At the intersection of medical and legal matters is where the work of a forensic pathologist begins. Known as “death detectives,” forensic pathologists are specially-trained physicians tasked with determining the cause of sudden, unexpected or violent deaths. The duties of a forensic pathologist go far beyond performing autopsies; they also collect forensic evidence for victims of sexual assault, follow scientific and legal procedures, interact with the families of the deceased, and work with law enforcement to determine and document the cause of death.
To be a forensic pathologist requires objectivity and emotional sensitivity in service of medico-legal documentation matters and giving families the information they need to grieve their deceased loved ones. Forensic pathologists are more than just physicians. Their specialized training in forensics, firearms, medical science, medicolegal documentation, and toxicology positions them to be unique experts in medical science and legal matters.
To remain objective, forensic pathologists collect medical history information, evaluate evidence from a crime scene, and collaborate with local, regional, state, and federal law enforcement. Attorneys often rely on the official cause of death reports prepared by forensic pathologists in legal cases involving murder, manslaughter, and sexual assault. A forensic pathologist’s official documentation can have a major impact on people’s lives which explains the extensive medical background and strict requirements for licensure that are established for this profession.
Due to the emotionally taxing nature of this work, the demand for forensic pathologists is at an all-time high. The National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME) recommended no more than 250 autopsies be performed annually per physician, but this number is often exceeded due to a shortage of forensic pathologists.
Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t have specific salary data for forensic pathologists, it does show salary data for two similar professions: physicians and forensic scientists. The BLS reports that physicians and surgeons in the United States make an average annual salary of $208,000 per year, and are experiencing faster-than-average occupational growth: seven percent between 2019 and 2029 (BLS 2020). Between that same time period, an estimated 27,300 new positions will be created (BLS 2020).
By comparison, the BLS shows forensic science technicians make an average annual salary of $59,150 per year and predicts this occupation will grow at a rate much faster than average occupations at 14 percent in that same decade (BLS 2020). Salaries for forensic pathologists vary depending on the funding, population, caseload, and cost of living in a particular area.
Being a forensic pathologist is both a challenging and rewarding career. Dr. Judy Melinek, a board-certified forensic pathologist, writes in her blog, Forensic Pathology Forum, that what she likes most about working in this profession is “helping families with their grief and explaining to them what happened to their loved one. I find it gives them the closure they need and sometimes I am the only one who has taken the time to explain the medicine to them in a way they understand, even following their loved one’s long hospitalization.” She continued:
I also like testifying in court and seeing the eyes of the jury light up when I explain what happened and they ‘get it.’ I also really like teaching students for the same reasons. A jury needs to understand the scientific basis for my opinions in order to render a just decision, so it gives me a lot of professional satisfaction to be able to play that important role in the legal system, whether it be to testify on behalf of the prosecution or the defense.
To help families find closure, serve in a critical objective role in legal cases involving wrongful death and fill the growing need for forensic pathologists through professional service and teaching, read on to learn more about how to pursue a career as a forensic pathologist.
Board-certified forensic pathologist Dr. Judy Melinek outlines the steps to become a forensic pathologist in the Forensic Pathology Forum, which includes the completion of a bachelor’s and medical degree as well as a medical residency and fellowship training in forensics. Here is the typical pathway to becoming a forensic pathologist:
The first step that opens the doors to many rewarding careers is earning a high school diploma or GED. In order to be accepted into a high-quality undergraduate college or university, high school students interested in forensic pathology career pathways are advised to take as many courses as possible in science and mathematics.
The next step in pursuing a career in forensic pathology is earning a bachelor’s degree in one of the following fields: pre-med, biology, or chemistry. Taking undergraduate elective courses in forensic science, criminal justice, or psychology is also recommended.
Arizona State University Online offers a 120-credit online bachelor of science in biological sciences. By partnering with leading technology industry companies, laboratory science coursework can be accessed completely online. Students may be required to attend on-campus laboratory classes at the Tempe campus or fulfill requirements with transfer credits. Featuring a year-round rolling admission deadline, students who meet general university requirements can enroll in this online program several times throughout the year and tuition costs range from $561 to $661 per credit.
Drexel University offers a fully online, part-time, two-year pre-med certificate program for non-scientific undergraduate degree-holders. The aim of this program is to prepare applicants with science courses to work in healthcare-related professions. Students who have completed an undergraduate degree and have a cumulative 3.0 GPA may apply for this 32-credit program.
Offering evening and online classes, courses are taught by faculty from the Drexel College of Medicine. A free Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) preparation course is also available in the final semester, and tuition costs $1,003 per credit.
Applying for medical school requires a demanding number of tasks from start to finish. The application process is competitive and medical students should anticipate spending the majority of their time in classes, clinical rotations, and preparing for examinations.
Medical schools typically require students to take courses in anatomy, physiology, biology, chemistry, and medical law. In addition to the exacting coursework, medical students are expected to gain real-life experience through clinical rotations. Aspiring forensic pathologists should elect to spend a clinical rotation in forensic pathology through a county medical examiner’s office or a morgue.
In order to become a legally practicing physician, medical students must complete a three-step process to earn a medical license. All three steps are typically completed during medical school and involve rigorous multi-day examinations sponsored by the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) and the National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME).
After earning a medical degree and obtaining a medical license, students desiring to become forensic pathologists need to seek a residency program to start out as a practicing physician. Programs typically last three years and students should seek programs accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME). Residencies in forensic pathology typically include advanced didactic and practical courses in toxicology and medical laboratory testing.
Fellowships in forensic pathology provide an opportunity to learn more in-depth knowledge and gain practical experience through a supervised mentorship. Advanced studies in medicolegal documentation, toxicology, trace evidence, DNA technology, firearms, and ballistics are available and fellowships are often required to earn board certification. Specialization programs in forensic pathology can be arranged through local, state, or federal medical examination offices.
Physicians who complete a fellowship in forensic pathology are eligible to apply for board certification in forensic pathology through the American Board of Pathology (ABP). Having board certification may be required for some medicolegal examiner positions and can lead to expanded career options and higher salaries.
The career pathway to become a forensic pathologist requires stamina and diligence. Aspiring forensic pathologists can expect to spend 12 years preparing for this demanding and gratifying career after high school through intensive academic and practical courses.
The multidisciplinary nature of forensic pathology is represented by several organizations and accreditation bodies to ensure that physicians with forensic pathology specialties are well-supported and held to the highest standards of professionalism.
Below is a comprehensive list of professional certification, accreditation, and service organizations dedicated to the advancement of forensic pathology.
Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. Rachel writes about meditation, yoga, coaching, and more on her blog (Instagram: @racheldrummondyoga).