Pathologist Career

Pathologists are physicians who analyze tissue specimens to identify abnormalities and diagnose diseases. Approximately 13,700 pathologists are employed in the United States.

Pathologist Career History

During the late Middle Ages, the earliest known autopsies were performed to determine cause of death in humans. As these autopsies were documented, much information about human anatomy was gathered and studied. In 1761, the culmination of autopsy material resulted in the first textbook of anatomy by Giovanni Batista Morgagni.

Many developments in pathology occurred during the 19th century, including the discovery of the relationship between clinical symptoms and pathological changes. By the mid-1800s, Rudolf Virchow had established the fact that cells, of which all things are composed, are produced by other living cells. He became known as the founder of cellular pathology. Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch later developed the bacteriologic theory, which was fundamen­tal to understanding disease processes. By the late 19th century, pathology was a recognized medical specialty.

PathologistTechnological advances of the 20th century, from electron microscopes to computers, have led to further growth and developments in the field of pathology.

Pathologist Job Description

Pathologists provide information that helps physicians care for patients; because of this, the pathologist is some­times called the “doctor’s doctor.” When a patient has a tumor, an infection, or symptoms of a disease, a patholo­gist examines tissues from the patient to determine the nature of the patient’s condition. Without this knowl­edge, a physician would not be able to make an accurate diagnosis and design the appropriate treatment. Because many health conditions first manifest themselves at the cellular level, pathologists are often able to identify con­ditions before they turn into serious health problems.

Many people associate pathologists only with the per­forming of autopsies. In fact, while pathologists do per­form autopsies, much of their work involves living patients. Pathologists working in hospital laboratories examine the blood, urine, bone marrow, stools, tissues, and tumors of patients. Using a variety of techniques, pathologists locate the causes of infections and determine the nature of unusual growths. Pathologists consult with a patient’s physician to determine the best course of treatment. They may also talk with the patient about his or her condition. In a sense, the work of pathologists is much like detective work. It is often through the efforts of pathologists that health conditions are recognized and properly treated.

Pathologist Career Requirements

High School

If you are interested in pursuing a medical degree, a high school education emphasizing college preparatory classes is a must. Science courses, such as biology, chemistry, and physics are necessary, as are math courses. These classes will not only provide you with an introduction to basic science and math concepts, but also allow you to determine your own aptitude in these areas. Espe­cially important are any courses emphasizing laboratory work. Since college will be your next educational step, it is also important to take English courses to develop your researching and writing skills. Foreign language and social science classes will also help make you an appealing candidate for college admission as well as prepare you for your future undergraduate and graduate education. Courses in computer science are a must as well.

Postsecondary Training

Like any medical specialist, a pathologist must earn an M.D. degree and become licensed to practice medicine (see Physi­cians), after which begins a four-year pathology residency. Residents may choose to specialize in anatomical pathol­ogy (AP) or clinical pathology (CP). Many pathologists, however, prefer to specialize in both anatomical and clini­cal pathology; licensing as an AP/CP pathologist requires a five-year residency. Various sub-specialties require further training beyond the residency.

Certification and Licensing

All physicians must be licensed to practice medicine. The American Board of Pathology is the govern­ing board for pathologist certifi­cation. A pathologist can pursue certification along three primary paths—an anatomical pathology program, a clinical pathology program, or a combined ana­tomical and clinical pathology program. Once a pathologist has completed certification, he or she can choose to specialize in a par­ticular area of pathology. Gaining certification in a specialty gener­ally requires an additional one to two years of training, although there is a potential for combining this training with the standard pathology residency program.

Other Requirements

Successful pathologists should have an eye for detail and be able to concentrate intently on work, work well and communicate effectively with others, and be able to accept a great deal of responsibility. They need to perform well under pres­sure, be patient, thorough, and confident in decisions.

Exploring Pathologist Career

To learn more about this career, ask your biology teacher or guidance counselor to set up an information interview with a pathologist. Read as many books and other publications as you can about pathology. Visit the Web sites of the associa­tions listed at the end of this article for more information.


About 75 percent of pathologists work in community hos­pitals directing the activities of pathology laboratories. Most pathologists working in hospitals are responsible for the blood bank supplies. Many also perform laboratory services for physicians and medical clinics affiliated with the hospitals. In most hospitals, pathologists work in a group, sharing various duties. They may, however, special­ize in different areas of clinical pathology.

As health care moves toward more outpatient and ambulatory care services, pathologists will have increas­ing opportunities to work in clinics, group practices, and private practice. Many independent laboratories require pathologists. A relatively small number of pathologists work for local, state, and federal governments as foren­sic pathologists assisting law enforcement agencies. The military services and government agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, also employ pathologists.

Starting Out

There are no shortcuts to entering the medical profes­sion. Requirements are an M.D. degree, a licensing exam­ination, a one- or two-year internship, and a four-year residency. Upon completing this program, which may take up to 15 years, pathologists are then ready to enter practice. They may choose to find employment at com­munity hospitals, clinics, group practices, independent laboratories, or in private practice.


After gaining enough experience, pathologists can become directors of a hospital pathology laboratory. With even more experience, they may advance to serv­ing in a hospital’s administration. A pathologist working in an academic capacity may advance to direct a medi­cal school’s pathology program. Some pathologists open independent pathology laboratories or join with other physicians to form private group practices.

Because pathologists have broad medical perspectives, they often serve in leadership positions in medical schools, professional societies, and research organizations.


Pathologists earned a median annual salary of $213,534 in 2006, according to Salaries ranged from less than $170,942 to $248,541 or more. Several factors influence earnings, including years of experience, geo­graphic region of practice, and reputation.

Work Environment

The offices and laboratories of most pathologists are well equipped, attractive, well lighted, and well ventilated. Although pathologists do not have much direct patient contact, they do have a lot of contact with physicians and clinical staff. In addition to their medical duties, pathologists who are self employed or who are in a small group practice must focus on business aspects such as paper­work, supervising staff, and marketing their services.

Pathologist Career Outlook

According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, physi­cians’ careers are expected to grow faster than the average through 2014. The outlook for careers in pathology is particularly good. New medical tests are constantly being developed and refined, making it possible to detect an increasing number of diseases in their early stages. The medical community depends on pathologists to analyze results from these tests. Another factor favorably affect­ing the demand for pathologists is the shifting of health care to cost-consciousness managed care services. Testing for, diagnosing, and treating a disease or other health condition in its early stages is much less expensive than treating a health condition in its advanced stages.

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