From high school student to medical doctor: becoming a pathologist

Last updated: April 25, 2024
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Eleana Bowman
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From high school student to medical doctor: becoming a pathologist
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If you’re a science enthusiast, and enjoy helping others, then a career as a pathologist might be right up your alley. Pathology is a rewarding career that lets you explore the healthcare world and save lives.

Pathologists are like the detectives of the medical world. They examine tissue samples, body fluids, and organs to identify various conditions and find treatments for them.

Although it takes years of hard work and dedication, for most, the journey to becoming a pathologist feels worthwhile. And this article will tell you how to do it. So read on to unlock your potential and begin your exciting journey to a career in pathology!

What do pathologists do?

Pathologists are medical doctors who specialize in diagnosing and treating diseases. They work in places like clinics, hospitals, and medical schools.

You can also find pathologists working in private industry, such as a lab that provides diagnostic services to clinics and hospitals. Or they might work for a drug company, helping to develop new drugs or diagnostic procedures.

Some pathologists also work for the federal government, tracking diseases or developing health regulations.

Let’s dive a bit deeper into a pathologist’s duties.

Analyze tissues

Pathologists conduct tissue analyses to identify the cause of an illness or death. This may require a biopsy (surgical sampling).

Once the tissue is obtained, it is analyzed in one of many different ways.

Kidney biopsy being performed on a man

(Image Source)

For instance, it might be preserved and prepared for study under a light microscope. Cancer is often diagnosed in this way. Infections can sometimes be identified under a light microscope, too.

Analyze blood

Blood samples provide a lot of information about our health. Pathologists can view blood under a microscope to count or study red or white blood cells.

Chemical analysis of blood includes enzyme tests to determine a patient’s liver health. These tests can confirm whether the person has had a heart attack or has kidney disease.

Other diagnoses made from observing blood can include infection or cancer. Genetic testing can also be done via blood samples.

Provide consultation

Pathologists are often called on to consult with primary care physicians to help diagnose diseases and plan treatments. For instance, they may consult on a patient’s cancer treatment to help determine the best course of action for them.

Pathologists can also offer preoperative consultations to help inform surgeons as to the extent of tissue damage or disease. This helps the surgeon plan their surgical approach.

Conduct autopsies

Some pathologists specialize in autopsy pathology. These professionals perform ‌external and internal exams of the body and chemical analyses of tissues and blood to determine a deceased person’s cause of death. This often helps give grieving families closure.

If a person is thought to have died under suspicious circumstances, a pathologist’s role can be critical in helping law enforcement solve a crime.

Conduct research

Medical schools and research laboratories employ many pathologists. Some teach medical students, while others research the causes, diagnosis, and treatment of various diseases.

When new diseases and viruses emerge, pathologists are on the front lines. They track the outbreak and determine how dangerous it is, how quickly it spreads, and who it affects the most.

How much do pathologists earn?

The price of medical school can be daunting. But look beyond the initial costs at the salaries of practicing physicians, and you get a whole different view.

Each year, Medscape, a news and information resource for doctors and other healthcare professionals, conducts a series of salary surveys. Their most recent results were released in April of 2023.

The national average salary for pathologists is $339,000.

Average salaries for physicians in the US.

And the need for pathologists will continue to grow, with the The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimating a growth rate of 3%.

How to become a pathologist

You’ll need to dedicate a number of years to this journey. You can start while you are in high school by getting good grades. Completing college will help you pass the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). After that, your medical school education and residency will take a few more years.

Let’s get into a bit more detail on the process.

Start during high school

Take all the high school science courses you can, including biology, chemistry, math, and physics. If possible, enroll in advanced placement courses.

Hard courses will give you a strong foundation for the challenges you’ll face in college and med school.

Get to know your academic advisor early, as they will help you choose the right courses to get you ready for college. Plan properly, and you may even be able to earn college credit while in high school. Some students are able to complete a community college associate degree while in high school.

Earn a college degree in science

College is where the rubber meets the road. You must have outstanding grades to get into medical school.

Almost all medical schools require a major in one of the hard sciences, which include biology, chemistry, physics, or biomedical science.

Take any honors classes you can, even if they’re not in science, as more difficult courses are viewed favorably by medical school admissions committees.

Get advice early. Find out whether there’s an advisor in your department who helps students apply to medical school, and ask them if they’ll give you guidance.

Pass the MCAT

The MCAT is a standardized test required for admission to any medical school, and it’s just one factor that admissions committees consider. Others include your grades, letters of recommendation, and extracurricular activities.

The MCAT tests your knowledge of biology, biochemistry, chemistry, physics, and the biological and psychological foundations of behavior. It also includes critical analysis and reasoning ability.

7 step process to study for the MCAT

(Image Source)

Earn a medical degree

There are two types of medical degrees offered in the United States: a Doctor of Medicine degree (MD) and a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree (DO). In the U.S., 157 medical schools currently award MD degrees, and 58 award DO degrees.

Both MD and OD degrees are recognized and licensed in all 50 U.S. states and territories.

