The word “forensic” is derived from the Latin word for “law.” Forensic pathology is the application of medical knowledge to questions about law. Forensic pathologists deal with death. What causes the victim’s death? When was it? Where? Forensic pathologists also collect and analyze evidence at the scene of a death.
Forensic pathology is an exciting career choice, as it provides many opportunities for those who are passionate about learning how to determine the cause of death through scientific methods. Some students may want to become forensic pathologists, so they can help with criminal investigations or civil
There are many colleges that offer degrees in forensic pathology. Some have specialties within the field. As an undergraduate, you will be exposed to a variety of topics, including anatomy, physiology, genetics, hematology and microbiology. You will also study other disciplines, such as psychology and biochemistry. These are all important skills in order to work in this field.
The Daily Life of a Forensic Pathologist
A forensic pathologist directly contributes to criminal investigations. When they are called to the scene, for example, a crime or accident scene, they will do an assessment of injuries and determine cause of death. They also provide information for cases that go through trial proceedings.
Based on your personality, you can decide between general pathology (working in hospitals) versus forensics (working in law enforcement). Most forensic pathology jobs are within the criminal justice system, but this is not always true.
There are many career paths you can choose from when working as a pathologist, including: medical examiner, deputy coroner and autopsy technician. The type of work that they do will be based on their level of education and experience. If you are interested in becoming a forensic pathologist, it is best to get your medical degree first.
It’s a hard line of work. You are dealing with dead bodies all the time. And death is often miserable to witness. Especially where it’s been violent or sad. But forensic pathologists can work with this and make sure that death is documented accurately.
Here’s what you’ll do daily:
- Study the dead’s medical history.
- Examine injuries and determine cause of death.
- Perform an autopsy.
- Collect evidence at the scene of a crime or accident.
- Provide expert testimony in court cases.
Forensic pathology can be a highly rewarding career choice for those who want the opportunity to learn how people die, investigate deaths scientifically, and provide information needed in criminal investigations or court proceedings.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics groups forensic pathologists with other occupations that work on a crime scene. It’s safe to assume that the median salary claimed by the bls ($60.590 per year) is low. Salary.com gives an estimate between $75.536 and 101.024, which is way more accurate.
The Path to Forensic Pathologist
As cool as the profession sounds, it takes a lot of time to become a forensic pathologist. Expect to study and train for about 13 years before you can start working in this field.
Here’s how the path looks.
Get a Bachelor’s Degree
After high school, you can begin your undergraduate degree. Since you’re going for an MD or DO, make sure you pick lots of courses in biology and chemistry. Check out the degree’s course requirements to make sure you’re picking one that will serve you in your academic path.
If you’re interested in pathology specifically, there are degrees that focus on the study of human disease, like a Bachelor’s Degree in Health Sciences.
Become a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or a Doctor of Osteopathy (DO)
Both MD and DO are fine for a forensic pathologist, so pick the one that makes the most sense to you. Getting your degree in this field will take about 4 years. There are many excellent med schools all over the world, so don’t worry about location.
Warning: Getting an MD is extremely expensive. The median debt for a graduate of an MD program is over $160.000. A DO isn’t that much cheaper. It costs, on average, around $5k less per year. With such minimal difference, an MD is better, because it’s more flexible. You can specialize in anything after it, while, as a DO, your choices are more limited.
Get a Physician License
You will need to pass an exam called the United States Medical Licensing Examination. You can then apply for your medical license in your state, which requires you to complete one year as an intern without pay under supervision. Once this is approved, you can start working as an intern and get paid.
Complete your Residency
The next step is to complete a forensic pathologist residency. This takes about three years of full-time training in your field of study, with clinical rotations required as well. You will have exams you need to pass along the way and must meet set standards for performance throughout this experience. Once completed, you can receive your medical license and start practicing on your own.
Editor’s note: Make sure you pick an AGCME-approved residency. Of course, all the ones we posted in this article are like this. But if you end up picking a different one, ensure they’re accredited.
