Become a Clinical Pathologist: Education and Career Guide

Learn how to become a clinical pathologist. Research the job description and the education and licensing requirements, and find out how to start a career in clinical pathology.

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Should I Become a Clinical Pathologist?

Clinical pathologists are specialized physicians who diagnose diseases by examining and testing cells, bodily fluids and tissues. They interpret the results of lab tests so that informed decisions can be made regarding patient care. Clinical pathologists spend many hours standing or seated at a desk or table. Dealing with life and death situations is a stressful part of the job.

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Career Requirements

Degree Level Professional
Degree Field Doctor of Medicine or Doctor of Osteopathy
Licensure and Certification All states require licensing; board certification is optional
Key Skills Diagnostic abilities, compassion, attention to details, manual agility; written and oral communications; medical software including PathLogix; accounting and data retrieval software
Salary $189,760 (Mean Annual Salary for Physicians and Surgeons, May 2014)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, O NET OnLine.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Most aspiring physicians earn at least a bachelor's degree before applying to medical school. Undergraduates don't need to pursue any particular major as long as they successfully complete the pre-medical courses that are required for admission to medical schools. All medical degree programs establish their own prerequisites for admission, but these pre-medical requirements generally include classes in biology, chemistry, English, math, physics and social sciences.

Success Tip:

  • Impress medical school admissions boards with academic and life achievements. Earning a high grade point average as an undergraduate, performing volunteer work or paid employment at a medical facility or being involved in extracurricular activities may give applicants an advantage in the competitive process of getting admitted to medical schools. Admissions boards of medical school programs may also favorably view applicants with positions of leadership or internships during college.

Step 2: Take the MCAT

Most undergraduates take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) before applying to medical schools. Most American medical schools consider scores from the standardized MCAT when deciding which applicants to admit. The MCAT is a multiple-choice test which records scores on the student's abilities in physical and biological sciences as well as verbal reasoning.

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) suggests that students take the MCAT in the calendar year before the year they expect to start medical school. The AAMC offers the exam at test sites across the U.S. Students who are displeased with their results may retake the exam. Students can take the MCAT as many as three times each calendar year.

Step 3: Earn a Medical Degree

Medical students typically need four years to earn a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree. The first half of medical school involves classroom studies in topics including anatomy, immunology, biochemistry and dermatology as well as genetics, pharmacology, infectious diseases and reproduction. Students also hone practical medical skills in lab settings during the first two years of medical school.

The final two years of medical degree programs involve students treating patients and making diagnoses while supervised by licensed physicians at medical facilities. The students gain clinical experience by serving rotations in areas including family practice, psychiatry, internal medicine, neurology, pediatrics, critical care and surgery. Medical students typically participate in seminars as part of the learning experience.

Step 4: Get a Medical License

Each state mandates licensing for physicians. The specific licensing requirements depend upon the individual states. Eligible applicants must have earned a degree from an accredited medical school and finished residency training. Passing a standardized national licensing test is also necessary to get a medical license. Applicants with a D.O. degree complete the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination. Candidates who hold an M.D. degree take the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination. Some states also require a state licensing test. Most states require that physicians complete continuing education in order to maintain their medical licensing.

Step 5: Complete a Residency Training Program

Newly graduated doctors who aspire to become clinical pathologists must receive additional training in their specialty during a residency program. Residency training in clinical pathology typically takes three years to complete. Some 4-year residency programs offer combined training in both clinical and anatomic pathology.

Physicians in clinical pathology residencies typically participate in rotations at hospitals and medical laboratories in areas including microbiology and transfusion medicine/coagulation. Clinical pathology residents eventually have the opportunity to focus on a sub-specialty area that interests them. Residents may work on research projects and act as consultants with other doctors about the meaning of lab results.

Step 6: Get Board Certified in Clinical Pathology

Some clinical pathologists choose to seek board certification in the specialty. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, certification is an optional step that may lead to better job opportunities for doctors. Clinical pathologists can receive certification from the American Board of Pathology (ABP), which is a member of the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS). To be eligible for ABP certification, applicants must have graduated from an accredited medical school, obtained a medical license, completed three years of training in a clinical pathology residency program and passed written and practical certification testing.

The ABP also awards certification in various pathology sub-specialties including forensics, hematology, pediatrics, molecular genetics and neuropathology. ABP-certified pathologists must finish extra training and testing as well as meet other requirements to receive certification in a sub-specialty.

Step 7: Maintain Certification

Certified clinical pathologists must meet certain requirements to keep their professional certification. The ABMS administers a Maintenance of Certification (MOC) program that keeps certified clinical pathologists and other doctors up-to-date in medical training and knowledge of advances in their specialty. The MOC program involves continuing medical education, testing and periodic performance reviews. Clinical pathologists and other doctors must maintain a valid medical license as part of the MOC program.

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