Chart comparing DO with MD degrees

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The MD and DO degrees are considered equivalent, as both have the same career opportunities. The main difference between them is their training philosophies during medical school. MDs focus on allopathic medicine, which includes traditional, evidence-based skills.

DOs, on the other hand, receive a more holistic approach in their medical school training. They focus on the whole person instead of just the specific symptoms or disease. They also receive training in osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT) — a more hands-on treatment of musculoskeletal ailments.

Choose a pathology subspecialty

After four years of medical school, you can choose to specialize in a particular medical field. depending on the specialty, you’ll need to complete a residency program of three to eight years which will provide you with clinical experience.

And don’t worry — you’ll start earning a salary right away.

Becoming a board-certified pathologist requires a four-year residency program.

There are quite a few areas of pathology in which a physician can specialize. Visit the Jobcase job board if you’d like to see the types of pathology positions available right now.

Let’s discuss a few of the pathology specializations you can choose from.

Anatomic pathology

Anatomical pathologists work with oncologists, surgeons, and radiologists. They study tissues obtained through biopsies, surgery, and autopsies.

Some anatomic pathologists use cell analytical techniques to diagnose diseases. They obtain tissues through tiny needles, prepare them for analysis, and examine them using a microscope.

Clinical pathology

Clinical pathologists analyze bodily fluids, tissues, and cells. They also examine electrolytes, enzymes, and hormones to diagnose kidney, liver, or glandular problems.

These specialists can also work in the area of hematology, which involves analyzing red and white blood cells, platelets, and clotting agents.

Forensic pathology

Forensic pathologists assist law enforcement agencies.

They perform autopsies on individuals who died suspiciously to determine their time and cause of death. A forensic pathologist’s work involves visual observation, tissue and fluid analysis, chemical analysis, and cellular analysis.

Due to the legal nature of these investigations, proper documentation is critical. The documents written by forensic pathologists are often presented in court, and the doctors themselves often present their findings in person.

Cytopathology

Cytopathology focuses specifically on the study of cells for diagnosis. A pathologist may obtain cells through needle aspiration, fluid collection, or biopsy.

They may look at blood, urine, or cerebrospinal fluid.

Tissue biopsies, such as samples of breast lumps or pap smears, are frequent targets for their diagnoses. Any suspicious lump is a target of investigation, as it could be the result of a simple infection or a cancerous tumor.

Molecular pathology

Molecular pathology involves the analysis of the molecular structure of cells. Pathologists analyze cells’ DNA to look for genetic defects. A defective gene may explain a particular abnormality, such as cystic fibrosis, an intellectual disability, or sickle cell anemia.

Pathologists also use molecular techniques to determine the gene origins of various cancers. This can be helpful in planning a treatment approach.

Neuropathology

Neuropathology is a field of pathology that diagnoses nervous system conditions. Doctors look at tissues of the brain, spinal cord tissues, and peripheral nerves to determine the source of the issue.

Four types of neurological diseases.

(Image Source)

Samples of brain tissue may also be taken after death. This allows doctors to accurately diagnose nervous system diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Pediatric pathology

Pediatric pathologists specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases in infants, children, and adolescents. They work with pediatricians, patients, and parents in their work.

The diseases pediatric pathologists diagnose and treat include developmental disorders, cancer, infections, and birth defects. They may work as part of a team with other medical specialists, including neonatologists, oncologists, and surgeons.

There are many other specializations in the pathology field — too many to discuss here! And this is a good thing because it means you have many options to choose from in your journey to becoming a pathologist.

FAQs

  1. How long does it take to become a pathologist?

Becoming a pathologist typically requires the completion of a bachelor’s degree (four years), medical school (four years), residency training in pathology (four to five years), and, optionally, additional fellowship training (one to two years) — for a minimum of 12 years of study in total.

  1. What career opportunities are available for pathologists?

Pathologists can work in various settings, including hospitals, diagnostic laboratories, research institutions, academia, and public health organizations. They may also pursue sub-specializations, teaching, or research opportunities.

  1. What is the role of a pathologist in patient care?

Pathologists play a vital role in patient care by providing accurate diagnoses, helping guide treatment decisions, and contributing to patient management through collaboration with other healthcare professionals.

  1. When should I start preparing to become a pathologist?

Start preparing in high school. Science, technology, engineering, and math courses will provide you with an important basis on which to prepare yourself for the more difficult courses you’ll take in college.

Start your pathology journey today

It takes years of hard work and dedication to become a pathologist. Focus first on your high school classes. Continue through college and on to medical school to become a medical doctor. Medical school and residency will provide you with the knowledge and skills you need to specialize in pathology.

The journey to becoming a pathologist is long and challenging. But if you work hard, you’ll have a rewarding career and make the world a healthier place. And who knows? You just might discover a groundbreaking treatment for a serious condition!

Check out the Jobcase job board to learn more about how to prepare for your career. Our Getting Hired Resource Center also has numerous tips for job seekers.

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