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How do I Become a Pathologist?

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  • Written By: Emily Updegraff
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 17 November 2016
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A pathologist is a medical doctor who specializes in diagnosing disease through examination of the body or tissue samples from the body. To become a pathologist takes years of study and a medical degree. In many countries, certification is also required to become a pathologist.

The field of pathology is divided into clinical pathology and anatomical pathology. A clinical pathologist diagnoses disease by performing lab tests on body fluids and tissues. An anatomical pathologist diagnoses disease based on examination of organs, tissues, and whole bodies. Diagnosing disease based on microscopic examination of surgical specimens is a large part of the pathology field. This work would be done by a surgical pathologist, a type of anatomical pathologist.

Pathologists hold at least two academic degrees: a bachelor's degree and a medical degree. Following high school, the first step to become a pathologist is to graduate from a four-year college or university. Students from virtually any undergraduate major may qualify for medical school, however they must at least take courses in biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, and English. Good performance on the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) is also required for admission into medical school. In addition to a high grade point average and high MCAT scores, extracurricular activities, leadership, community service, research, and patient exposure are important criteria upon which medical school admissions decisions are based.

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A pathologist may hold either a medical doctorate (MD) or doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO) degree. In some countries, a DO degree refers to a diploma in osteopathy. Although DO training in the United States is very similar to training to become an MD, education may vary in other countries.

Medical school is a four year training program in which students receive two years of basis science instruction and two years of of clinical instruction. The basic science instruction includes course work in anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, histology, immunology, microbiology, pathology, and other areas. During the third and fourth years, students rotate through clinical clerkships where they get hands-on learning experiences with patients. Students have input into which clerkships they will do, and a student aspiring to be a pathologist would do a pathology clerkship in addition to several other clerkships.

The next step to become a pathologist is to undergo further training as a medical resident. A residency is advanced medical training in a specialized field. Residents work under the supervision of a licensed medical doctor. Pathology residencies last four to five years, and are among the longer residencies a doctor may choose. By contrast, an internal medicine residency lasts three years.

Completing a residency leads to eligibility for board certification. To practice their trade, pathologists must be licensed by an appropriate governing body. In the United States, they are certified by the American Board of Pathology. Following board certification, a pathologist may gain further training in a sub-field of pathology. Depending on the subspecialty, this training lasts an additional one to three years.

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