Medical examiners, a career which once existed far from the public eye, has become much more well-known thanks in large part to popular culture representations of them such as Dr. Saroyen from the television show “Bones.” By examining the bodies of people who have expired, a medical examiner can uncover the secrets of their death, sometimes with alarming precision.
People who have an interest in this field will find that it has many rewarding aspects, from the salary to the interesting work the career offers. A medical examiner may also be a trained forensic pathologist, but not necessarily. It is also important to distinguish a medical examiner from a coroner, who may or may not have any medical training.
Those in the field perform post-mortem examinations of human bodies. They look into sudden and unexpected deaths, as well as violent incidents in order to determine the cause and time of death. The forensic medical examiner may look into the medical history of the deceased, examine the crime scene and statements from witnesses, and analyze evidence found on the body, such as gunpowder residue or bodily fluids. Having knowledge of other fields such as DNA, toxicology, and even ballistics is beneficial.
The medical examiner prepares reports, including a death certificate, and often works quite closely with law enforcement on cases. In addition, this specialist may testify in court and present their findings before a judge and jury.
Read on to discover the career outlook, salary, responsibilities, and credentialing in this field.
Anyone choosing to become a forensic medical examiner needs to become a licensed physician first.
Although data specific to the medical examiner career is not available, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2020), the outlook for the career of a physician is quite good. The BLS predicts that there will be a growth rate of 4 percent between 2019 and 2029, which is the same as the average for all occupations. The demand for physicians remains steady as the field of healthcare expands.
Those who have an interest in pursuing the field should look into some of the different professional organizations set up specifically for medical examiners, such as the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME). Another professional group that offers certification is the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators (ABMDI). It is also possible to find information from the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS), which provides support to all manner of scientists working in the field of forensics.
Before diving into any career, considering the potential salary is important. Because the salaries for medical examiners can depend so heavily on experience as well as geography, determining the specific expected salary can be difficult.
The median pay for a physician in 2019 was more than $208,000 (BLS 2020), and this figure considers all of the different types of physicians.
Limited salary data is also available from other sources. For instance, PayScale (2020), a site that aggregates self-reported salary data for myriad jobs, has collected some details about how medical examiners in the U.S. are paid. According to 55 individuals who reported their pay, the median salary for a medical examiner is $99,036 per year. Reported salaries range as follows:
The best way to determine an accurately predicted salary for the job is to look at the various states and cities that utilize medical examiners and then inquire as to the specific salary.
Becoming a medical examiner takes a substantial amount of work and schooling. They need to have a bachelor’s degree, along with their MD or DO. They will need additional residency training in forensic pathology or a forensic pathology fellowship.
Here is one possible path to becoming a medical examiner:
Step 1: Graduate high school or obtain a GED (four years).
Preparation for medical school happens as early as high school. Most bachelor programs require a high school diploma or GED in order to be considered for admission. Students should do their best to excel in all coursework, particularly biology, chemistry, and other science classes.
Step 2: Pursue an undergraduate degree (four years).
Future medical examiners will need to excel in their undergraduate education as well since medical school can be extremely competitive. Students interested in this career may choose a pre-med track and with a major such as biology, chemistry, or a related field. Students who choose to pursue a forensic science degree should ensure that they are meeting all medical school prerequisites with their undergraduate courses.
Step 3: Complete medical school (four years).
Although it represents just one step on this list, medical school is a massive undertaking. A highly competitive application process means that students should be prepared to submit a thorough accounting of all academic work, letters of recommendation, a statement of purpose, and scores for the Medical College Admission Exam (MCAT).
Once admitted to medical school, students take rigorous courses in topics such as advanced anatomy, physiology, and microbiology as well as learn proper clinical practice and bedside manner. No matter what their ultimate career goal is, during medical school, students will also complete supervised clinical rotations to apply their skills in specialties such as internal medicine, surgery, obstetrics, pediatrics, and pathology.
It is recommended that any student pursuing the medical examiner career take any available courses in forensics or pathology. For example, autopsy pathology is one common elective in medical school, and may also be available among clinical rotations. Doctors who complete medical school are awarded a medical doctor (MD) degree or a doctor of osteopathy (DO), depending on the program.
