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Becoming a Pathologists’ Assistant – Education, Licensure & Duties

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 quite lucrative. While this is not the type of career that is right for everyone, the job has a lot 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 several 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; 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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Career Outlook for Pathologists’ Assistants

The career outlook for pathologist assistants is burgeoning with opportunities. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2022) classifies pathologists’ assistants within the physicians’ assistants category and projects job growth for the entire field to be 28 percent from 2021 to 2031. This growth is much faster than the national average for all occupations, which is just 5 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.

Joining an AAPA committee can also help pathologists’ assistants advance their careers.

Salary For Pathologists’ Assistants

The salary for those who work as pathologists’ assistants can vary greatly; accurate data on the expected salary is difficult to find. The mean annual salary of physician assistants, which includes pathologists’ assistants, was $125,270, according to the BLS (May 2022). Those who fell into the lower 10 percent earned as little as $83,820 a year, while those in the top 10 percent earned as much as $168,120 a year.

To look specifically at the expected salary for pathologists’ assistants, 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 $63,010 per year (Glassdoor.com 2023).

A similar site, Payscale, gets a bit more granular. According to PayScale (2023) data, the average salary for a PA is $87,323. As with any career, different factors can go into pay, including work experience, degree obtained, and living costs in the area. PayScale also breaks their data down based on experience, which found the following average annual salaries for different years of experience:

  • Entry-level: 0-1 years: $32,115
  • Early career: 1-4 years: $62,171
  • Mid-career: 5-9 years: $67,371
  • Experienced: 10-19 years: $92,892
  • 20+ years: $52,270

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 only 76 individuals reporting their salary.

How To Become a Pathologists’ Assistant

Becoming a pathologists’ assistant does not require a medical degree but requires advanced training well beyond high school. While people may take detours on their path toward 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 advance toward the pathologists’ assistant career. Students would do well to pay special attention to science courses such as biology and chemistry to build foundational knowledge.

Step 2: Complete an undergraduate degree (four years) – No specific undergraduate major 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 must apply to a NAACLS-accredited pathologists’ assistant program, which should culminate in a master’s of science (MS) degree.

As of June 2023, 16 PA programs have earned accredited status. In one of these programs, students will learn the skills and background knowledge they need to be effective assistants. Students can expect courses to 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 to be employable as a pathologists’ assistant.

Pathologists’ Assistant Tasks and Responsibilities

Assistants with degrees might also want to join the AAPA mentioned earlier. The organization is the largest for assistants in this field. One can join as a student if one is currently enrolled in an accredited program. Those who join as an affiliate must have a bachelor’s degree and three years of experience. The organization also offers a fellow membership level, but it is only possible to attain this after passing the certification exam.

Professional and attention to detail are valuable to those in the field. The ability to communicate well verbally and 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 for pathological testing
  • Photography of specimens
  • Administrative tasks, including the writing of reports and supervision of other pathology staff

Pathologists’ Assistant 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 available through the American Society of Clinical Pathologists known as PA(ASCP).

This certification is good for three years. Pathologists’ assistants can renew by completing 45 continuing education credits. The AAPA has a specific framework for where these credits need to fall, and more information about AAPA certification can be found on its 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 all employers do not require certification, 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.

Writer

Rachel Drummond, MEd

Rachel Drummond has given her writing expertise to ForensicsColleges.com since 2019, where she provides a unique perspective on the intersection of education, mindfulness, and the forensic sciences. Her work encourages those in the field to consider the role of mental and physical well-being in their professional success.

Rachel is a writer, educator, and coach from Oregon. She has a master’s degree in education (MEd) and has over 15 years of experience teaching English, public speaking, and mindfulness to international audiences in the United States, Japan, and Spain. She writes about the mind-body benefits of contemplative movement practices like yoga on her blog, inviting people to prioritize their unique version of well-being and empowering everyone to live healthier and more balanced lives.