these pathology society websites:


Additional Support

We'd like to acknowledge the additional support of:

  • Abbott Fund
  • MedImmune
  • Medtronic Foundation
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