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Pathologists’ Assistant

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.

Pursing any career in the forensic sciences requires attention to detail and a willingness to learn. 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 doctor, the pathologists’ assistant career can be an attractive choice.

Career Outlook for an Assistant to a Pathologist

The career outlook for pathologists’ assistants is strong. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2017) classifies pathologists’ assistants within the physicians’ assistants category, and, as such, projects job growth for the entire field to be 37 percent from 2016 to 2026. This growth is much faster than the average predicted for all positions, which is just 7 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.

Salary for Pathologists’ Assistant

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 median salary of physician’s assistants, which includes pathologists’ assistants, was $104,860 in 2017 according to the BLS. Those who fell into the lower 10 percent earned as little as $66,590 a year, while those in the top 10 percent earned as much as $146,260 a year.

To look specifically at the expect 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 $73,284 per year (Glassdoor.com 2018). A similar site, Payscale, gets a bit more granular. According to Payscale data, the average salary for a PA is $72,209. 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 averages for different levels of experience:

  • 0-5 years: $52,000 per year
  • 5-10 years: $72,000 per year
  • 10-20 years: $83,000 per year
  • 20+ years: $80,000 per year

It is interesting to observe the dip in average salary after 20 years of experience, but that could easily be due to the small sample size, with just 94 individuals reporting their salary.

How to Become a Pathologists’ Assistant

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 (4 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 (4 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 (2 years) – Upon completion of an undergraduate program, prospective PAs will need to apply to an NAACLS-accredited pathologists’ assistant program, which should culminate in a master of science (MS) degree. As of 2018, there are 12 programs 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 – 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.

Pathologists’ Assistant Tasks and Responsibilities

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 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 details. 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:

  • gross examination of specimens
  • dissection of pathology specimens
  • postmortem examinations
  • preparation of tissue of pathological testing
  • photography of specimens
  • administrative tasks including the writing of reports and supervision of other pathology staff

Licensure and Certification

Pathologists’ assistants in this field are not legally required to earn professional certification, as mentioned above, but it is recommended. Certification is avialable through 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.

Even though certification is not mandatory and is not a requirement from all employers, some will like to see it. In addition, 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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