Imagine working side by side with a pathologist and helping to determine the cause of a person’s death. Working as a pathologists’ assistant (PA) 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.
Being a pathologist assistant does require advanced training, specialized skills, and academic achievement, but committing to that training can result in a fulfilling career and many professional opportunities.
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 but those working in a lab environment may find that they have more of a fixed schedule.
Pursuing any career in the forensic sciences requires attention to detail and a willingness to learn and working in pathology is no different. For individuals who are fascinated by the work of pathology but not interested in spending all the years and tuition necessary to become a medical examiner, the pathologists’ assistant career can be an attractive choice.
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The career outlook for pathologists’ assistants is burgeoning with opportunities. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2021) classifies pathologists’ assistants within the physicians’ assistants category and projects job growth for the entire field to be 31 percent from 2019 to 2029. This growth is much faster than the national average for all occupations, which is just 4 percent for the same time period.
To learn more about the position, prospective pathologists’ assistants can visit the site for the American Association of Pathologists’ Assistants (AAPA). The AAPA site features a range of information about the field, including certification, conferences, and membership resources, and offers a job hotline so members can look for positions when they are ready. The AAPA offers networking opportunities via virtual and in-person careers.
As well, joining an AAPA committee can help pathologists’ assistants advance their careers. Continuing education courses are available as is a professional certification, which will be detailed further below.
The salary for those who work as pathologists’ assistants can vary greatly and indeed, accurate data on the expected salary is difficult to find. The mean annual salary of physician assistants, which includes pathologists’ assistants, was $116,080 in May 2020 according to the BLS (2020). Those who fell into the lower 10 percent earned as little as $76,700 a year, while those in the top 10 percent earned as much as $162,470 a year.
To look specifically at the expected salary for a pathologists’ assistant, it is necessary to go beyond BLS data. Glassdoor, a site that collects self-reported salary details for virtually every profession, found that the average salary reported for pathologists’ assistants in the U.S. was substantially lower at $46,219 per year (Glassdoor.com 2020).
A similar site, Payscale, gets a bit more granular. According to Payscale data, the average salary for a PA is $84,930. As with any career, different factors can go into pay including work experience, degree obtained, and cost of living in the area. Payscale also breaks their data down based on experience, which found the following average annual salaries for different years of experience:
It is interesting to observe the dip in average salary after four years of experience, but that could easily be due to the small sample size, with 143 individuals reporting their salary.
Becoming a pathologists’ assistant does not require a medical degree, but it does require advanced training well beyond high school. While people may take detours on their path towards this career, according to the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS), the following steps must be completed to pursue this particular career.
Step 1: Graduate high school (four years) – A high school diploma or GED is required to take any steps towards the pathologists’ assistant career. Students would do well to pay special attention to science courses such as biology and chemistry in order to build foundational knowledge.
Step 2: Complete an undergraduate degree (four years) – There is no specific undergraduate major that prepares students to become pathologists’ assistants. Rather, students may choose a pre-med track such as biology, chemistry, microbiology, or even forensic science. Ideally, students will choose to earn a bachelor of science degree to maximize their chances of acceptance to an accredited PA program.
Step 3: Earn a master’s degree (two years) – Upon completion of an undergraduate program, prospective PAs will need to apply to a NAACLS-accredited pathologists’ assistant program, which should culminate in a master’s of science (MS) degree.
As of 2020, there are 14 programs in the world that have earned accredited status. In one of these programs, students will learn the skills and background knowledge they need to be effective assistants. Courses that students can expect include forensic pathology, human structure, surgical pathology, and autopsy pathology.
Step 4: Become certified (timeline varies) – Graduates from accredited PA programs are immediately eligible to sit for the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) certification exam. Although it is certainly not a guarantee of employment, this certification indicates to employers that the recipient has received the requisite training to be an effective and diligent pathologists’ assistant.
Overall, becoming a pathologists’ assistant is a more straightforward and briefer path than the one necessary to become a pathologist. However, a high school graduate can still expect to spend an additional six years in school to receive adequate training in order to be employable as a pathologists’ assistant.
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 currently enrolled in 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 a fellow level of membership as well, but 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 detail. The ability to communicate well verbally as well as through the written word is important. Ultimately, a well-trained PA can perform all the tasks of a pathologist apart from diagnosis. Most PAs work in community or academic hospitals although some may assist with autopsies in morgues or medical examiner offices. PAs can expect to apply their skills to some common tasks such as:
Pathologists’ assistants in this field are not legally required to earn professional certification, as mentioned above, but it is recommended. Certification is available through the American Society of Clinical Pathologists known as the PA(ASCP).
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 about AAPA certification can be found on their website. Enrollment in the ASCP BOC (Board of Certification) Certificate Maintenance Program (CMP) is $95 for three years and is required to maintain certification.
Even though certification is not mandatory and is not a requirement from all employers, some will require it as a minimum qualification. In addition, this certification needs to be obtained within five years of completing a program so new graduates are encouraged to stay informed of the certification pathway requirements.
Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. Rachel writes about meditation, yoga, coaching, and more on her blog (Instagram: @racheldrummondyoga).