How to Become an Anatomist: Education and Career Roadmap

Mar 05, 2020

Learn how to become an anatomist. Research the education, training, and licensure information and experience required for starting a career in anatomical studies.

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Becoming an Anatomist

So you think you might like to become an anatomist? Anatomists study the structure of living things. They study organs that make up the human body and things like connective tissue, skin, and muscles. Professionals may also be referred to as gross anatomists or clinical anatomists. Some anatomists may specialize in certain parts of the human body. For example, some might work with the structures of the circulatory system, while another might focus on the structures of the brain and nervous system.

Anatomists fall under the larger category of medical scientists. Many of these professionals work in academic, medical, or consumer research fields. The majority of academic researchers also teach undergraduate, graduate, and medical students.

Medical scientists, including anatomists, typically spend most of their time in office and laboratory settings. Much of their time is spent in research or information compilation, although those who choose to teach will interact personally with students in an educational forum. When medical scientists work with potentially dangerous materials, precautions are taken to protect them from illness, infection, and injury. Most such scientists work on a full-time basis.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Ph.D. and/or Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathy (D.O.)
Degree Field Biological sciences, medicine or anatomy
Licensure Physician's license (for clinical positions)
Experience Experience teaching, designing curricula, organizing research projects, publishing research papers and leading research teams
Key Skills Ability to analyze statistical data, leadership skills, communication skills, ability to relate to patients, problem-solving skills, ability to speak in front of crowds; extensive knowledge of laboratory and surgical equipment; ability to stand for long durations, high levels of dexterity, physical strength for moving patients
Salary $96,420 (average annual wage as of May 2018 for medical scientists)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

So, what are the career requirements? Starting with the right education is important! A bachelor's degree is a great first step and can be in any field, but a biology or science-related field will help with advanced studies. Next, the completion of a graduate program is important. Anatomists are doctors and will often pursue a Doctor of Medicine or Doctor of Osteopathy degree.

A doctorate in any of the biological sciences will work as well. The requirements to become a licensed doctor can vary by state. Most employers look for a candidate with experience teaching, designing curricula, organizing research projects, and leading research teams.

Key skills: analytical skills, leadership skills, communication skills, interpersonal skills, problem-solving skills, physical stamina, dexterity and perseverance.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for all medical scientists is $84,810.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Potential bachelor's degree programs for anatomists and medical scientists to consider include those in the biological sciences. Coursework in these programs may include cell biology, biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology, chemistry, physics, organic chemistry and physiology. Besides lectures, many of these courses require students to complete additional hours in structured laboratory sessions.

Success Tip

Here's a tip for success:

  • Complete pre-med programs. Pre-med programs are structured to include common prerequisite courses generally required by most medical schools. Completing pre-med programs may prove most beneficial for students who plan to earn both a medical degree and a doctorate. Additionally, most pre-med program course requirements are similar to the core requirements of many biological science majors.

Step 2: Complete Graduate Studies

Students can choose to earn a degree in medicine (M.D. or D.O.), a doctoral degree (Ph.D.) or both. Medical school programs take four years to complete. Ph.D. programs can take 4-7 years to complete. Combined M.D./Ph.D. and D.O./Ph.D. programs usually take at least seven years of full-time studies.

Medical school students often spend their first two years in lecture courses and their remaining two years in clinical rotations and elective coursework. Students in combined programs often start off by completing the first two years of medical school before spending 2-3 years in their remaining Ph.D. coursework. While working on their Ph.D. coursework, students may also write their dissertations. Students then complete the remaining two years of medical school to graduate with a dual degree.

Common Ph.D. courses in anatomy may include biostatistics, muscle biology, gross human anatomy, microscopic anatomy, neuroanatomy and pathophysiology. Elective courses allow anatomy students to choose classes that fit their career goals, such as nutrition, neuroscience or human biomechanics. Nearly all Ph.D. programs and combined M.D./Ph.D. and D.O./Ph.D. programs require students to teach undergraduate coursework. Additionally, the majority of Ph.D. programs have several competency exams that students must pass at different stages during the Ph.D. program.

Success Tip

Here's a tip for success:

  • Gain teaching experience. According to job postings for anatomists found in December 2012, the majority of employers preferred professionals with teaching experience. While going through Ph.D. programs, students often have multiple opportunities to teach lower-level classes. Individuals may want to consider building as much teaching experience as possible to impress future employers.

Step 3: Postdoctoral Training

Individuals who graduate from Ph.D. programs in anatomy often enter postdoctoral fellowship programs to acquire additional training and experience, per the BLS. Many fellowship programs are offered at universities or other research-based facilities, and the duration of these programs varies based on funding and the focus of the projects. Those who earn medical degrees gain additional specialty training by completing residency programs, and anatomists would complete residency programs related to anatomy. Most related residency programs tend to be in anatomic and clinical pathology, though, and these programs last 3-4 years.

Step 4: Obtain Necessary Licenses

Anatomists usually work in research, but some research projects may require professionals to conduct clinical experiments on patients, and anatomists can usually only do so if they are licensed physicians. Each state has specific licensing requirements, but general licensing procedures include passing nationally recognized exams, such as the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) for M.D.s or the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX) for D.O.s. Some states may require specialists, such as anatomists, to pass additional exams or become board certified in their specialty field.

Step 5: Opportunities for Career Advancement

First and foremost, an anatomist must keep all professional licenses up to date. Each state requires licensed physicians to renew their licenses every few years. Although license renewal requirements vary, most states require physicians to complete continuing medical education (CME) courses. Most physicians complete CME courses that are related to their field of specialty. For example, anatomists may take CME classes that discuss such topics as anatomy lab procedures or technological innovations in anatomical science research. Specializing in one particular area can give an anatomist a leg up when searching for new jobs or opportunities if employers are looking for a person who is narrowly focused in the field.

Earning a bachelor's degree, completing graduate studies, completing post-doctoral training, getting necessary licenses, and seeking opportunities for advancement are the steps to follow to make the most of a career as an anatomist.

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