Becoming a Pathologist's Assistant: Salary Info & Job Description

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A pathologist's assistant earns an average salary of $77,000, but is it worth the education requirements? Get the truth about the salary information and the job description to decide if it's the right career for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Career as a Pathologist's Assistant

Pathologist assistants (PAs) do much more than help pathologists, they also teach classes, prepare examinations, supervise employees and prepare budgets. Below are some pros and cons of the profession.

PROS of Being a Pathologist's Assistant
High paying ($77,000 average annual salary)*
Perform a variety of tasks**
Flexibility with job location**
High demand career (4 jobs for every graduate)***

CONS of Being a Pathologist's Assistant
Often handle human corpses***
High level of responsibility**
Admission to grad school is limited (just 9 accredited graduate programs in U.S. as of 2012)*****
Possibility for stress*****

Sources: *Salary.com,**Explorehealthcareers.org, ***American Association of Pathologists' Assistants, ****University of Arkansas, *****American Society for Clinical Pathology, ******National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences

Career Information

Job Description and Duties

Pathologist assistants perform both autopsy and surgical pathology. With autopsy pathology, assistants perform a postmortem examination, prepare tissue samples and take photographs as well as microscopic samples. Assistants in surgical pathology dissect specimens, record their physical features and obtain viral and bacterial cultures. Assistants might also examine organ tissues and assist the pathologist in determining the best way to proceed with the autopsy after performing an initial examination. Some pathologist assistants also handle bookkeeping and billing, supervise employees and keep records.

Career Prospects and Salary Info

According to the most recent information available, PAs work in various types of hospitals, reference laboratories and academic centers. With so many potential work environments and the ability to work in multiple states and countries, chances are good that a pathologist's assistant can find a job in a location and environment that he or she will enjoy. Most pathologist's assistants work 40-55 hours a week.

According to explorehealthcareers.org, the average entry-level salary for PAs was $75,000 to $90,000; workload, experience, cost of living and setting were all determining factors in the salary. Individuals who are experienced can earn as much as six figures.

What Are the Requirements?

In order to prepare for becoming a pathologist's assistant, individuals should at least have a Bachelor of Science degree in biology, medical technology, chemistry or a related field. It's recommended that pathologist assistants be organized, be able to take as well as give direction and be observant. Taking calculus, biology and chemistry in high school will serve as good preparation for college courses. A biology bachelor's degree program may instruct students on physical sciences, cell chemistry and ecology. Students could learn in a laboratory setting and complete a research project their final year. Other bachelor's degree classes might include cell biology, genetics and PC applications.

After earning a bachelor's degree, individuals may want to continue on to earn a graduate degree specifically for this field; programs typically result in a Master of Health Science - Pathology Assistant degree. Graduating from a program accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS) will qualify graduates to pursue certification. Master's programs could take up to two years to complete, including a year or more of courses and several months of clinical work. Program coursework could focus on pathology techniques, neuroanatomy and genetics. Professors might instruct students on autopsy pathology in addition to management and photography.

According to the American Association of Pathologist's Assistants, only Nevada required a state license to practice as a PA.

What Employers Are Looking For

In addition to the coursework and educational requirements they list, employers look for candidates with extensive laboratory experience and exceptional focus and attention to detail. Depending on the pathology lab's purpose, some employers will look for detailed knowledge of anatomy and/or familiarity with autopsy procedures or the criminal code. Others may seek managerial abilities and familiarity with clinical information systems. Following are examples of job postings open during March 2012.

  • A hospital in Cambridge, MA, advertised for a pathologist assistant with 2-5 years of experience to process all surgical specimens in such a way that a correct diagnosis can be made by the pathologist, perform special procedures on surgical specimens and coordinate all quality assurance activities in the laboratory.
  • A women's hospital in Oakland, PA, advertised for a full-time senior pathologist assistant to work daylight hours and help support the pathology department. The senior pathologist assistant will join a team of five pathologists assistants and perform the evaluation, examination, description, dissection and sectioning of the gross tissue in both surgical specimens and perinatal autopsies.
  • A healthcare system in San Antonio, TX, advertised for a pathologist assistant who can offer and manage both administrative guidance and support for technical operations in the surgical pathology grossing room and the autopsy service. The job posting also stated that in order to maintain certification, the pathologist assistant would have to complete continuing medical education every year.

How to Stand out in the Field

Although not a requirement for every job, the pathologist assistant master's degree mentioned above will help a PA to qualify for more positions, earn better wages and advance in his or her career. In addition, the degree is one of the requirements for the certification offered by

the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP). The certification, referred to as the PA(ASCP) credential, requires a bachelor's degree, an NAACLS-accredited pathologists' assistant master's degree and successful completion of an exam. Certification must be renewed every three years.

Other advantages can include specializing in certain types of pathology, such as anatomic or clinical pathology. Knowledge of a state's administrative code of criminal procedure could also be an asset.

Seeing as most PAs carry out a multitude of tasks, it may also help to be experienced with teaching, administration and supervision/management and have a background in preparing budgets. Organizations such as the American Association of Pathologists' Assistants and the American Society for Clinical Pathology could offer updates and information on the field pertaining to certification, continuing education and other relevant news. Such organizations can serve as valuable resources for those currently employed and just starting out in the field.

Other Career Paths

Individuals in the following careers also assist pathologists, but they may not have as many supervision and management responsibilities for individuals. These jobs can be good options for professionals who would like to focus more on science and less on administration, management and supervision.

Histotechnologist

One career related to being a pathologist assistant is that of a histologic technician. Histologic technicians take samples from tissues and prepare slides for examination as well as diagnosis. They also participate in research studies, use computerized laboratory equipment and freeze tissue specimen. O*NET Online reported that in 2010, histotechnologists made an average of $56,000 a year (www.onetonline.org).

Cytotechnologist

Cytotechnologists also work alongside pathologists studying diseases. Their findings are used to develop treatment plans and form diagnoses. They might also have the opportunity to teach students about cytotechnology. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) includes cytotechnologists with medical and clinical laboratory technologists, reporting that in 2007 they earned an average annual income of $52,000. Most cytotechnologists have a bachelor's degree and some states require that they be licensed, just as some employers may prefer that they be certified by the American Society of Clinical Pathology.

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