Working in a coroner’s office or medical examiner’s office could be a good job for you if you are interested in science, the human body, and in helping families to find out what may have caused the death of a loved one, whether through natural causes, suspicious nature or accident. Becoming a forensic autopsy technician is one way that you could start a career, and typically, does not require extensive postsecondary learning.
You may find that as a forensic autopsy technician you are employed on a 9-to-5 schedule, assisting a forensic pathologist in working on bodies that come in over night or during the day. As well, you could cover weekend and holiday shifts on a part-time basis depending on the needs of the facility in which you find employment. Your work could include tasks such as preparing the autopsy suite, helping provide specimen containers for examination, moving bodies, and assisting the pathologist with various parts of the exam. This could involve responsibilities such as eviscerating and weighing organs as well as collecting toxicology samples. Other responsibilities might include taking notes, photographing the body, suturing a body closed, and releasing a body to a mortician.
Generally, you’ll need certificate-level training or an associate degree in a field such as biology, funeral science or a similar subject. However, knowledge about anatomy, physiology and medical lab practices will be helpful. Other skills that will be important to your job include the ability to stay objective, to work under difficult and sometimes unpleasant conditions, and to be able to communicate with a variety of people from families to law enforcement officials and funeral homes. You will also need to be capable of moving bodies, sometimes up to 300 pounds or more, by yourself or with assistance.
Job growth estimates are not available specifically for forensic autopsy technicians from the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, which tracks trends for major job occupations. In fact, the BLS includes autopsy assistants within its medical assistants category and estimates job opportunities in this field will grow 31 percent from 2010 to 2020. This job growth is considered much faster than average, according to BLS statistics. Those who want to enter the field may want to start their job searching looking through governmental sites, which could employ people at a variety of levels from county medical examiners jobs to positions that may be available at federal facilities, such as an air force base. As well, a department of pathology and laboratory medicine at one of the universities could provide you with opportunities for employment as a forensic autopsy technician. The American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) may be another place to look for job leads.
The pay for forensic autopsy technicians will vary by location and by state. The BLS does not track salaries for those with a forensic autopsy technician education, but there are other sources that do provide context for salary and pay. In fact, the website governmentjobs.com lists forensic autopsy technician jobs that pay $14 to $18 hourly. Other jobs listed on the site pay up to $22 hourly. Additionally, indeed.com, a worldwide job website, indicates that forensic autopsy technicians earn $44,000 annually. This appears comparable with the annual salaries listed for some positions on job search sites. For example, a position available in Arapahoe County, Colo., pays $38,000 to $45,000 annually while another in San Francisco pays $58,000 to $71,000 yearly. Again, pay will vary upon location and needed experience of the employee.
Job requirements will vary depending on what organization is doing the hiring and what types of skills are sought in an employee. Generally, forensic autopsy technician education will enable you to learn the basics about working in a medical examiner’s office as well as acquire general scientific knowledge. Some jobs may require you to have an associate degree, such as in medical laboratory science or a similar healthcare profession. Experience on the job such as working in a hospital or in emergency medical services could substitute for some required academic training. Other employers may accept or seek applicants who have experience working in a clinical lab setting or at a funeral home.
Other places of employment may want you to have a bachelor’s degree in an area such as health sciences, forensic science, or mortuary affairs. Typically, too, you’ll need to know about subjects such as anatomy, confidentiality, evidence collection, and morgue operations. Experience with digital radiography could also be useful. You will find that jobs may allow for different combinations of experience and education.
Do know that a variety of forensic autopsy technician training programs exist through postsecondary schools. Community colleges often offer certificates for becoming an autopsy technician that should introduce you to topics such as anatomy, court testimony, forensic anthropology and pathology, human anatomy and physiology, and more. There are also a wide range of associate and bachelor’s degrees available in mortuary science and medical technology as well as in science-based majors that include biology and chemistry.
No particular licensure or certification is needed to be able to work as a forensic autopsy technician. However, there are specific things that you need to be able to do to gain employment. Generally, you will need to be fingerprinted and to pass a criminal background check. You must have a valid driver’s license and typically be able to move significant amounts of weight, sometimes up to 500 pounds. As well, some employers will want you to be available upon a moment’s notice. These requirements are things to consider when pursuing a career as a forensic autopsy technician. However, so are the opportunities to be advance your learning on the job and to become a contributing part of a forensic autopsy team.
Barry is Managing Editor of ForensicsColleges.com, operated by educational web publisher Sechel Ventures Partners LLC, which he co-founded. Barry was previously VP for a financial software company, and currently sits on the board of a K-8 school and lives with his wife and daughters in the San Francisco Bay Area.