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How to Become a Forensic Pathologist

Forensic pathologists play an important role in our criminal justice system—and in our society in general. They provide critical pieces of information to law enforcement about a person’s death, which can be clues to understanding and solving a crime.


 

What Does a Forensic Pathologist Do?

The primary responsibility of a forensic pathologist is to perform autopsies on post-mortem patients to determine the manner, mechanism, cause, and time of death. In most cases, they examine the bodies of people who died unexpectedly or suddenly, as in instances of suicide, homicide, accidents, sudden illnesses, or natural disasters. They might examine the bodies of the recently deceased or of people who died several months, years, or even decades before.

In addition to performing autopsies, forensic pathologists:

  • Examine the medical histories of the deceased.
  • Collect, examine, and analyze evidence from bodies.
  • Analyze material evidence like weapons, medications, and other physical items that played a role in the death.
  • Identify, collect, and examine trace evidence like gunshot residue, pollen, wood, soil, human and animal hair, fibers, foliage, glass, rope, fabric, and building materials.
  • Compare crime scene evidence to corresponding evidence found on bodies.
  • Spend time in a lab analyzing tissue samples, blood and other fluids, and anything else the deceased inadvertently took away from or left at the crime scene.
  • Perform and evaluate toxicology screenings and ballistics tests.

Forensic pathologists also have responsibilities outside of the lab, such as:

  • Documenting and presenting findings.
  • Creating comprehensive, detailed reports.
  • Working closely with law enforcement and medical authorities throughout the course of examinations and investigations.
  • Providing expert testimony in court.

In some cases, forensic pathologists examine the bodies of living people to identify signs of physical, sexual, domestic, or child abuse. Sometimes called clinical forensic pathologists, these professionals use their skills to identify suspicious contusions, lacerations, tears, breaks, and other injuries.

Salary and Career Outlook Information for Forensic Pathologists

There is no specific career outlook data for forensic pathologists, but CareerExplorer projects 11.4% job growth between 2016–2026 for pathologists in general. The projected growth for a related career in forensics, forensic science technician, is +11% between 2018 and 2028.

In terms of salary, forensic pathology is a lucrative career. According to ZipRecruiter data from October 2019, the median salary is $143,548 a year, with the top 10% earning $227,000 or more.

The top five states in terms of highest median salary are:

  • New York: $157,108
  • Massachusetts: $155,980
  • New Hampshire: $153,252
  • Maryland: $146,997
  • Nebraska: $144,839

Forensic Pathologist Education

To work as a forensic pathologist you will need a medical degree and extensive training. Here are the basic steps:

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree
  2. Earn a medical degree
  3. Engage in a residency
  4. Complete a fellowship

After you finish your education you will need to get a medical license and become board-certified.

Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

As an undergraduate you’ll likely pursue a degree that focuses on science. Thus, you will earn a Bachelor of Science degree as opposed to a Bachelor of Arts degree. Some schools offer undergraduate degrees in forensic science and others have pre-med conditions, but you won’t find a bachelor’s program specifically in forensic pathology.

No matter your degree, your program should include coursework like chemistry, math, biology, microbiology, anatomy, serology, and DNA technology. You will also have to complete the prerequisite coursework necessary for getting into medical school. If possible, you should take elective courses in areas such as criminal justice, toxicology, ballistics, and criminal investigation.

Earn a Medical Degree

Medical school is a unique kind of doctoral program that is divided into two sections: pre-clinical and clinical. Most programs last four years.

During pre-clinical years you will take lecture-based courses in topics like biomedicine, the doctor-patient relationship, physical examination procedures, and medical history.

During your clinical years you’ll complete both elective and required rotations in medical institutions and healthcare facilities. Before applying, check that the medical schools you’re considering offer rotations in a medical examiner’s office.

Complete a Residency

The end of medical school earns you the coveted title of M.D., but it is not the end of your training. The next step is to complete a residency, which is a kind of advanced internship that will give you hands-on experience with real responsibilities in forensic pathology settings.

