For people with a morbid curiosity surrounding the causes of death and various pathologies, becoming a pathologists’ assistant (PA) is one possible career path.
According to the American Association of Pathologists’ Assistants (AAPA 2022), these medical professionals—analogous to physicians’ assistants—have a variety of surgical, autopsy-related, and administrative duties, typically performed under the supervision of a licensed pathologist.
For example, forensic PAs prepare tissue samples for testing (e.g., immunohistochemical staining, light microscopy, flow cytometry, etc.); help complete autopsies; document specimen and autopsy test results; access, compile, and summarize clinical histories; educate medical and legal personnel on research findings; and maintain cleanliness (as well as inventories) in medical research facilities.
Forensic pathologists’ assistants (PAs) are highly skilled professionals employed in various environments, including morgues, forensic pathology research organizations, community hospitals, medical schools, and private laboratories. Not surprisingly, PAs are rigorously trained and may even seek national certification through the American Society of Clinical Pathology (ASCP) after completing a PA program accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS). In addition, the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) also accredits PA programs.
Read on to discover what to expect from a pathologist assistant school and information about common program requirements, curricula, professional certification, and program accreditation.
Forensic pathologists’ assistant (PA) programs are increasingly offered at a master’s level. By illustration, Wayne State University transitioned its popular bachelor of science (BS) pathologist assistant program to a master of science (MS) degree in fall 2016.
To give aspiring students a flavor of what to expect, here are five PA programs accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS) and the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). To learn more about the benefits of PA program accreditation, please reference the final section.
Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, offers a pathologists’ assistant (PathA) program at the master of health science (MHS-PA) level. Drexel’s two-year program begins in May, with the first year marked by some laboratory exposure and comprehensive coursework in histotechnology, applied anatomic pathology, and medical microbiology, among other subjects. The second year comprises clinical rotations among several local hospitals and continued advanced instruction in the fundamentals of pathology.
Drexel also has a Center for Academic Success (CAS) with several student-support services, including testing preparation, counseling, and free tutoring. Graduates from this program are eligible to take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE), detailed in the certification section below.
Duke University of Durham, North Carolina, has a two-year master of health science (MHS) program for pathologists’ assistants. This school’s Department of Pathology blazed a trail for PAs 40 years ago, “founding” the profession.
Through 86 credits of courses such as pharmacology, immunology, and microbiology, students are taught the fundamentals of the discipline, including techniques, terminology, and technology. The program also has clinical rotations to impart skills such as laboratory management, medical photography, and various specimen testing procedures and documentation.
Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, offers a dual degree (BS/MHS) program. The four-year bachelor of science in biomedical sciences features courses in biology and chemistry focusing on human health and disease. The master of health sciences features didactic laboratory courses and 12-month clinical rotations.
In addition, students have opportunities to join faculty in research projects. This program boasts a 98 percent employment rate six months after graduation and a 100 percent first-time pass rate in 2020. The School of Health Sciences at Quinnipiac University also offers a master of health sciences in biomedical sciences.
The University of Maryland School of Medicine—based in Baltimore—has a NAACLS-accredited master of science (MS) program for prospective pathologists’ assistants. This program boasts a 97 percent first-time passing rate on the ASCP national certification examination and an employment placement rate of 100 percent after graduation.
With specialized instruction in surgical pathology, systemic pathology, and autopsy pathology—among other areas—this 38-credit program also involves clinical rotations at various world-renowned facilities, including Johns Hopkins Hospital.
As mentioned above, a growing majority of pathology assistant (PA) programs are at the master’s level, although there are some exceptions. Here are the prerequisites (i.e., admissions requirements), curricula, and program samples at the bachelor’s and master’s levels.
