Is pathology class coming up soon? Maybe it’s a career you’ve got your eye on. Either way; you want to know what it’s like…
So, is pathology hard?
Pathology involves a ton of studying. For that reason, coupled with the fact it involves a lot of lab and microscope work, it can be hard. You need to develop a good eye for detail and understanding of cases to do well. That takes a lot of time!
But having taken pathology as a course in health sciences, I’m pretty confident most people can do well. Especially if they develop a strong interest in the subject and study from the best materials.
In this article, I’ll dive a little deeper. We’ll cover:
- What pathology is all about (and what can make it both hard and easy)
- How it compares to other specialties/areas of healthcare
- How you can best prepare yourself to succeed
Ready to learn more? Let’s get started.
What do you actually study in pathology?
According to the Royal College of Pathologists, pathology is “the study of disease (Source)”.
It is a subject linking science and medicine. It looks at human tissue, bone and fluids for signs of disease, infection or other abnormalities.
In med school (or wherever else you might be studying), it usually breaks down the subject into systems.
You’ll first study general pathology, which covers:
- Changes in cells (death, injury etc.)
- Inflammation (what causes it, what it looks like etc.)
- Neoplasia (the irregular growth of cells)
Before moving on to systems-based pathology – where you look at the major parts of the body (heart, lungs, kidneys etc).
There’s a large amount of content!
Specialists in pathology do all the above but in much more detail. They are key in determining the diagnosis of patients, as well as helping direct effective treatment plans.
What’s hard about pathology?
- It’s very broad (covering all organ systems of the body and thousands of different pathologies (diseases))
- It requires being very good at histology (looking closely at cells)
- Pathology textbooks are very dense, long and often confusing!
What’s easy about pathology?
- You can do well even with a superficial understanding (knowing the most common diseases, affected body parts, etc.)
- The material isn’t difficult to learn
- It’s very visually oriented
- It’s overall competitiveness (as a career specialty) is low
If you’re the type of student who likes patterns and spotting differences, it’s likely you’ll be a good fit for pathology.
How can I best prepare for a difficult pathology course?
The best way to prepare for studying pathology is to choose the right study resources.
Many colleges will recommend reading Robbins Pathology as the one of “gold standard texts” on the subject. And although it’s a super comprehensive and very detailed book, it’s not exactly beginner friendly!
Studying pathology is all about repetition and memorization. You want to exposure yourself to the material first and then constantly revisit it.
To make all that easier you want a resource that explains it simply enough the first time you see it. If it keeps the detail minimal (but essential) then you’ll get a good, broad overview.
For that reason I strongly recommend using the following resources:
Pathoma is a video series created by Dr Sattar. It’s wildly popular among med students because it explains things simply, easily and in very memorable ways (using mnemonics, basic diagrams etc).
Anki is a digital flashcard app that you can then use to reinforce the most high yield points of the subject (making full use of active recall).
Lecturio (see my review) has good explainers that can help clear up any confusing points.
If you’re interested in how I went about memorizing pathology, check out my article: How To Memorize Pathology (Forget The 1000+ Page Textbooks).
Other alternatives to Robbins pathology
If you’re still not convinced by my approach (it’s not for everyone), then at least check out the following pathology resources.
I feel they’re a more concise (and more accessible) way to learn the subject:
- Patho Phlash (popular flashcard series, especially among student nurses!)
- BRS Pathology (gives you the major points in bullet points)
- Rapid Review Pathology (another popular review book)
Is pathology interesting?
One thing that helps make pathology a little easier (depending how you see it) is the fact it’s super interesting.
Studying all the different diseases and learning how to differentiate between them, is important. Studying pathology actually makes you feel like you’re becoming a doctor or scientist!
Becoming a resident or specialist in pathology can also be very appealing.
- It’s broad in scope and practice (there are many areas of health and medicine it can be applied)
- It’s a speciality that has a strong work-life balance
- It makes a meaningful difference to patients (and research)
Many of these reasons (plus a couple extras) are outlined in this video, from the U.S. College of American Pathologists, below…
Is it hard to become a pathologist?
We’ve already discussed how hard it might be to study pathology, but what about specializing in it as a career?
Pathologists are doctors. So first they have to face the challenges of med school!
And it’s certainly not an easy specialty, mainly because:
- It’s constantly changing (meaning you have to keep continually learning)
- Pathologists have a lot of responsibility (as lab directors ensuring quality and accuracy)
Both these things mean becoming a pathologist entails a lot of studying. That’s difficult, especially as it can eat into a physician’s free time.
But perhaps the biggest factor in terms of how hard you might find it comes down the conditions of the job.
If you’re not the type of person that enjoys lab work (or the lack of direct contact with clinical teams) you could find it a struggle.
Is pathology competitive?
Despite all those reasons suggesting why becoming a pathologist can be hard, it’s actually one of the least competitive specialties.
According to 2020 fill-rate data, there were 748 applicants for 603 spots inside of the U.S. That equates to 1.24 applicants per position (Source) with an 86% probable match rate.
To give you an idea of how competitive that is, let’s compare it to radiology (another specialty that requires a ton of on-going studying).
The same source estimates radiology to be a medium competitive specialty, with a 60% probable match rate.
Pathology offers a much easier path by comparison!
Is becoming a pathologist worth it?
Now we know the pros and cons of studying pathology and becoming a pathologist, how does it stack up in terms of career choice?
Some of the major pros (as we’ve already mentioned) include it being less competitive with the opportunity for a healthy work-life balance. But these come at the cost of on-going studies, responsibility, and a possible disconnect from clinical care.
So, it’s up to you to weigh up how important these factors are to you.
Pathology might sound like an absolute dream to many introverts!
Obviously any discussion over how “hard” or “easy” a subject might be is subjective for the most part. Pathology is no exception here.
Although I have personal experience studying the subject and have done a lot of research into what other students say, it’s no guarantee for how you might find pathology as a subject. For that reason, it’s important you keep an open mind!
Pathology can be seriously fun and rewarding to study however. While becoming a pathologist also has major appeal.
Hopefully this article has helped give you a nice introduction!
Born and raised in the UK, Will went into medicine late (31) after a career in journalism. He’s into football (soccer), learned Spanish after 5 years in Spain, and has had his work published all over the web. Read more.