Concentrations will shift between clinical and anatomical pathology during the residency program, which can last four years or more. Aside from hands-on work, you’ll also participate in seminars and lectures in topics like crime scene investigation and courtroom procedures.

Complete a Fellowship

Your training will end with a one-year fellowship, during which you’ll perform autopsies, focus on specialties such as forensic orthodontics, and investigate actual crime scenes. You will most likely work with your city’s medical examiner’s office and possibly with law enforcement agencies.

Check out our four featured schools below.

Online Programs

It is not possible to go to medical school online. It’s very likely, however, that you can pursue your undergraduate degree as a distance learner—at least in part. Since you’ll likely concentrate on coursework related to science, which often involves in-person lab requirements, these programs are generally offered in a hybrid format.

Spotlight: Featured Schools

Many medical schools offer fellowships in forensic pathology. However, some schools stand out more than others and are generally recognized as being some of the best in the field.

University of North Carolina Chapel Hill

UNC offers a one-year fellowship that is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) under the auspices of the Chief Medical Examiner of North Carolina. Students perform between 200 and 250 autopsies during the fellowship and participate in all facets of a state-wide medical examiner system. UNC offers a wide range of subspecialties, including forensic odontology, forensic radiology, neuropathology, and forensic anthropology.

Emory University School of Medicine

Emory University’s forensic pathology fellowship focuses on practical competency and hands-on experience. The program is based at the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Center; students also train at the Georgia Division of Forensic Science Crime Lab to gain experience in forensic disciplines. Throughout the course of the training, students will perform approximately 250 autopsies and participate in 75 crime scene investigations.

University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center

UT Southwestern Medical School, in conjunction with Dallas County, offers an ACGME-accredited forensic pathology fellowship that places special emphasis on scientific death investigation. Students will work with not just the forensic pathology faculty, but also faculty in toxicology, biology, and anthropology.

University of Michigan Health System

The fellowship at the University of Michigan provides comprehensive training in all aspects of forensic pathology, including both scientific and criminal justice aspects. Fellows perform autopsies and participate in death scene investigations. They gain experience in forensic science specialties such as toxicology, anthropology, and odontology. Non-scientific training focuses on areas such as courtroom testimony, criminalistics, research, and administration.

University of Colorado

In addition to training at the Denver Office of Medical Examiner, fellows have rotations at the Denver Police Department Crime Laboratory and the Colorado Bureau of Investigations Toxicology Laboratory. In these rotations students train in DNA/serology, firearms, latent prints, trace evidence, and drug analysis. They develop skills in forensic photography, identification of remains, and the collection of evidence. Students also perform approximately 250 autopsies and are responsible for the final report and death certification.

Forensic Pathologist Licensing and Certification

Licensing

You’ll have to earn a license to practice medicine. Licensing requirements can vary somewhat by state, but all states require you to complete the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), which is administered by the National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME). That is not to be confused with the COMLEX-USA, the licensing exam for graduates of osteopathic medical schools.

The USMLE consists of three distinct exams, which the NBME refers to as “steps”:

  • Step 1: This exam assesses your knowledge of the basic sciences you learned during your first and second years of medical school. You’ll likely take this step between your second and third year before you begin clinical rotations.
  • Step 2: This exam is administered in two parts, one for clinical skills and the other for clinical knowledge. You’ll likely have to pass Step 2 before you begin your residency.
  • Step 3: The final step can be taken as early as the start of your internship year. This in-depth examination covers the core disciplines as well as your clinical knowledge and decision-making skills.

There is some variation among states with regard to licensing requirements. For more information about state-specific requirements, visit the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB).

Certification

Forensic pathologists are required to be board certified by the American Board of Pathology (ABP). This entails applying to the ABP, meeting training requirements, and passing an exam. The ABP awards certification in anatomical pathology and clinical pathology. You can become certified in a number of specialties, including forensic pathology.

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