Become a Certified Forensic Pathologist
In order to become certified, you will need to have at least three years of experience in forensic pathology and pass an examination administered by the American Board of Pathology (ABOP). You can then join this board as a fellow member after two more exams over the next five years. This will allow you to sit for the final certification exam and become certified as a board-certified forensic pathologist.
The 6 Best Forensic Pathology Colleges
The best forensic pathology programs give you a well-rounded education in the field. They use the latest technology available and have experienced teachers. Those are the canons we picked to make this list.
By going to one of these colleges, you’ll prepare for a long and rewarding career in forensic pathology.
John Hopkins Medical School
It’s no surprise to see John Hopkins Medical School topping a list of medical schools. This college consistently ranks very high on all med school charts.
Fun fact: The school’s department of pathology was the first to apply the scientific method to the study of medicine.
The forensic pathology program here was one of the first to be accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (AGCME). It’s also considered a “premiere” program with great research opportunities.
The program offers complete training in all areas of pathology. In fact, you can pick between a residency in Anatomic Pathology (AP), Clinical Pathology (CP), and Neuropathology (NP). These last for 3 years, but there are programs that combine 2 of them at once and last for 4 years in AP/CP and AP/NP.
The uniqueness of this program is how much time you’ll spend working on real-world cases. This is because the center deals with a lot of deaths. It’s…morbid, but it’s also a great opportunity for anyone with the guts and brains to complete the residency.
Another feature of this program is the unique specialized electives offered to students who wish to further specialize. You can find out more about these here.
University of Texas-Southwestern Medical Center
The Forensic Pathology Residency Program at UT Southwestern Medical Center is co-located with the Criminal Investigation Laboratory. This gives you access to cutting-edge equipment and technology. And you’ll also get to see how the job is actually done by professionals.
You’ll learn about ballistics, toxicology, and DNA labs. You’ll also get accustomed to your workplaces, like the morgue, and how to be empathic towards the relatives of the deceased. Plus, the laboratory holds conferences with experts on subjects like cardiac pathology, case reviews, and neuropathology.
The program focuses on teaching medical-legal aspects of death investigation according to the guidelines established by the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME).
The requirements to join this residency are:
- Completed an anatomic pathology or anatomic and clinical pathology residency
- A Texas medical license or eligibility for a Texas physician in training (PIT) permit
University of California, San Francisco
This branch of the University of California has a great program in Forensic Pathology. It’s staffed by professionals who share your interests and will support you throughout your career. It works in tandem with San Francisco Medical Examiner Officer, which does over 1.000 autopsies at year.
People die in many ways, some of which are very…let’s say grotesque. You’ll get to see it all under the supervision of experts. Expect to see people dying of suicide, natural deaths, newborns dead for many reasons, and accidental deaths.
You’ll learn how to work your way around these disturbing images, since you’re required to visit autopsy rooms and view bodies regularly during this program. And of course, you’ll master the macabre art of figuring out how people died, when, and why.
The program is divided into four different branches: forensic pathology training in anatomic pathology, clinical pathology, neuropathology (NP), and pediatric pathology (PP).
The residency is taken seriously by the faculty, who are all part of NAME. They have also established a collaborative relationship with the San Francisco Police Department and Forensic Medical Group LLC to ensure quality training with professional standards in place for this career path.
Emory University offers a very high-quality 1-year fellowship in forensic pathology. The training is based at the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Center. There, you’ll see how real professional do the job. Approximately 3.000 people’s deaths are investigated in the medical center.
This means you’ll get plenty of experience in all sorts of death. From homicides to traffic accidents, this is a very comprehensive program. You’ll be able to learn about ballistics and DNA analysis as well.
The faculty includes professionals who are board-certified in anatomical pathology or clinical pathology, along with advanced training in forensic pathology. They have expertise covering all the death investigation phases: medical evaluation/clinical history, autopsy/necropsy, histology/toxicology, and medicolegal death investigation.
This is a well-respected program in this career field with high standards of excellence.
