Becoming a Medical Pathologist: Job Description & Salary Info

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A medical pathologist's annual median salary is around $251,000, but is it worth the education requirements and debt? Get the truth about the job duties and career outlook to decide if it is the right career for you.
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Pros and Cons of Becoming a Medical Pathologist

A medical pathologist is a medical doctor who examines body tissue and fluid to determine diseases. Consider the pros and cons of being a medical pathologist to help you decide if this is the right career for you.

Pros of a Medical Pathologist Career
Higher than average salary (median $251,000)
High job-growth field (14% expected growth between 2014-2024 for all surgeons and physicians)*
Several specialization options***
Job opportunities in a wide variety of settings***

Cons of a Medical Pathologist Career
Medical school is costly (78% of students graduate in debt)
Requires a 3-4-year residency beyond medical school***
Entrance to medical school is very competitive*
Associated risks of working with viruses, bacteria and human bodily fluids***
May work long hours*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), **Salary.com, ***American Society for Investigative Pathology

Important Career Information

Job Description and Duties

The job of a medical pathologist is to identify and analyze diseases and make suggestions for treatment options. Pathologists often have a supervisory role in the laboratories where they work. Most pathologists work in a hospital setting as part of a medical team to help diagnose and treat diseases. Some, however, work in a forensic role performing autopsies to determine cause of death.

According to the Occupational Information Network (O*NET), a program administered by the U.S. Department of Labor/Employment and Training Administration, some of the specific job duties of a medical pathologist can include analyzing test results and autopsy reports, examining microscopic samples, writing reports and reviewing cases. Pathologists must also keep up on current literature and research by reading, conferring with colleagues and attending conferences.

Salary

According to the website, Salary.com, medical pathologists enjoyed a median annual salary of about $251,000 as of January 2016. Do keep in mind, however, that attending medical school is a financial investment, and many students acquire significant debt to pay for their education. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), about 78% of medical students take on debt to pay tuition with the median amount of debt at $180,000 as of 2015.

Career Paths and Specializations

Medical pathologists can concentrate in a variety of fields. For example, you can specialize in forensic pathology, pediatric pathology or a clinical pathology area such as hematology. Once you select a specialization, you can pursue a voluntary board certification in the discipline.

Pathologists can work in a number of settings. Though most work in hospitals, some choose to work in an educational institution or for pharmaceutical or biotechnology companies. Others manage hospital blood banks or find positions with government agencies at the federal, state or local level. For example, pathologists may find job opportunities with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Infectious Diseases Pathology Branch.

What are the Requirements?

In order to work as a pathologist, you must have a successful undergraduate career, score well on your Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and secure a place at a medical school to earn your medical degree. Competition into medical school is fierce. Johns Hopkins University reports that acceptance rates into medical schools have been decreasing, with only 45.6% of all applicants being accepted into programs as of 2008.

After receiving your Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree, you will need to find a place in a pathology residency program, which typically lasts 3-4 years and provides you with extensive research and clinical experience. All physicians in the United States must pass a standardized national licensing exam, and each state has its own specific licensing requirements. According to O*NET, in addition to your foundation in science and medicine, you must be confident in your abilities to process and analyze data and clearly communicate your findings with others.

Job Postings from Real Employers

Job openings for pathologists often specify an area of specialization and call for candidates who are certified in that specialization and state-licensed. Though not a complete panorama, below is a selection of job openings posted in April 2012:

  • A pathology private practice group in New York is looking for a staff pathologist to join their team. Applicant must be board-certified in anatomic or clinical pathology and licensed to practice in New York and New Jersey. Candidates should have specific gastrointestinal and genitourinary training.
  • A government agency is seeking an anatomical or clinical pathologist for a South Carolina medical center. The position requires shared evening and weekend on-call duties. Applicants must be board-certified, with a specialization in dermatopathology or clinical chemistry preferred.
  • A medical pathology group in California is looking to hire a surgical pathologist who is board-certified in hematopathology. The position is advertised as a partnership track offering the successful candidate partnership within one year.

How to Stand Out

Though not a professional requirement, many pathologists seek board certification to enhance their careers and reputations. For example, the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) offers certification through its Board of Certification. Applicants can choose from five categories, including specialist certification and technologist certification.

Develop Related Skills

In addition to exceptional medical and analytical aptitude, there are other skills that you can develop to enhance and advance your career. Empathy, attention to detail and excellent communication skills and are three of the qualities the BLS points out as important for all physicians. Those pathologists who hone their leadership and communication skills while working as part of a team with either other medical professionals can become effective and influential leaders.

Other Career Options

Registered Nurse

If you love the idea of working in the healthcare field but want to get started right away and not spend long years in medical school, consider a career as a registered nurse (RN). Job opportunities were predicted by the BLS to grow faster than average, at a rate of 26% between 2010 and 2020. You can start your career with a bachelor's or associate's degree from a nursing school. Like pathologists, registered nurses must attain licensure in order to practice, and many seek professional certification in their area of specialization. While the annual mean wage is significantly lower than a pathologist, at around $69,000 as of May 2011 as reported by the BLS, you'll likely take on far less debt if you attend a nursing program at a community college or state school.

Veterinarian

If you prefer animals to people, consider a career as a veterinarian. You'll need to complete veterinary school and become state licensed. Similar to medical school, competition into veterinary school programs is very steep. According to the BLS, less than 50% of all applicants in 2010 found a place in one of the 28 veterinary medicine programs in the country.

The job outlook for veterinarians is better than that of physicians and surgeons. The BLS estimates the profession will enjoy a 36% job growth between 2010 and 2020. The annual mean wage was around $91,000 as of May 2011.

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