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 as 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 forensic pathologists’ official cause of death reports in legal cases involving murder, manslaughter, and sexual assault. A forensic pathologist’s official documentation can significantly impact people’s lives, explaining the extensive medical background and strict requirements for licensure 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) recommends at most 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 have salary data for two similar professions: physicians and forensic scientists. Physicians in the United States make an average annual salary of $208,000 per year, and the occupation is experiencing a faster-than-average expected growth of 3 percent between 2021 and 2031 (BLS 2022). Salaries for forensic pathologists vary depending on the funding, population, caseload, and cost of living in a particular area. Most forensic pathologists have a medical degree which requires anywhere from 12 to 14 years of education.
By comparison, forensic science technicians earn median annual salaries of $61,930 per year, and the occupation is growing much faster than average occupations at 11 percent in the same decade (BLS 2022).
It’s important to note that while forensic scientists contribute to death investigation work and require approximately 4-6 years of education, a forensic pathologist typically has a medical degree and nearly double the years of education and experience compared to a forensic science technician.
Being a forensic pathologist is both a challenging and rewarding career. In her blog, Forensic Pathology Forum, Dr. Judy Melinek, a board-certified forensic pathologist, writes 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 to render a just decision, so it gives me a lot of professional satisfaction 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, including completing a bachelor’s and medical degree and 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. To be accepted into a high-quality undergraduate college or university, high school students interested in forensic pathology career pathways are advised to take science and mathematics as many courses as possible.
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 offers a 120-credit online bachelor of science in biological sciences online. Students can access laboratory science coursework online, partnering with leading technology industry companies. Students may be required to attend on-campus lab classes or fulfill requirements with transfer credits. Students can enroll in this online program several times throughout the year.
Drexel University offers a fully online, part-time, two-year pre-med certificate program for non-scientific undergraduate degree holders. This program aims 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 the Drexel College of Medicine faculty. In addition, a free Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) preparation course is available in the final semester.
Applying for medical school requires demanding tasks from start to finish. The application process is competitive, and medical students should anticipate spending most of their time in classes, clinical rotations, and preparing for examinations.
Medical schools typically require students to take anatomy, physiology, biology, chemistry, and medical law courses. 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.
University of Michigan Medical School
The University of Michigan Medical School offers a PhD in molecular and cellular pathology degree programs: an MD program for medical doctors and an MD/PhD program for those who want to attend medical school and focus on cutting-edge research in academia.
Applicants must provide MCAT scores and medical school applications to apply to the MD program. The MD/PhD program applicants must have at least 18 months of research experience and a passion for science and patient care. Residency and fellowship opportunities are available to graduates from these programs.
To become a legally practicing physician, medical students must complete three steps 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 a residency program to start practicing as physicians. 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.
Some residencies are offered on a short-term rotation basis. The Forensic Pathology Rotation at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Residents perform forensic autopsies supervised by forensic pathologists with the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner and on-scene examinations. Participants can expect to perform up to 40 autopsies, including toxicology laboratory studies, to help qualify for board certification. Living expenses are offered to those admitted.
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. In addition, specialization programs in forensic pathology can be arranged through local, state, or federal medical examination offices.
The University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) in Memphis offers a one-year forensic pathology fellowship in conjunction with the Shelby County Medical Examiner’s Office and West Tennessee Regional Forensic Center. Fellows in this program can expect to perform 250 autopsies under the mentorship of the American Board of Pathology certified forensic pathologists. In addition, through agreements with numerous healthcare organizations in the area, such as Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital and Methodist University Hospitals, fellows can learn several sub-specialties, including pediatric pathology, neuropathology, and forensic odontology.
A two-week course in toxicology in Pennsylvania and several courses in forensic science through the University of Tennessee campuses in Nashville and Knoxville are included, and fellows in this program are expected to attend and present at conferences. To be eligible to apply, fellows must complete an anatomy and physiology/clinical pathology residency and be licensed to practice medicine in Tennessee.
The National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME) keeps an up-to-date list of forensic pathology fellowships complete with residency requirements.
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). Board certification may be required for some medicolegal examiner positions and can lead to expanded career options and higher salaries.
The career pathway to becoming a forensic pathologist requires stamina and diligence. After high school, aspiring forensic pathologists can expect to spend 12 years preparing for this demanding and gratifying career through intensive academic and practical courses.
Several organizations and accreditation bodies represent the multidisciplinary nature of forensic pathology 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 advancing subspecialties in 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).