Saint Louis University
The faculty includes professionals who are board-certified in Anatomic and Clinical pathology with advanced training in forensic pathology. They have expertise covering all the death investigation phases: medical evaluation/clinical history, autopsy/necropsy, histology/toxicology, and medicolegal death investigation.
The program is accredited by the American Board of Pathology in Anatomic and Clinical Pathology (ABP) and Forensic Pathology (FRCPath), a member organization of NAME.
Graduates are eligible for certification from both ABP and FRCPath upon meeting their education, training, examination/certification requirements.
This is a more general residency than the other ones on this list. You’ll still learn a lot about forensic pathology, but expect to also learn a lot about pathology as a whole. You’ll get to know a lot about diseases and what happens to people when they are alive, rather than only focus on dead people. Which is…a plus to some.
There is a wealth of subspecialties to focus in aside from forensic pathology. Here are some of them:
- Forensic pathology
- Pediatric pathology
And many more.
University of Alabama at Birmingham
This program has a very good accreditation with the American Board of Pathology (ABpath) which makes it one of the best in the country.
The residency is a one-year program where you’ll work at the Jefferson County Coroner. You can expect to see about a thousand dead people over the year you’ll spend there. Again, when so many people die, expect a lot of variety in death. Of course, you need to be prepared to face death in its rawest form. People who killed themselves, people who were killed, children…all kinds of things.
You’ll learn how coroners do their job (they are not like the ones you see on tv), what happens when bodies arrive at morgues, etc. This is a very well-rounded experience that will make you very qualified for a career in forensic pathology.
This program is accredited by the American Board of Pathology in Anatomic and Clinical Pathology (ABP) and Forensic Pathology (FRCPath), a member organization of NAME. Graduates are eligible for certification from both ABP and FRCPath upon meeting their education, training, examination/certification requirements.
The faculty includes experts who are board-certified in anatomical pathology, clinical pathology and forensic pathology. They have expertise covering all the death investigation phases: medical evaluation/clinical history, autopsy/necropsy, histology/toxicology, medicolegal death investigation, and other subspecialties.
Traits of a Successful Forensic Pathologist
Forensic pathology isn’t for everyone. Dealing with dead people all day, every day, gets too many people. You need to deal with the emotional weight of it all and still do your job well.
What makes things worse is that you need both a lot of empathy and detachment. Empathy to deal with the deceased’s relatives. Detachment because you need to investigate the death objectively and clinically.
You also need a lot of patience, as you might end up waiting for results (autopsies can take months or even years to get back). You don’t always see an immediate impact from your work either; it’s not like solving a murder mystery where at the end everything is solved and the case is closed.
Your forensic pathologist job description includes a lot of paperwork, so you need to have excellent attention to detail. You also have to work well with people from different backgrounds while being very patient and diplomatic at all times. It takes time for everyone involved in the process (law enforcement officers, coroners, medical examiners) to become accustomed to the way your office does things. You want to have excellent communication skills so that everything runs smoothly and you can get on with your work with no issues or conflicts along the way.
You need good problem-solving skills as well; death is not always cut and dry (and it really shouldn’t be). There are many ways to end up dead, and not all of them are obvious at first glance.
If you think this is the career for you, then good luck.
Becoming a forensic pathologist is a long but rewarding path. It’ll lead you into the deepest, darkest elements of the human psyche. Why do people kill themselves? How do they die? When, and what did they do to die?
What’s good about picking this path is that you have plenty of time to change your mind. Since you’re getting an MD, you can pivot to a different specialty later on, should you discover dealing with dead bodies all day isn’t for you.
That said, forensic pathology is a fascinating field. We as a society are rarely exposed to death. Especially violent death. We just hear that people died in the news and that’s it. But that’s only a minuscule aspect of it. People die every day, and for many reasons.
If you don’t mind the morbidity of it all, it could be your path. But please, don’t get into this because you’ve seen a coroner “working” on a TV series. That’s a heavily romanticized view of the job that leaves out disgusting details for sake of making the images more palatable to the public.