How to Become a Pathologists' Assistant (PathA)

Pathologists’ assistants are physician extenders who work in forensic and surgical pathology labs. They work under the direct supervision of a pathologist or other physician, although they typically work independently. Day-to-day job duties include performing post-mortem examinations and autopsies, preparing samples for examination or lab tests, photographing specimens, participating in research, and writing detailed reports of findings.

Professionals in this field must be detail-oriented, work well under pressure, and follow procedures with utmost precision. To work in this field, aspiring pathologists’ assistants must earn a master’s degree in science, health sciences, or biomedical sciences from a National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS) accredited program. These programs take two years to complete and include extensive clinical rotations to gain hands-on experience.

Due to a shortage of physicians and an aging population that needs additional medical care, physician’s assistants are in high demand. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that there will be a 27 percent increase in jobs for pathologists’ assistants between 2022 and 2032.

Continue reading to learn what it takes to enter this is demand field, including top programs and a detailed step-by-step guide.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Pathologists’ Assistant?

Pathologists’ assistants perform painstaking detail-oriented work that requires both experience and education. It takes approximately six years of education post-high school to become a pathologists’ assistant.

Schooling for pathologists’ assistants starts with a bachelor’s degree. There are several majors students can choose from in order to enter this field. The most common majors are chemistry, biology, pre-medicine, or health sciences. Upon completing a bachelor’s degree, students must then complete a master of science in pathologists’ assistant (PAA) or a master’s degree in health sciences with a pathologists’ assistant specialization. These master’s programs are typically completed in two years of full-time study and include extensive clinical experiences.

Students who attend a National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences (NAACLS) accredited program are eligible to sit for the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) pathologists’ assistant exam.

Obtaining national certification is an industry-standard and required for most employment. Certification demonstrates competency in the field and assures employers that candidates are prepared to perform essential job duties. Licensing is only required in a few states, although some states consider pathologists’ assistants as laboratory personnel and may require a license under that designation. Aspiring pathologists’ assistants should contact their local board to learn what, if any, licensing requirements exist.

Pathologists’ Assistant Program & Certification Cost

Pathologists’ assistant master’s degree program costs vary depending on the institution. State universities cost less. For example, the West Virginia University School of Medicine is only $17,460 per semester for out of state residents. Private universities, such as Wayne State University Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, cost $21,339 or more per semester.

Obtaining a national certification carries an additional cost. Pathologists assistants who pursue certification will need to pay $530 for the exam fee. State licensing fees can vary, so candidates should contact their local board to learn the cost. In New York, for example, licensing costs $200.

There are specialized skills required to be a successful pathologists’ assistant. Top skills employers look for include:

  • Detail-oriented: Much of the work pathologists’ assistants complete has to do with the most minute details. Pathologists’ assistants must have keen discernment to notice even the smallest variation from the norm.
  • Critical thinker: Many times, it may not be immediately apparent why a tissue sample, organ, or fluid may differ. Pathologists’ assistants are relied upon to problem solve why things are the way they are and determine solutions or causes.
  • Follows procedures: Autopsies and postmortem examinations but be completed the same way each time in order to ensure not a single detail is missed. Pathologists’ assistants must be comfortable with following prescribed procedures over and over.

While most pathologists’ assistants work in public or private hospitals, some are employed in morgues, labs, medical teaching facilities, or government agencies. Hours can vary based on employment, but pathologists’ assistants generally work eight to five on weekdays.

Continue reading to learn how to become a pathologists’ assistant with this detailed step by step guide.

Steps to Become a Pathologists’ Assistant – Education & Experience

The path to becoming a pathologists’ assistant is pretty straightforward. Here is a detailed guide:

Step 1: Graduate from High School or Complete a GED (Four Years)

A high school diploma or GED is required to become a pathologists’ assistant. Classes such as biology, chemistry, and anatomy and physiology will help prepare students for further studies. Students should take as many advanced placement classes as they can as this can help boost a college application and provide college credit while in high school and help prepare students for the rigors of college coursework.

Step 2: Obtain a Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years)

The next step in becoming a pathologists’ assistant is completing a bachelor’s degree. Students can pursue a variety of different majors, including chemistry, pre-medicine, biology, or health sciences. Pathologists’ assistant programs require students to complete prerequisite coursework, so students should ensure they take the appropriate classes. Students can learn about which courses are required by contacting prospective pathologists’ assistant programs.

In addition to prerequisite coursework, many pathologists’ assistant programs require applicants to have observed an autopsy or shadowed professionals in this field. Master’s degrees in this field are extremely competitive, so students should strive to maintain at least a 3.0 GPA for higher.

Step 3: Complete a Graduate Degree (Two Years)

Pathologists’ assistants must complete a two-year master’s in science in pathologists’ assistant or a master’s in health science with a pathologists’ assistant specialization. Students should ensure the program they attend is NAACLS-accredited, as this is required for certification. Currently, there are only 12 such programs in the US and Canada. Most programs have relatively small cohorts of only six to 14 students.

