Pathology Assistants (PAs) work under the supervision of a pathologist, who determines a cause of death based on detailed information provided by a PA. They don’t perform autopsies, but they could visit crime scenes, picking up specimens or taking pictures.
Before embarking on a career as a pathology assistant, be aware that this job can be gut-wrenching. It may be best to shadow someone in the job before enrolling in a school to be sure you have the intestinal fortitude for the position. You don’t want to spend a year in school only to discover in the second year, when you begin clinical rotations, that pathology isn’t the right field for you. Here’s what some pathology assistants at Linda Loma say about the job.
As a pathology assistant, you are responsible for a variety of duties.
- Coordination of schedules.
- Dissection of pathology specimens.
- Gathering and preparing specimens for testing.
- Helping with postmortem examinations.
- Maintaining files.
- Ordering equipment.
- Performing administrative tasks.
- Photographing specimens.
Your work environment will be sterile and clinical. Because you are dealing with the aftermath of a death, the atmosphere could be depressing, so a reliable support system and methods of combating stress are required. You may have limited interactions with people, so if you are highly extroverted, another career in medicine may be better.
The hours for a pathology assistant vary. Depending upon the office, you may work weekends or even a swing shift. If your primary tasks are lab-related, your schedule may be fixed and a little more routine.
Education for pathology assistants
Becoming a pathology assistant does not require a medical degree, but be prepared for as much as six additional years of training and education beyond high school. Then, allow extra time to become certified. According to the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS), the following education is required to pursue this career.
Step 1: Graduate high school (4 years) – A high school diploma or GED. Taking science courses in high school will provide valuable foundational knowledge for the necessary post-secondary education.
Step 2: Complete an undergraduate degree (4 years) – There is no undergraduate degree that specifically prepares an individual to become a pathology assistant. However, a pre-med track that focuses on biology, chemistry, or forensic science will make it much more likely for you to be accepted into an accredited pathology assistant program.
Step 3: Earn a master’s degree (2 years) – Upon completion of an undergraduate program, an individual must then enter a NAACLS-accredited pathologists’ assistant program, which should culminate in a master of science (MS) degree.
Step 4: Become certified – Graduates from accredited PA programs are eligible to sit for the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) certification exam. It is a voluntary certification and not always required for employment. But like other certifications, it gives potential employers the confidence that you have the requisite knowledge and skills to be a competent pathologists’ assistant.
Becoming a pathologists’ assistant is a more straightforward and shorter path than becoming a forensic pathologist, which requires medical school and a residency.
There are very few schools in the US that have accredited pathology assistant programs. To date there are only about a dozen of them, so if this is a career that interests you, be prepared to relocate.
Typical courses in a pathology assistant program
During the first of two years in a pathology assistant program, you’ll learn medical terminology, pathology, and anatomy. You may even be introduced to some management techniques. Your second year will be spent in clinical rotations at hospitals. Each rotation will focus on a different aspect of autopsy and surgical pathology. Since these programs are very competitive and extremely intensive, to do well, consistent attendance in class and hours of studying are necessary.
Pathology assistant certification
As mentioned, pathologists’ assistants are not legally required to earn professional certification, but most employers prefer it. Certification is available through the American Society of Clinical Pathology. It must be renewed every three years. To be eligible for renewal, you must earn at least 45 hours of continuing education credits over those three years. The parameters of this education, as well as any updating information, are listed on the site.
If you seek certification, you must do so within five years of completing your pathology assistant program.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, pathology assistants fall under the category of physician assistants; a career projected to grow 31 percent through 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations. For forensic science technicians, the job growth during the same date range is 17 percent.
If you want to become a pathology assistant, there are specific skills you will need to possess to be successful.
- Attention to detail.
- Analytical problem solving.
- Excellent verbal and written communication skills.
- Love of science.
- Not squeamish.
- Precise follow through on instructions.
- Work well in pressurized, time-constrained situations.
To learn more about pathology assistants, visit the American Association of Pathologists’ Assistants (AAPA). The site provides information and tools for pathology assistants and students of pathology assistant programs.