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Forensic pathologists are charged with solving medical mysteries. They examine a body when death has occurred by unusual, violent or traumatic circumstances. You've seen forensic pathologists on television, gathering evidence at crime scenes, providing testimony in a court of law and helping to apprehend the bad guys. Though the drama is heightened for the viewers' benefit, it's all part of the job. Find out what it takes to prepare for this fascinating and demanding career.
What Is a Forensic Pathologist?
Pathology is that branch of medicine in which disease and causes of death are diagnosed by laboratory examination. Clinical pathology is the examination of bodily fluids, including blood, bone marrow, spinal fluid and urine, to detect the presence of chemicals or other substances in the body. Cytology is the study of cell samples. Anatomic pathology is the study of tissue samples. Pathologists determine the cause of death through an autopsy, a systematic internal and external examination of the body of the deceased.
A forensic pathologist, sometimes called a medical examiner, is a medical doctor who has completed specialized training to determine cause of death under violent or traumatic circumstances, or when cause of death seems suspicious or is not readily apparent. Forensic pathologists have training in anatomy and physiology as well as toxicology, firearms and ballistics, trace evidence, blood analysis and DNA technology. They study the medical history of the deceased. They collect and evaluate crime scene evidence, which can include genetic materials, trace chemicals, fingerprints and dental history. Evidence can be used to identify a victim or to reconstruct a crime scene. Forensic pathologists perform autopsies to determine if death was caused by injury or disease.
What Is a Coroner?
In some jurisdictions, a coroner is the person who determines cause of death. Coroners are not medical doctors but may have a bachelor's degree in forensic science or a related field. The position is filled by election or appointment, so the type of training that qualifies a person for this job can be varied and subjective. Coroners examine crime scenes and issue death certificates, but they cannot perform autopsies.
Forensic Pathologist Education Requirements
Becoming a forensic pathologist requires a medical degree, either an M.D. from a medical school or a D.O. from a college of osteopathy. Medical and osteopathic colleges do not have a specific requirement for an undergraduate major. Some schools offer a formal pre-med curriculum, with a prescribed course of study. You can build your own pre-med program by selecting courses in life sciences, chemistry, physics, psychology, mathematics and communications. If you're still in high school, take as many of these courses as you can, studying hard to earn top grades.
Medical school admissions are highly competitive. Most successful applicants have earned a grade point average of 3.6 or higher, and a score of at least 510 on the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). Some osteopathic colleges will accept scores from the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) instead of the MCAT. You'll also need three strong letters of recommendation. It's not enough to get a letter from a professor in whose class you earned an 'A.' Get letters from someone who knows you well and can attest to your academic achievement and your suitability for a career in medicine. If you have volunteer or paid work experience, particularly in the health care field, that's a plus.
Medical school is four years of rigorous study. In the first two years, students take participate in lecture and laboratory courses in advanced life sciences, pharmacology and medical ethics and practice. They take the first part of the medical licensing exam. In the last two years, they complete participate in clinical rounds with licensed physicians, gradually assuming some responsibility for patient care as they learn about various specialties within medical practice. Upon graduation, new physicians take the second part of the medical licensing exam and go on to further training through internships, residencies and fellowships.
An internship is one year of general medical practice, working under the supervision of one or more licensed physicians. After a internship, new physicians complete a medical residency that provides advanced training in the specialty they've chosen. The length of residencies varies according to specialty. A pediatrician usually completes a residency in three years. Neurosurgery, which is brain and spinal cord surgery, requires five years. To become a forensic pathologist, you must complete a 4- to 5-year residency in forensic, anatomic or clinical pathology, as well as a one year fellowship in forensic pathology.
Licensure is required in the state where the forensic pathologist practices. Board certification is not a legal requirement, but most pathologists obtain certification through the American Board of Pathology to demonstrate their competence and commitment to the field. Some employers may make board certification a condition of hire or retention. Certification is earned through a combination of education and work experience.
Being a forensic pathologist is not for the faint of heart. The work can be gruesome. In addition to medical aspects of the job, good communication skills are required, as forensic pathologists deal with bereaved family members, law enforcement, lawyers and even the media. In high profile cases, there can be intense pressure to collect evidence.
Forensic pathologists work for government agencies at city, county and federal agencies. Some work in hospitals, medical schools or in solo or group private practice. According to the National Association of Medical Examiners, approximately 500,000 deaths a year are referred to forensic pathologists, or medical examiners, for investigation.
Forensic pathologists spend most of their workday in a laboratory, where they perform autopsies. The autopsy requires careful inspection of the body, removal and weighing of organs and the examination of tissue under a microscope. Forensic pathologists spend part of their day writing reports. They may also visit crime scenes or make court appearances. The job is somewhat demanding physically, as forensic pathologists spend considerable time on their feet. Excellent manual dexterity is required, as the forensic pathologist uses various small tools for some of the delicate procedures that must be performed. There is some risk, because of potential exposure to infectious diseases, but protective gear such as gloves, masks and specialty clothing will greatly reduce that risk. The primary occupational hazard is the emotional toll it can take on a doctor. Dealing with graphic violence on a regular basis can be stressful.
Forensic Pathologist Job Outlook and Salary Average
The forensic pathology salary has a broad range, typically from $105,000 to $500,00 per year. A number of factors can influence pay, including employer, geographic location, education, skills and experience. Death is a natural part of the life cycle, so there will always be work for forensic pathologists. Typically, forensic pathologist benefits include health care and a retirement plan; some employers may also offer hiring and retention incentives.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks data and makes projections for all civilian jobs. Although the BLS does not specifically capture data on pathologists, it does predict that overall job growth for physicians and surgeons will be about 13 percent through 2026, a rate that's considered higher than average, compared to all other jobs.