The first year of most programs includes classroom courses where students learn the skills necessary to be pathologists’ assistants. The second year typically consists of intensive clinical rotations where students apply their classroom learning to real-world examinations and autopsies.

Please visit the section below for an overview of what to expect from varied master’s degree programs.

Step 4: Obtain ASCP Certification (Timelines Vary)

Graduates of a NAACLS-accredited program are eligible to sit for the pathologists’ assistant (PA) certification through the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP). This exam consists of 100 multiple choice questions and must be completed in two-and-a-half hours. The cost to register for this exam is $530. Topics covered in this exam include:

  • Fundamentals of pathology
  • Anatomic pathology techniques
  • Anatomy
  • Autopsy pathology
  • Laboratory operations

To prepare for this exam, here are some of the suggested review texts:

  • Fundamentals of Pathology: Medical Course and Step 1 Review, 2020 edition by H.A. Sattar, (2020)
  • Autopsy Pathology: A Manual and Atlas(3rd ed.) by A.J. Connolly et al. (2016)
  • Fischbach’s A Manual of Laboratory and Diagnostic Tests(10th ed.) by F.T. Fischbach and M.A. Fischbach (2018)
  • Gross Pathology Handbook: A Guide to Descriptive Terms (1st ed.) by C. Horn and C. Naugler (2014).

This review materials list is not comprehensive, so candidates should visit the ASPC website for more recommendations.

Step 5: Obtain State Licensing if Required (Timelines Vary)

Only a handful of states require pathologists’ assistants to be licensed. Some that require licensing classify pathologists’ assistants as laboratory personnel. Since licensing requirements aren’t always clear, pathologists’ assistants should contact their local licensing board to ensure they hold the necessary credentials and qualifications.

Accredited Pathologists’ Assistant Master’s Degree Programs

All pathologists’ assistant programs are exclusively on-campus due to the hands-on nature of the skills students need to learn. There are only 12 NAACLS accredited pathologists’ assistant programs in the US and Canada. Here is a look at five of them:

West Virginia University School of Medicine in Morgantown, West Virginia, offers a master’s degree in health science with a specialization in pathologists’ assistant. This program consists of 72 semester-credits that are completed over the course of two years.

Applicants for this program must hold a bachelor’s degree in a science-related background. Students spend their time in lectures and labs in the first year of the program, while the second year of the program is spent in clinical rotations. This program boasts a 100 percent pass rate on the ASPC PA exam.

The University of Toledo College of Medicine, in Toledo, OH, offers a master of science in biomedical sciences (MSBS) in assistant in pathology. Students in this program receive their education from board-certified pathologists and ASPC certified pathologists’ assistants. In addition to traditional pathologists’ assistant training, this program also offers training in forensics and surgical pathology.

GRE scores are not required for admission, although applicants do need a 3.0 undergraduate GPA, letters of recommendation, prerequisite coursework, and a statement of purpose.

The Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Virginia, offers a master’s degree in health science with a specialization in pathologists’ assistant. Graduates have the skills to perform gross (initial) examinations, conduct autopsies, and process specimens. The capstone project required for graduation entails completing an investigation and case study and may merit publication.

Students in this program are well prepared for certification as the program also boasts a 100 percent ASCP PA exam pass rate. Scores from students in this program are more often above the national average.

At Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, North Carolina, the master’s in health science with a specialization in pathologists’ assistant consists of 94 semester-hours of coursework, including extensive practicums. Students are trained in both autopsy and surgical pathology as well as laboratory analysis, creating well-rounded graduates with a variety of highly desirable skills.

Faculty in this program include pathologists, certified pathologists’ assistants, and technical staff, allowing students to learn from top professionals in all aspects of this field.

Wayne State University Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Detroit, Michigan, offers a master of science in pathologists’ assistant. This program maintains small cohorts of only 12 to 14 students per year, resulting in a personalized and intimate education that allows students ample time to work closely with top faculty in the field. Offered exclusively on-campus and full-time, this program can be completed in two years. There is a strong emphasis on laboratory skills such as histotechnology in addition to general pathologists’ assistant skills.

Kimmy Gustafson
Kimmy Gustafson Writer

With her passion for uncovering the latest innovations and trends, Kimmy Gustafson has provided valuable insights and has interviewed experts to provide readers with the latest information in the rapidly evolving field of medical technology since 2019. Kimmy has been a freelance writer for more than a decade, writing hundreds of articles on a wide variety of topics such as startups, nonprofits, healthcare, kiteboarding, the outdoors, and higher education. She is passionate about seeing the world and has traveled to over 27 countries. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Oregon. When not working she can be found outdoors, parenting, kiteboarding, or cooking.