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 may entail. 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 pathology 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.
One way to become a forensic pathologist includes going to medical school and training to become a physician or surgeon. Upon completing medical school and fellowship requirements, aspiring forensic pathologists seek out residencies in forensic pathology schools.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2021) shows that students can spend up to nine years in specialized residency programs and later pursue board certification by organizations such as the American Board of Pathology. The BLS shows that physician and surgeon careers are growing at a rate of 4 percent, which is as fast as the national average. Those who commit to 10 or more years of grueling academic work are rewarded handsomely. The BLS reports that the median annual salary for physicians and surgeons exceeds or is equal to $208,000 per year (BLS May 2020).
However, becoming a physician or surgeon is not the only career pathway to become a forensic pathologist. A range of online and on-campus associate’s, bachelor’s, and certificate programs exist for those who want to pursue a career as a forensic science technician. In fact, the BLS predicts forensic science technician careers to grow 14 percent between 2019 and 2029, which is much faster than the national average (BLS 2021). Most positions require a bachelor’s degree, and the median annual salary for forensic science technicians is $60,590 per year.
Read on to learn more about forensic pathology schools, including admissions requirements, degree and certificate programs, and professional certification.
Since a forensic scientist is a medical specialist, the process for completing forensic pathologist education begins at the undergraduate level, but students genuinely interested in becoming medical examiners should start 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.
The 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 cannot 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. Instead, applicants should choose a degree program that will help them obtain admission to a medical program by allowing them to complete specific prerequisites 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 requires 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.
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.
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 and anthropology, and DNA analysis. In addition, students can expect to learn about pharmacology, forensic odontology, and wounds.
The University of North Dakota offers online death investigation training. The program, offered 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 certificate is specifically designed for students 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 fully online programs that thoroughly prepare a student for a career in forensic pathology.
However, students wishing to prepare for their medical careers may pursue an undergraduate degree online in a related field. Most medical schools prefer to admit students with bachelor of science degrees in 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 introductory 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 identify causes of sudden and violent death correctly. During this stage of training, students will have the opportunity to connect with county coroner’s offices and investigative laboratories to determine 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 must 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 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 the 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 degrees and fellowship. Training at CU Denver essentially involves work in the Denver Office of the Medical Examiner.
The fellowship lasts for 12 months and 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 forensic examination techniques and courtroom testimony, toxicology, criminalistics, anthropology, odontology, and other specialties.
Forensic pathology programs must be approved by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) to receive accreditation. 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 before 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.
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 certificate itself, is a prerequisite for forensic pathology fellowship applicants. While several requirements 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 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: @racheldrummondyoga).