Is Pathology Hard? (Explained!)

Pathology class coming up soon? Maybe it’s a specialism 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 on my med school curriculum, 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 medicine
  • 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 and thousands of different pathologies (diseases)
  • It requires being very good at histology (and determining different structures and cells)
  • Pathology textbooks are very dense, long and often confusing!

What’s easy about pathology?

  • You can do well with a superficial understanding (knowing the most common pathologies, obvious structures etc.)
  • The material isn’t difficult to grasp
  • It’s very visually oriented
  • It’s overall competitiveness (as a specialty) is low

If you’re the type of student who is good at pattern recognition and spotting subtle 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 med schools recommend reading Robbins Pathology as the gold standard text on the subject. Although it’s a super comprehensive and 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:

  • Pathoma
  • Anking/Zanki
  • Lecturio

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).

Zanki/Anking is a premade digital flashcard deck 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 much briefer (and more accessible) way to learn the subject:

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 also hugely important. Studying pathology actually makes you feel like you’re becoming a doctor or scientist!

Becoming a resident or specialist in pathology is also very appealing.

That’s because:

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?

Pathologists are doctors too. They couldn’t make it that far without facing the challenges of med school!

It’s certainly not an easy specialty, mainly because:

  • It’s constantly changing (putting pressures on pathologists to keep continually learning)
  • Pathologists have a lot of responsiblity (they’re lab directors and tasked with quality control)

Both these things mean becoming a pathologist entails a heavy amount of study. That’s hard, especially as it eats into a physician’s free time.

But perhaps the biggest factor in terms of how hard you could 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 to residency/consultancy!

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 choices for doctors?

Some of the major pros (as we’ve already mentioned) include it being less competitive with opportunity for a healthy work-life balance. But they come at the cost of on-going studies, a lot of responsibility and a potential disconnect from clinical care.

It’s up to you to weigh up how important these factors are to you personally.

Pathology might sound like an absolute dream to many introverts!

Summary

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 do 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 the course. 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 doctor also has major appeal.

Hopefully this article has helped give you a nice introduction!