Imagine working side by side with a pathologist and helping to determine the cause of a person’s death. Working as a pathologists’ assistant can provide people with a career that is at once interesting and that can be quite lucrative as well. While this is not the type of career that is right for everyone, the job is one that has quite a bit of potential in terms of pay and career opportunity. It does typically require advanced training, high skill, and academic achievement, but training can result in new skills in both surgical and autopsy pathology.
An assistant to a pathologist or medical examiner will have a number of different duties and provide many services to a pathologist. Some of these include preparing and assisting with postmortem exams, dissecting human tissue surgical specimens, and even helping with some of the administrative duties in a pathologist’s office, such as overseeing budgets or other employees. Pathologists’ assistants most often work in laboratories and hospitals, but they can also work in an academic setting or a medical examiner’s office.
The hours for the job can vary. In some cases and in some jobs, weekend work and swing shift work may be a necessity. Those working in a lab environment may find that they have more of a fixed schedule. Typically, upon hire, the type of hours expected are made clear to the employee.
The career outlook for pathologists’ assistants is strong. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies pathologists’ assistants within the physicians assistants category, and, as such, projects job growth for the entire field to be 30 percent from 2010 to 2020. This growth is much faster than average. The American Association of Pathologists’ Assistants hosts a website that features various types of information about the field, including certification, conferences and membership resources. It even offers a job hotline so members can look for positions when they are ready.
The salary for those who are in the field can vary greatly. The median salary of physician’s assistants, which includes pathologists’ assistants, was $90,030 in 2012 according to the BLS. Those who fell into the lower 10 percent earned as little as $62,430 a year, while those in the top 10 percent earned as much as $124,770 a year. Different factors can go into pay including actual work experience, degree obtained, and cost of living in the area.
Those who want to become an assistant to a pathologist need to have at least a bachelor’s degree in a science field. From there, they can go on to seek a master’s degree in pathology assisting at a medical school and will need to do clinical rounds as part of their training. The education is often rigorous, and often necessitates students being able to maintain at least a B-average GPA. Relatively few schools are accredited to offer pathologists’ assistants programs, but those that are accredited through the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences include such notable schools as Duke University Medical Center and West Virginia University.
Assistants who have their degrees might also want to join the AAPA mentioned earlier. The organization is the largest for assistants in this field. It is even possible to join as a student, as long as one is a student of an accredited program. Those who join as an affiliate need to have a bachelor’s degree as well as three years of experience. The organization offers another level of membership – Fellow. It is only possible to attain this after passing the certification exam.
Some skills valuable to those in the field are professionalism and attention to details. The ability to communicate well verbally as well as through the written word is important.
It is now possible for assistants in this field to have certification, as mentioned above. The certification comes from the American Society of Clinical Pathologists. This certification is good for three years, at which point a pathologists’ assistant can renew. Most often, this is done by completing 45 continuing education credits over the course of those three years. The AAPA has a very specific framework for where these credits need to fall, and more information can be found on the website. Some schools even keep track of information about their success rates in the certification field. For example, the University of Maryland University College points out that its students have a 100 percent first-time candidate pass rate on the ASCP certification exam. These are the types of details that students will want to find out when seeking a program.
Even though certification is not mandatory and is not a requirement from all employers, some will like to see it. As well, this certification needs to be obtained within five years of completing a program so it may be something that new graduates want to start working on.
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Barry is Managing Editor of ForensicsColleges.com, operated by educational web publisher Sechel Ventures Partners LLC, which he co-founded. Barry was previously VP for a financial software company, and currently sits on the board of a K-8 school and lives with his wife and daughters in the San Francisco Bay Area.