People with a curiosity surrounding causes of death, tissue testing, and various pathologies, might consider becoming a pathologists’ assistant (PA).
According to the American Association of Pathologists’ Assistants (AAPA), 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. PAs prepare tissue samples for testing (e.g., immunohistochemical staining, light microscopy, flow cytometry, etc); help complete autopsies; document specimen and autopsy test results; compile and summarize clinical histories; educate medical and legal personnel on research findings; and maintain cleanliness (and inventories) in medical research facilities.
These highly skilled professionals are employed in a wide range of 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) following the completion of a PA program accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS).
Read on to discover what to expect from a pathologist assistant school, as well as information about common program requirements, curricula, professional certification, and program accreditation.
Programs that are specific to the pathology assistant (PA) career are at the master’s level. Many students take the additional step of obtaining a bachelor’s degree in medical laboratory sciences in order to ensure they meet the prerequisites for a future MS program, although this is certainly not a requirement. Following are the prerequisites (i.e., admissions requirements), curricula, and example programs for both the bachelor’s and master’s level path to becoming a pathologists’ assistant:
Finally, programs at both the bachelor’s and master’s level typically include preparation for national certification through the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP). Please reference the professional certification section below for more information.
As mentioned above, forensic pathologists’ assistant (PA) programs are increasingly being offered at a master’s level, as evidenced below. For instance, Wayne State University transitioned its popular bachelor of science (BS) pathologists’ assistant program to a master of science (MS) degree in fall 2016.
To give aspiring students a flavor for what to expect, here are two other PA programs accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS). Please reference the final section to learn about the benefits of program accreditation.
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, as well as a 100 percent employment rate among its graduates. 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.
Drexel University’s Philadelphia campus offers a pathologists’ assistant (PathA) program at the master of science (MS) 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 boasts 99 percent pass rates on the ASCP/BOC certification exam as well as 100 percent graduation and job placement rate. Drexel also has a Center for Academic Success (CAS) with several student-support services including testing preparation, counseling, and free tutoring.
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. That said, 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 been offering national certification for pathologists’ assistants (PAs). Prerequisites for this certification include providing documentation of experience, training, and postsecondary education, as well as 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. The ASCP and the American Association of Pathologists’ Assistants (AAPA) have opportunities for continuing education to maintain the certification.
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, as of 2020, Nevada is currently the only state which requires a license to practice as a PA, although New York and California also have restrictions. California allows uncertified PAs to dissect specimens as long as a certified pathologist is on-site. The AAPA adds that federal law holds anatomic pathology to be a form of “high complexity” testing, and therefore all uncertified practitioners must have at least 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 pathologists’ assistants (PAs) are advised to seek out academic programs which are 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 those schools which have achieved high standards of curricula, student outcomes, faculty instruction, and clinical training.
In addition to the NAACLS—a programmatic accrediting agency—there are also institutional accreditation organizations which evaluate universities on the whole. Divided by region, there are six common agencies recognized by the US Department of Education:
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).