Before you start applying for a master’s in pathology, one of the highest paying master’s degrees, you need to understand what you’re getting into. Although you need an advanced education to work in this field, earning this master’s degree will put you on the path to a pathologists’ assistant role. You may be expected to be familiar with both the clinical and anatomic subdisciplines of pathology as well as principles and techniques used in nearly a dozen different subspecialties recognized within this field.
The Definition of Pathology, Pathologists and Pathologists’ Assistants
The most basic explanation of what it means to study pathology is to study disease – what causes it and what consequences it causes in the body. Pathologists are highly educated practitioners who research and examine the cause and effects of disease and injury. In the United States, pathologists are doctors who, along with their Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree, have special training in laboratory work.
If you don’t pursue an M.D. or D.O. and instead earn your master’s degree in pathology, the career you would be qualified for is pathologist assistant. In this role, you would perform the critical work of preparing and examining medical samples in the lab. Becoming a pathologists’ assistant is challenging, requiring you to graduate from one of only a small number – 14, as of 2020 – of master’s degree programs accredited by the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Science (NAACLS). You also need to pursue professional certification from the American Association of Pathologists’ Assistants.
Pathologists’ assistants, along with other medical and clinical laboratory personnel, use tools such as microscopes and slides to examine and analyze samples of tissues, fluids, and cells, according to O*NET.
Understanding Clinical and Anatomic Pathology
The two subdisciplines of pathology are clinical and anatomic pathology, and both areas of the field are fairly broad. Anatomic pathology includes the performance of autopsies on the bodies of the deceased – an area of the field made famous by its overrepresentation in crime dramas – but also in examining samples of tissues, body fluids and organs of living patients for evidence of structural abnormalities. Clinical pathology, on the other hand, analyzes samples to find any functional abnormalities.
The difference between these two types of abnormalities is that, in the structural abnormalities that you would look for as an anatomic pathologist, there is often some kind of visible abnormality in the structure of the body part. In a functional abnormality, the symptoms and functional deficiencies are real, but many imaging and other forms of diagnostic tests may show that the structure of all body parts and tissues is normal.
Both of the subdisciplines of pathology also go by other names. Anatomic pathology is sometimes referred to as surgical pathology, while clinical pathology is often called laboratory medicine.
Subspecialties of Pathology
Within the field of pathology, the American Board of Pathology recognizes 11 different subspecialties as areas of practice distinct enough to warrant their own specialized certification. In the subspecialty of blood banking and transfusion, pathology professionals process and analyze the compatibility of blood products, such as whole blood, platelets and plasma, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. A separate subspecialty of pathology, hematology, focuses on blood diseases.
Forensic pathology is the study of tissue samples from deceased people whose deaths may be a legal matter, such as a violent attack. The subspecialty of chemical pathology analyzes body fluids. Medical microbiology is the examination of tiny infectious organisms. If you work in cytopathology, you could search for cellular alterations, such as cancer, while working in molecular genetic pathology would have you analyzing and testing genetic markers. There’s dermatopathology, which revolves around examining the tissues gain from skin biopsies, as well as neuropathology, used to examine samples from the nervous system to identify neurological disorders.
One subspecialty, pediatric pathology, focuses on the study of disease and laboratory samples from children patients. Within the field of pathology, one subspecialty that stands out is clinical informatics. Unlike the other subspecialties, which emphasize the analysis of samples in the laboratory, the subspecialty of clinical informatics in pathology instead examines the databases, information systems and other information technology systems used in managing healthcare data and in quality control and assurances of pathology laboratory findings.
Although pathologists with a medical degree can become certified in these different subspecialties, pathologists’ assistants only acquire general certification from the American Association of Pathologists’ Assistants.