Chances are that you know quite a few forensic pathologists – at least the fictional ones, such as Quincy, from the old show Quincy M. E., Dr. Saroyan from Bones, and Dr. Lanie Parish from Castle. Trained forensic pathologists are going to be able to perform autopsies and determine the cause and the manner of a death, disease, or injury. They are educated as physicians, typically licensed to practice medicine by the state in which they are employed, and also certified by the American Board of Pathology (ABP) with a subspecialty in forensic pathology.
Certification can be a 4 to 5 year process that requires completion of graduate-level medical education in anatomic and/or clinical pathology, as well as a forensic pathology subspecialty. To certify, the candidate must have completed medical school and post-medical school training, and performed at least 50 autopsies and have been evaluated for competency by the ABP. The certification must be renewed every 10 years of practice. This 4 to 5 year certification process often begins once medical school ends, so the road to becoming a forensic pathologist may be a long one.
While forensic pathologist education and certification requirements are significant, the job holds quite a bit of potential for those who are willing to put in the requisite time and the schooling. According to a WGBH (PBS) report, medicolegal forensic pathologists, or so-called “death detectives”, are overworked and underpaid, even at relatively healthy $150,000 to $180,000 average salaries, and the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME) is recommending that the nation double its forensic pathologist workforce of nearly 500 to approximately 1,000 in order to adequately meet the demand of 500,000 deaths per year that need at least a preliminary investigation. In fact, according to a Kaiser Health News report from August, 2012, only about 8.5 percent of all deaths in the U.S. undergo autopsy, a figure which the report calls “miserably low.”
Those who become a forensic pathologist will find that they have to have the traits of a doctor and a detective all in one because they are trying to find the cause of death, disease or injury in cases where cause is ambiguous. The goal of the forensic pathologist is to help solve a criminal case such as a suspected murder or suicide, and also to determine if a case should even be considered as a criminal case. They often work long hours, and they may even have to testify in court on occasion.
You really are not going to find very much turnover in this field. People work long and hard on the road to becoming a forensic pathologist, and once they attain pathologist status, they don’t tend to give up their positions readily. On the path to earning the requisite degrees and certifications, you have to work incredibly hard to be a standout candidate to give yourself the best possible chance to land a coveted pathologist position once you finish your schooling and practical training.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics includes forensic pathology in the same category as many of the other forensic sciences, and it indicates that the outlook for jobs in the field is healthy and growing. According to the 2010 BLS report, the rate of growth in the general field of forensic science should be about 19 percent. This is about average relative to many other occupations, and the BLS predicts that there should be about another 2,400 jobs in the forensic sciences by 2020. Of course, the number of forensic pathologist jobs is only going to represent a fraction of that number. If NAME has its way, perhaps 500 of those 2,400 jobs would be forensic pathology positions, but that would be best-case scenario.
As with most fields, the forensic pathologist’s salary is likely going to vary based on a number of different factors, including experience, location, employer, and specialization.
The average annual salary for those who are in the field in their first few years is generally going to be between about $76,000 and $116,000, according to healthcare-salaries.com (website currently seems to offline). Those who have more experience and who are in the middle of their careers might expect a salary of between $122,000 and $211,000.
Of course, you must remember that all of the aforementioned factors are going to play into the salary, and also that salaries for hospital-based pathologists tends to be higher than those for medicolegal forensic pathologists who work in legal facilities such as the coroner’s or medical examiner’s office. As mentioned previously, the average medicolegal forensic pathologist salary range is $150,000 to $180,000. Indeed.com also provides a good resource for getting up-to-the-minute average salary data derived from all of its posted forensic pathologist jobs.
Those who want to become forensic pathologists need to realize that it is going to mean a lot of schooling. You are going to have to have four years of undergraduate work, as well as four years of medical school. In addition, you have to have another four years in a residency program that is in anatomic or clinical pathology, plus an additional year for your forensic pathology fellowship.
This means that if you really want to get into the field, you should start your preparations as early as possible. Make sure that you get the best grades possible in high school, and when you are in an undergrad program, take pre-med classes and give them your full attention.
In addition to all of the schooling that you need for this field, you also need to make sure that you are the right type of person for the job. You need to have great attention to detail and a meticulous nature. You need to zero in on the root cause for any anomaly you identify, and be diligent about pursuing each medical lead through to the end. You will have to work on corpses, and this is not something that all people are going to be able to do. Forensic pathology is not a field for the squeamish. Finally, you must be comfortable interacting with the families of the diseased and deceased, which may at times demand your utmost empathy and a strong “bedside manner”.
In order to work in the field as a forensic pathologist, not only will you need to have completed the requisite education and training, you are also going to have to become a certified forensic pathologist. This means that you need to have to take and pass exams from the ABP, and these exams can be quite difficult, as one might imagine, so it is important to prepare for them well ahead of time and to keep sharp up to the day of the exam.
Once you take and pass this certification exam, after your fellowship, you will then be able to work in the field as an actual forensic pathologist. These are regional exams, and so if and when you decide to practice in another state, you may well need to pass the certification test there as well.
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.