Whether it is inspecting victims of violent crimes, determining causes of death or providing testimony that can convict criminals for life, it’s all in a day’s work for a forensic pathologist. If you have ever seen shows such as “CSI,” “NCIS” or “Dr. G: Medical Examiner,” you may have some idea of what the life of a forensic pathologist can be like. Although not often as exciting and dangerous as these popular television shows make it out to be, a career as a forensic pathologist, or medical examiner, can be interesting, fun, and challenging.
Students who go to the best forensic pathologist schools often seek careers as medical examiners or clinical forensic pathologists. Medical examiners learn the skills to successfully identify the time, manner, and cause of death in a post-mortem patient. Clinical forensic pathologists study living patients, usually in response to violent trauma (like rape or abuse). Students who are successful in this field are typically determined, analytical, and interested in science and biology.
Since a forensic scientist is a medical specialist, the process for completing forensic pathologist education begins at the undergraduate level, but students truly interested in becoming a medical examiner should begin to prepare for medical school as soon as possible. Medical school admissions are highly competitive and most medical schools are interested in applicants who have completed undergraduate degrees in biology and chemistry. Following are some programs that could help a student prepare for a career as a forensic pathologist, although a medical degree will ultimately be required.
Students who are unable to commit to a bachelor’s degree program may consider an associate degree in a field related to forensic pathology, such as forensic science, biology, or chemistry.
Similar to the associate’s degree path, students will not be able to earn a bachelor’s degree focused solely on forensic pathology. Rather, applicants should choose a degree program that will help them obtain admission to a medical program by allowing them to complete certain preprequisites and familiarize themselves with concepts of biology, organic chemistry, and anatomy.
After completing an undergraduate program that includes medical school prerequisites, students can apply to a medical school program. Medical school includes rigorous general training for at least three years before students can begin to pursue a specialty such as forensic pathology. Fellowships specific to the forensic pathology field are listed further down this page.
Most medical schools are interested in applicants who have completed undergraduate degrees in biology, chemistry, or a related field. These schools can be very competitive. It is helpful to take courses in criminal justice, criminal investigation, and toxicology as well.
Who should enroll in an online graduate certificate program in forensic pathology
Because an online forensic pathology program does not ultimately result in a medical degree, it is only the best choice for those who are not yet sure of the career they want or who would instead like a forensic career that is tangential or related to forensic pathology. These online programs are designed for those who have completed undergraduate studies. Depending on the program, students may be required to have a degree in a science such as biology or chemistry, while other programs may not have such specific prerequisites.
Featured Online Forensic Pathology Graduate Certificate Programs
The University of Florida offers an online Forensic Death Investigation certificate. The program includes coursework on the investigation of crime and death using forensic pathology as well as anthropology and DNA analysis. In addition, students can expect to learn about pharmacology, forensic odontology, and wounds.
The University of North Dakota offers an online death investigation training. The program, through the UND Office of Extended Learning, should take no more than three months to complete and include principles of death investigation and forensic pathology.
National University offers a certificate in forensic and crime scene investigation (FCSI) that includes coursework in forensic pathology. The seven-course, 31.5 credit hour certificate is specifically designed for students who are currently employed in law enforcement, investigation, and other forensic professions. Some credits from this online program may apply to a future master’s degree in a forensic field, although not to an MD.
Becoming a forensic pathologist in the U.S. means earning a medical degree, which means there are no online programs that fully prepare a student for a career in forensic pathology. However, students wishing to prepare for their medical career may certainly pursue an undergraduate degree online in a related field. Most medical schools prefer to admit students with bachelor of science degrees in fields such as biology or chemistry. Regardless of the final degree, students should have a strong background in physical sciences before applying to medical school to ensure that they have taken essential prerequisite courses before entering medical school.
As mentioned above, the first portion of medical school provides a foundation of medical knowledge for all future physicians. After completing three years of medical school, students may apply to a forensic pathology residency program, and a subsequent fellowship to gain more experience in the specialty.
Medical schools with forensic pathology programs help train students to correctly identify causes of sudden and violent death. During this stage of training, students will have the opportunity to work in connection with county coroner’s offices and investigative laboratories to get an idea of whether a forensic pathology career will be a good fit. Medical programs help prepare students for a career in medicine, but it is the student’s subsequent residency and fellowship programs that allow them to specialize in forensic pathology.
While enrolled in medical forensic pathologist programs, students are required to complete anatomy, health administration, and medical practice courses. In addition, medical schools require around 100 credits of clinical clerkships and hands-on training. The last requirement is a medical examination at the culmination of the training program. Upon completion, students will have a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree or Doctor of Osteopathy (DO) degree.
Practical training beyond medical school is required in order to become a forensic pathologist. Students usually apply to residency programs while still in medical school, but begin after graduation. These three to five-year programs allow students to work with professional forensic pathologists in public and private offices.
The following is a selection of forensic pathology fellowship programs to which students who have completed a pathology residency and are eligible for American Board of Pathology Certification can apply:
The School of Medicine at the University of Colorado at Denver offers a forensic pathology fellowship for new doctors who have completed their medical degree and fellowship. Training at CU Denver largely involves work in the Denver Office of the Medical Examiner. The fellowship lasts for 12 months and also includes training at the Denver Police Department Crime Laboratory and The Veterans Affairs Medical Center Chemistry and Molecular Laboratories. Fellows can expect to learn about DNA/serology, firearms, trace evidence, scene documentation and photography, latent prints, drug analysis and toxicology.
The Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) forensic pathology fellowship is offered under the supervision of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for the Commonwealth of Virginia. The fellowship lasts one year and includes both didactic training and hands-on forensic examination experience. This program is accredited by the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME) and meets the requirements for the American Board of Pathology’s certification in forensic pathology.
The University of Michigan offers a one-year fellowship in forensic pathology. Fellows can expect to work alongside the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office in Detroit Michigan, learning not only forensic examination techniques but also courtroom testimony, toxicology, criminalistics, anthropology, odontology, and other specialties.
To receive accreditation, forensic pathology programs must be approved by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME). This process involves a thorough evaluation of the program’s curriculum, faculty, and facilities. The LCME accredits all medical education programs in the U.S. that grant the MD degree, which is necessary to practice as a forensic pathologist. A complete directory of accredited programs is available from the LCME website.
Students seeking an undergraduate degree prior to obtaining a medical degree can look for a program that has earned institutional accreditation from one of the accrediting agencies recognized by the US Department of Education, such as the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the Higher Learning Commission, or the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.
Forensic Pathology Certification and Licensure
Upon completing medical school, aspiring forensic pathologists must apply to residency programs in pathology that allow them to become qualified to earn an American Board of Pathology certification. These certifications are available for both Clinical Pathology (CP) and Anatomical Pathology (AP). Alternatively, residents can earn a joint AP/CP certification.
Eligibility for this certification, although not the completion of the certification itself, is a prerequisite for forensic pathology fellowship applicants. While there are a number of requirements that must be met, most important to note is that eligibility is contingent on an applicant having completed a medical education program in pathology or a pathology subspecialty that has been accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) or the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada (RCPSC).
Residents who wish to specialize in forensic pathology may also qualify for the ABP subspecialty certification after at least two years of training towards the general AP, CP, or AP/CP certification. Complete requirements for certification are available from the ABP website.
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).