Pathologist Assistant: Skills, Qualifications and Salary

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated September 10, 2021 | Published February 25, 2020

Updated September 10, 2021

Published February 25, 2020

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Pathologist assistants are highly trained health professionals who provide essential functions within a pathology laboratory. Working alone or under the supervision of an experienced pathologist, these professionals perform several functions in the pathology laboratory. Capable pathologist assistants will always be needed in a pathology lab, making it a promising career path for people with a science or medical background.

In this article, we'll discuss the role of a pathologist assistant, education requirements, salary expectations and how to enter this profession.

What is a pathologist assistant?

A pathologist assistant is a medical professional who carries out supportive responsibilities for a pathologist within a lab setting. As a branch of forensic science, this career path requires intensive laboratory skills, excellent educational achievements and attention to detail. The job often involves performing postmortem exams, dissecting human tissue and helping determine the cause of death of human specimens.

A pathologist assistant is trained to perform all the surgical and autopsy functions in a pathology laboratory except the diagnosis. Pathologist assistants work in sterile laboratory environments where they are exposed to diverse biological contaminants. However, there are safety and procedural guidelines that help reduce the chances of accidents. They spend most of their work hours standing, so the role requires a high level of physical and mental stamina.

A pathologist assistant is qualified to perform a broad range of tasks in both laboratory and administrative settings. They help a pathologist run laboratories with professionalism and efficiency.

Read more: Learn About Being a Pathologist

What does a pathologist assistant do?

A qualified pathologist assistant performs supportive pathological responsibilities in and out of the laboratory. They can either work independently or under a pathologist's supervision and direction. Here are examples of a pathologists' assistant's duties and responsibilities:

  • Preparing and examining specimens

  • Dissecting human tissue

  • Examining body parts removed during surgery

  • Summarizing patient medical records

  • Preserving and processing specimens

  • Performing X-rays on deceased patients, organs and surgical specimens

  • Preparing tissue for pathological examination and testing

  • Preparing the laboratory for human postmortem examination

  • Photographing specimens

  • Training, instructing, supervising and directing pathologist assistant students, pathology residents or pathology lab staff

  • Providing students with instructions on human anatomy, physiology and pathology, dissection skills and autopsy techniques

  • Performing administrative tasks including report writing, supervising lab personnel, procurement of bio-specimen samples and budgeting

Related: Learn About Being a Lab Technician

Average salary for a pathologist assistant

A pathologist assistant earns an average salary of $44.87 per hour. Salary expectations can depend on several factors, including experience, expertise, education level and location.

The profession holds many employment opportunities in the health care and law enforcement sectors. Pathologist assistants can work in hospitals, the medical examiner's office, law enforcement, universities and research institutions.

Related: How to Negotiate Salary (With Tips and Examples)

How to become a pathologist assistant

Pathologist assistants aren't required to obtain a medical degree, but the role involves intensive training and accreditation. Follow these steps to become a pathologists' assistant:

  1. Obtain a bachelor's degree.

  2. Enroll in a pathologist assistant program.

  3. Earn your certification.

  4. Join a professional organization.

1. Obtain a bachelor's degree

You'll need to complete an undergraduate degree program to prepare for an accredited pathologist assistant program. Colleges do not offer a dedicated undergraduate program for pathologist assistants, but you can choose courses in forensic science, biology, microbiology, chemistry and other areas related to medicine to help give you foundational knowledge in pathology.

To improve your chances of getting admission into a PA program, try to identify the specific course requirements before you complete your bachelor's degree. That way, you can focus on having good grades in the prerequisite courses to make your admission process easier.

2. Enroll in a pathologist assistant program

Once you've finished your undergraduate studies, you'll need to complete a pathologist assistant program accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences. Most programs last two years.

The curriculum provides a solid foundation in microbiology, human anatomy, forensic photography, general pathology, systemic pathology and genetics. Other topics include immunology, surgical pathology and clinical techniques for different aspects of pathology. Students will also get hands-on experience in pathology labs through clinical rotations.

3. Earn your certifications

Once you complete your pathologist assistant program, you will be qualified for certification. Although certification isn't usually required, it can help you choose from a wider range of employers and allow you to negotiate for a higher salary. To be certified as a pathologist's assistant, you must pass the American Society for Clinical Pathology certification exam.

You must sit for the certification exam within five years of completing an accredited pathologist assistant program. Once you've obtained this certification, you have to earn 45 continuing education credits every three years to maintain it.

4. Join a professional organization

Joining a professional association such as the American Association of Pathologists' Assistants or the American Society for Clinical Pathology can boost your earning power and provide multiple employment opportunities. These organizations provide members with training, job postings, networking opportunities and other benefits that can improve career progression.

FAQs about being a pathologist assistant

Here are a couple of frequently asked questions about becoming a pathologist assistant:

What is the work environment like?

Pathologist assistants usually work a typical office schedule, although they might need to work on weekends when the need arises. Their work is mostly done while standing, as assistants help to prepare specimens and process samples for processing and testing. They can work in small community hospitals, university or research-based health centers and coroner's offices, which might affect what type of hours they work. Assistants can also work in medical schools, teaching medical centers, reference laboratories and private institutions.

Pathologist assistants come in contact with pathogens, bodily fluids and other potential sources of infections. However, they work in sterile environments and follow safety precautions to prevent accidents or contamination.

What are the essential skills of a pathologist assistant?

To excel in this career, consider developing the following skills:

  • Professionalism: You'll need to perform your job with the highest degree of professionalism to ensure proper handling of specimens and discretion with lab results.

  • Attention to detail: The work of a pathologist assistant requires a high level of attention to detail to identify clues that could help solve complex problems during autopsies.

  • Teaching ability: A large part of your responsibilities as a pathologist assistant will be to teach students, interns, residents and laboratory personnel on different aspects of pathology.

  • Computer literacy: You should be knowledgeable in essential computer software and applications required to deliver their duties.

  • Organization: Pathologist assistants often run pathology laboratories, so it's important to have good organization and administrative skills.

  • Collaboration: You should feel equally comfortable working either as a team or independently for improved efficiency.

  • Communication: You'll need excellent verbal and written skills to communicate findings, teach students, supervise lab staff and write reports.

  • Interpersonal skills: Strong interpersonal skills will help you collaborate with laboratory staff, pathologists and other health professionals who might need your services.

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