Working in a coroner’s office or medical examiner’s office could be a good job for people who are interested in science, the human body, and in helping families to find out what may have caused the death of a loved one. Becoming a forensic autopsy technician is one option for those who are fascinated by human anatomy and who are not squeamish around the idea of dissecting bodies. Additionally, this career typically does not require extensive postsecondary learning.
Forensic autopsy technicians are often able to work a regular 9:00 to 5:00 schedule, assisting a forensic pathologist in working on bodies that come in overnight or during the day. However, at times they may be required to cover weekend and holiday shifts on a part-time basis depending on the needs of the facility. Autopsy technician work includes tasks such as preparing the autopsy suite, providing 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, a minimum of certificate-level training or an associate degree in a field such as biology, funeral science, or a similar subject is required. However, knowledge about anatomy, physiology, and medical lab practices that are included in most bachelor’s degree curriculums will be helpful for increasing job opportunities. Other skills that are important for forensic autopsy technicians 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. Technicians will also need to be capable of moving bodies, sometimes up to 300 pounds or more, alone 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. However, the BLS includes autopsy assistants within its medical assistants category and estimates job opportunities in this field will grow 23 percent from 2018 to 2028. This job growth is much faster than the average for all jobs, which is 5 percent for that same time frame.
Those who want to enter the field are encouraged to start their job search by looking through governmental sites, which employ people at a variety of levels from county medical examiners jobs to positions at federal facilities, such as an air force base. Additionally, a department of pathology and laboratory medicine at a university could also provide interested students with opportunities for employment as a forensic autopsy technician. Finally, joining a professional group, such as the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS), can be another way to look for job opportunities, both through professional networking and by utilizing that group’s online job listings.
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. The website GovernmentJobs.com (2020) for example, lists forensic autopsy technician jobs that pay $48,000 to $78,000 per year, depending on an applicant’s experience. Additionally, Indeed.com (2020), a worldwide job website, indicates that forensic autopsy technicians earn approximately $48,000 to $63,000 annually. This appears comparable with the annual salaries listed for some positions on job search sites. Pay will vary based on the location of the position and experience required of an applicant.
Job requirements will vary depending on the employing organization 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. While not all people will take the same path towards becoming a forensic autopsy technician, following are the most common steps:
Since most people working in this career have at least a bachelor’s degree, a high school graduate can expect to spend around four more years in school before they are able to start finding work in the field. Those who go on to earn an advanced degree, which is not required, can expect a total of six more years in school (or eight years in the case of a part-time master’s program).
Forensic autopsy technicians work alongside and under the supervision of medical examiners and forensic pathologists to determine the cause of death of the bodies they examine. Forensic autopsy technicians will be required to work on victims of violent deaths and also help to examine the bodies of those whose cause of death is undetermined. Some examples of undetermined causes of death include unknown health issues or cases of sudden deaths. Some of the regular tasks that a forensic autopsy technician may be expected to complete include:
No particular licensure or certification is needed to be able to work as a forensic autopsy technician. However, there are specific things that are necessary to gain employment. Generally, job applicants will need to be fingerprinted and to pass a criminal background check. Most forensic autopsy technicians must have a valid driver’s license and typically be able to move significant amounts of weight, sometimes up to 500 pounds, utilizing tools such as carts and dollies. These requirements are things to consider when pursuing a career as a forensic autopsy technician.
As mentioned above, some forensic autopsy technicians may be eligible for certification from the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators (ABMDI). Certification from this group requires that the applicant “be employed in a Medical Examiner or Coroner office or equivalent federal authority with the job responsibility to ‘conduct death scene investigations’ or supervise such investigations at the time of application and examination.” Those with 640 hours of experience are eligible for Registry Certification, while those who have 4,000 hours of experience over the last six years are eligible to become Board Certified. This type of certification does not confer any legal benefits but can be helpful in gaining more job opportunities over time.
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: @oregon_yogini).