Prerequisites: Official transcripts from secondary (or postsecondary) schools with a competitive GPA (e.g., >2.5), completion of specific secondary-level coursework (e.g., biology, chemistry, calculus), personal statement, Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), or American College Testing (ACT) scores, Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) scores for non-native speakers of English, application fee
Common courses: Human histology, clinical terminology & methodology, the basis of pathophysiology, medical photography, vertebrate & human embryology, human anatomy & physiology, future trends in pathology practice, general education (e.g., English composition, philosophy, ethics)
Sample program: Quinnipiac University (dual degree BS/MHS program)
Prerequisites: Official transcripts from accredited undergraduate school with a competitive GPA (e.g., >3.0), completion of specific coursework (e.g., microbiology, biochemistry, general chemistry, organic chemistry, physiology, college-level mathematics, English composition), personal statement, letter(s) of recommendation, interview (in-person or distance-based), experience in pathology, medical photo portfolio, background check and drug screening, Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores (optional), TOEFL scores for non-native speakers of English, application fee
Common courses: Structure & development, general pathology, systemic pathology, surgical pathology, autopsy pathology, laboratory management, fundamentals of histology, histotechnology, medical microbiology, biomedical photography,
Sample program: Rosalind Franklin University
Finally, programs at both the bachelor’s and master’s levels typically include preparation for national certification through the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP). Please reference the professional certification section below for more information.
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Due to the hands-on nature of the training, laboratory work, and graduation requirements of accredited pathologist assistant (PA) programs, there are currently limited options for fully online degrees in this field. However, some schools offer partially online or hybrid (i.e., combined in-class and online) coursework, particularly for non-laboratory components of degree plans.
For example, the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science—a North Chicago-based school—has some online learning. Check specific university websites for an overview of the web-based learning options.
Since 2005, the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) has offered national certification for pathologist assistants (PAs). Prerequisites for this certification include providing documentation of experience, training, postsecondary education, and passing an examination.
This certification is valid for three years and can be renewed following the completion of the Certification Maintenance Program (CMP), which involves 45 “points” (i.e., credits of continuing education), including one point in safety, 20 in anatomic pathology, and 24 in anatomic pathology, management, education, or other relevant subfields. In addition, the ASCP and the American Association of Pathologists’ Assistants (AAPA) have opportunities for continuing education to maintain the certification.
The National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) offers the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) exam. Applicants who graduate from a PA program accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) are eligible for this multiple-choice exam that measures basic medical and surgical knowledge. Passing the PANCE exam awards PAs the designation of PA-C, which is valid for two years.
Although professional certification may not be required for practice, it is often preferred by employers of PAs. Furthermore, those who successfully fulfill the requirements can identify themselves as PA (ASCP), a title of distinction within the field of forensic pathology assistance.
Finally, according to the AAPA (2022), Nevada is currently the only state which requires a license to practice as a PA. California is slightly less restrictive, allowing uncertified PAs to dissect specimens as long as a certified pathologist is on-site. However, the AAPA adds that federal law holds anatomic pathology as a form of “high complexity” testing. Therefore all uncertified practitioners must have an associate degree in the discipline.
Check the AAPA or governmental (i.e., state or federal) websites for more information on local licensing ordinances, which are subject to change.
Aspiring pathologist assistants (PAs) are advised to seek out academic programs accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS). The NAACLS has worked to establish and promote quality among PA programs across the country, recognizing schools that have achieved high curricula standards, student outcomes, faculty instruction, and clinical training.
In addition to the NAACLS—a programmatic accrediting agency—there are also institutional accreditation organizations that evaluate universities. Divided by region, there are six agencies recognized by the US Department of Education:
Jocelyn Blore is the chief content officer of Sechel Ventures and the co-author of the Women Breaking Barriers series. She graduated summa cum laude from UC Berkeley and traveled the world for five years. She also worked as an addiction specialist for two years in San Francisco. She’s interested in how culture shapes individuals and systems within societies—one of the many themes she writes about in her blog, Blore’s Razor (Instagram: @bloresrazor). She has served as managing editor for several healthcare websites since 2015.