Step 4: Earn medical license (timelines vary).
Graduates of medical school can earn a medical license upon the successful completion of their board exams, also known as United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE). The licensing examination consists of three separate exams beginning the second year of medical school, with the final exam taking place after one year of residency. Licensing requirements beyond this exam can vary between states, so those pursuing a medical career should be sure to consider where they plan to live and work prior to becoming licensed.
Step 5: Pursue residency (three years).
After graduation, students begin a full-time residency where they are able to begin to practice more and more independently as physicians. Medical examiners may choose to complete a residency in the pathology specialty since there are no residency programs that focus entirely on the medical examiner career. Rather, applicants should look for residencies that do include autopsy and forensic pathology training as part of the program.
Step 6: Apply for medical examiner fellowship (one year).
To specialize in the medical examiner career, most doctors choose to do a fellowship. A fellowship is a specialty training after a residency. These fellowships mainly take place at government-run medical examiner offices and will give doctors the chance to focus on the specific aspects of the career.
Step 7: Build a professional network (timeline varies).
During every step towards this career, aspiring medical examiners should be building a professional network. This is particularly important in this specialty because many medical examiners must be appointed to office, which is quite different from the hiring process in most other medical specialties. A medical examiner fellowship will be helpful, but it can also be useful to attend conferences and other networking events to get in front of those who may be integral to future professional success.
Becoming a medical examiner clearly requires an extremely dedicated individual. A high school graduate can expect to spend at least an additional 12 years pursuing education and training in the fields of pathology and forensics in order to prepare for this career. Because the position is often appointed, there may also be an extended period where a trained medical examiner is not able to find employment in the area of their choosing.
Medical examiners must be medical doctors with specific training in conducting death investigations. However, there are some jobs available for those who are not interested in pursuing a full course of medical study. For instance, forensic autopsy technicians can also be employed in a medical examiner’s office, assisting with autopsies and helping to determine a cause of death.
Further, in many jurisdictions, coroners do not need specific medical training. These professionals work alongside medical examiners and pathologists to determine why someone may have died and are responsible for tasks such as completing death certificates.
Students may also choose to pursue a master’s degree in a field such as pathology. Earning a master of science (MS) in pathology can be helpful in obtaining a position in a medical examiner’s office or in a laboratory that tests samples from the medical examiner. A master’s degree could also be useful in obtaining a position such as forensic pathologist assistant. Should someone in that position decide they want to take the next step towards becoming a medical examiner, that type of experience could be very valuable.
On television dramas, medical examiners are nearly always seen hunkered over a body, pointing out wounds and evidence to interested detectives and solving mysteries. While autopsies are a critical part of the medical examiner’s job, in reality, there are many daily tasks and responsibilities that this type of professional will need to be prepared to complete — and not all of them look good on television.
The work of a medical examiner can be quite gruesome and at times isolating since medical examiner offices typically do not have very many employees. Medical examiners must be comfortable dissecting bodies, removing organs, and dealing with families who may have experienced a very traumatic and violent death. In addition, they can expect to:
In order to become a medical examiner, one has to be a licensed doctor (MD or DO) and take a licensing exam regardless of the state where he or she works. Medical licensing is done on a state by state basis and requirements vary. All require medical school, passing all four tests of the USMLE, and extensive training (residency). In addition to licensing, many medical examiners will also want to look into certifications, as they can help to improve the chance of finding a job.
The American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators (ABMDI) offers certification options that may help to bolster a career. Applicants must have a minimum of 640 hours of work in death investigation in order to be certified by the ABMDI. Medical examiners may also consider earning board certification in forensic pathology from the American Board of Pathology.
While professional certification is not legally required to work as a medical examiner, it can be helpful in obtaining employment in this competitive field.
Kimmy Gustafson is a freelance writer and researcher with a passion for sharing stories of bravery. Her love for world-traveling began when her family moved to Spain when she was six and since then, she has lived overseas extensively, visited six continents, and traveled to over 25 countries. She is fluent in Spanish and conversational in French. When not writing or parenting she can be found kiteboarding, hiking, or cooking.