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How to Become a Pathologist

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Scientist pipetting liquid in test tube
Jason Butcher / Cultura / Getty Images

What is a Pathologist? Brief Overview:

For many people, their first introduction to the career of a pathologist is through a true crime TV show or crime drama. That is because many pathologists work as coroners or medical examiners. Not all pathologists work as coroners or medical examiners, but all coroners and medical examiners are trained as pathologists.

Many people do not realize that pathologists are medical doctors. Therefore, all pathologists must have completed a medical degree from an accredited medical school, and have completed clinical training in pathology. Pathology residency training is about 4-5 years after medical school.

While autopsies are a large component of pathologists' work, performing autopsies is actually only part of what pathologists do. (An autopsy is the examination of a body of a deceased person to determine cause of death.)

Forensic pathologists do specialize in performing autopsies of crime victims and gathering evidence to solve crimes. In addition to forensic pathology, there are other types of pathology: anatomical pathology, and clinical pathology.

What Pathologists Do:

In addition to performing autopsies, anatomical pathologists analyze tissue and cells to determine if they are diseased, cancerous (malignant), or benign. The analysis and study of cells is called cytology. Clinical pathologists process bodily fluids such as urine, blood, etc. for toxicology test results and blood banking or transfusions.

How Much Pathologists Earn:

Pathologists' earnings vary slightly based on the type of pathology they practice. According to the MGMA (Medical Group Management Association), median annual earnings in 2011 were $279,079 for anatomic pathologists, and $252,450 for clinical pathologists.

Coroner vs. Medical Examiner:

Forensic pathologists who are employed by state or county government are known as coroners or medical examiners. The two roles are very similar but are not identical. Medical examiners are required to be physicians and are appointed to their position, whereas coroners are elected officials and are not required to be a physician to fill that role. Therefore, the coroner role is not as involved in the science and forensics of a death, as a medical examiner would be.

Careers Related to Pathologists:

If you are interested in pathology, but are not necessarily able to obtain your medical degree and become a physician, there are several other options for pathology careers that do not require a doctorate level degree. Some potential options are forensic nursing, pathologist assistant, cytotechnologist, or other medical laboratory careers.

Pros and Cons of a Career as a Pathologist:

If you are seeking a healthcare related career that does not entail a great deal of patient interaction, a career as a pathologist may be a fit for you. Especially if you are a forensic pathologist, most of your "patients" will be deceased. Even for other types of pathologists who analyze tissue and cells of live patients, there is not a great deal of patient interaction. Clinical and surgical pathologists would most likely be consulting with other physicians, more so than interfacing directly with the patients.

If you are not a detail oriented, science-loving, methodical, analytical type of person, then a career in pathology may not be for you. As a pathologist you may spend many hours examining microscopic samples of tissue, cells, or fluids to help identify a diagnosis or cause of death.

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