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Pathologists are problem-solvers, fascinated by the process of disease and eager to unlock medical mysteries, such as cancer, AIDS and diabetes, using the sophisticated tools and methods of modern laboratory science. A pathologist is a physician who examines tissues, checks the accuracy of lab tests and interprets the results in order to facilitate the patient’s diagnosis and treatment. With today’s rapid advances in biomedical science, thousands of laboratory tests on blood and body fluids are available – many of which require a pathologist’s expert interpretation.

The explosion of genomics research and testing is revolutionizing the practice of medicine. In this evolving health care environment, the pathologist plays an essential role in guiding clinicians to select the appropriate diagnostic test for patients. He or she works closely with the patient’s other doctors and is a critical member of the patient’s primary health care team. Pathologists work in many areas of the medical laboratory, often serving as lab director.

Pathologists may specialize:

  • A clinical pathologist oversees lab tests conducted on body fluids. For instance, together with clinical lab technologists, pathologists work to ensure that blood and blood products are safe. In microbiology, pathologists identify microorganisms that can cause infections – bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites – so that the most effective treatment can be selected for each particular case.
  • An anatomic pathologist assists surgeons during operations by providing immediate diagnoses on biopsies (specially treated tissues removed in surgery and rushed to the lab).
  • A forensic pathologist uses lab science to answer questions about evidence collected for criminal and civil cases.

Some pathologists devote their careers to research in pathology, developing new tests and new instruments to better diagnose diseases.

Pathologists often teach their specialty to medical students and those preparing for other laboratory professions, including clinical lab technology and cytotechnology, among others.

The American Society for Clinical Pathology offers more information for students interested in this career.

Working Conditions

There are approximately 15,000 board-certified pathologists in the United States who practice their specialty in university, government and community hospitals; in independent laboratories; or in private offices, clinics and other health care facilities.

Starting salaries for newly certified pathologists range from about $150,000 to $180,000 annually.

Academic Requirements

After completing the requisite four years of medical school, pathologists train as residents for an additional four to five years before they are eligible to take board certification examinations. Many pathologists also undertake additional training in a subspecialty of pathology.

The American Society for Clinical Pathology provides more information and related resources on pursuing a degree in pathology.