You might be surprised to find that a master’s degree in pathology, one of the highest paying master’s degrees, doesn’t prepare you to be a pathologist. Instead, this graduate degree program puts you on the path to working as a pathologists’ assistant. Although you may think that someone with a master’s degree deserves a more prestigious job title than “assistant,” there are actually a lot of perks to being a pathologists’ assistant instead of a pathologist. Those benefits include not having to go to medical school, getting started in your career earlier, accruing less debt to finance your education and enjoying the hands-on aspects of the job without the frustrations that can accompany patient interaction.
Avoiding the Burden of Medical School
The biggest benefit of being a pathologists’ assistant instead of a pathologist is that you aren’t required to go to medical school. Pathologists are physicians who acquire a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree. Becoming a physician means completing four years of medical school – consisting of coursework and clinical rotations – followed by a residency lasting at least three years. Pathologists usually have to complete four-year residencies, followed by one or two year-long fellowships in their specializations of interest. There are also numerous exams they must complete along the way, from the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) required to apply to medical school to the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) and board certification exams.
The educational requirements for a pathologists’ assistant, while certainly not easy, are far less demanding. A pathologists’ assistant only needs a master’s degree, not a doctorate. Although there are few accredited degree programs for pathologists’ assistants, the programs that exist are considerably shorter and less comprehensive than an M.D. or D.O. program. After all, your program is more focused, equipping you with the skills to perform clinical support duties in a medical laboratory focused on disease cause and effect, rather than preparing you to practice all aspects of medicine.
Although medical school is well worth the sacrifices when you truly have a passion to become a doctor, it does require an awful lot of sacrifices. Medical school is notoriously competitive, so you need to begin preparing to apply to medical school early on if you hope to get in. That doesn’t just mean taking a curriculum full of science courses. You also have to spend time shadowing physicians, volunteering with healthcare organizations, participating in research and cramming for the MCAT exam to make yourself a strong candidate. Once you get into medical school, the workload is intense. Immediately after you graduate, you start residency – which may require you to work as many as 80 hours per week.
Medical school isn’t for everyone, and neither is a physician career, in which burnout is common and a healthy work-life balance can be difficult to come by.
Less Time in School Means Earlier Entry Intro the Workforce
IMAGE SOURCE: Pixabay, public domain
Completing a master’s degree takes a lot less time than completing a doctorate. Instead of two years of coursework, you will complete just one year of didactic studies, according to the American Association of Pathologists Assistants. Similarly, your clinical rotations take up just one year, rather than the two years required of aspiring physicians.
Once you graduate and take the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) Pathologists’ Assistant Exam to obtain professional certification, you’re ready to start working as a pathologists’ assistant, without years of additional training required. You can start and finish a master’s in pathology program and already have a job lined up in your field while your peers pursuing an M.D. or D.O. are still getting ready to begin their clinical rotations.
This shorter time to degree completion for pathologists’ assistants means that you can start earning money earlier and begin gaining the experience needed to advance your career a lot sooner.
Less Student Loan Debt
There’s one other, enormous benefit of not having to go to medical school: avoiding the massive amount of debt that comes with a doctor’s education. While physicians are high earners, they also carry high levels of student debt. Physicians take on $200,000 to $300,000 of student debt, on average, to go to medical school, according to BeMo Academic Consulting. Paying back that much debt, plus interest, takes a lot of time, especially since new doctors completing their residencies don’t make anywhere near the salary that established doctors enjoy.
While you won’t make as much as a pathologists’ assistant as you would as a doctor, you also won’t have to take on crushing debt to start your career. The $69,000 median salary for pathologists’ assistants is well above the median salary for all occupations in the U.S.
The Hands-On Parts of Working in a Pathology Lab Without Dealing Directly With Patients
Even the most compassionate medical and healthcare professionals will attest that patients can sometimes be frustrating. One of the benefits of working as a pathologists’ assistant is that you perform the support functions in the laboratory that help pathologists and other patient care providers make a diagnosis without having to interact with patients yourself. That means you never have to be the one to give the patient bad news, soothe their anxieties or deal with the grievances of patients with difficult personalities.
That’s not to say that you never have to work with other people as a pathologists’ assistant. In this role, you will frequently collaborate with pathologists and other doctors, other laboratory professionals and healthcare workers in other areas. However, if you’re intrigued by the medical aspect of pathology but don’t think you’re enough of a “people person” to provide a good bedside manner to patients, pathologists’ assistant might be the right fit for you.
The downside to this reality is that, while you provide support in a clinical laboratory, you aren’t qualified to actually practice medicine with only a master’s degree in pathology.