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Forensic Pathologist

Education and Training: Bachelor’s degree followed by 4 years in medical school to earn an MD, followed by five-year training in anatomic, forensic or clinical pathology, and a one year fellowship in forensics. Board certification can be achieved after passing the final exam.
Average Salary: $105,000-$500,000
Job Outlook: Excellent

Job Description

Forensic pathologists are specially trained doctors who examine the bodies of people who died violently or unexpectedly, or whose cause of death is unknown. A forensic pathologist is ultimately responsible for determining the cause of death.

Although this may initially involve performing an autopsy on the body and examining the medical history of the deceased, the forensic pathologist also has to take into account a number of other sources of information. These can include collecting trace evidence from the body and also performing toxicology screens as well as blood analysis and DNA testing. Depending on the cause of death, it may be necessary to perform firearms or ballistics tests. Once a forensic pathologist or medical examiner has all the information they can prepare a written report, and may also be required to testify in court.

Not all forensic pathologists examine the dead, as clinical forensic pathologists examine living patients, and are usually required in cases where sexual assault or abuse has occurred. This role for forensic pathologists is becoming increasingly important.

Anyone wishing to become a forensic pathologist has to have a natural curiosity about the pathology of the human body, and must also be good at communicating with others, as forensic pathologists are frequently required to work closely with law enforcement agencies. Forensic pathologists need to be able to clearly explain forensic evidence and must be able to defend this evidence in court.

Education and Training Requirements

The education and training to become a forensic pathologist is extremely rigorous and long, and it takes a minimum of 13 years training after high school to qualify and become board certified. Forensic pathologists must first spend four years earning a bachelor’s degree in any major that allows them to go on to medical school. They must then spend a further four years in medical school completing an MD or DO degree. This is followed by four or five years training in forensic pathology, after which it’s necessary to do a one-year residency, or fellowship in forensics pathology. The final step is to take an exam leading to board certification.

Getting the Job

The majority of jobs available are working in hospitals or medical schools, or for the federal government. There are also private group practices that contract autopsy services out to government agencies. Most newly qualified forensic pathologists are likely to find jobs most easily in hospitals or medical schools or other state controlled facilities, which is valuable experience before choosing to work for other organizations such as private group practices.

Job Prospects, Employment Outlook and Career Development

Job prospects are excellent for forensic pathologists. The opportunities for career development are extremely good, especially once a pathologist becomes more experienced. The forensic pathologists who are at the top of their career and who are known for their high levels of expertise can command considerable sums of money, and are much in demand for testifying in court.

Working Conditions and Environment

Although working conditions are clean and well ventilated it can still be a grueling job, and a typical workday can last up to 12 hours especially in cases where a death site is a considerable distance from the workplace. The emotional demands of the job can also be quite high as the pathologist can be continually exposed to graphic violence. Much of a pathologist’s time is spent in the laboratory performing autopsies or examining tissue samples, although the most experienced are likely to spend considerable amounts of time in court testifying on behalf of government agencies.

Salary and Benefits

A typical starting salary for a newly qualified forensics pathologist is around $80,000 for anyone choosing to work for a government agency. Private crime laboratories may pay significantly more, but may also require longer and more erratic working hours. The majority of forensic pathologists work a standard 40 hour week and most have evenings and weekends off.

More experienced forensic pathologists can expect salaries of $175,000 upwards, while those at the top of the tree are able to command salaries of as much as $500,000. As most of the jobs available are for government agencies, bonuses are likely to be rare, but vacation allowances are more likely to be generous and paid.

Where to Go for More Information

American Academy of Forensic Sciences
410 N 21st St.
Colorado Springs, CO 80904
(719) 636-1100

American Society for Investigative Pathology
9650 Rockville Pike, Ste. E133
Bethesda, MD 20814
(301) 634-7130

National Association of Medical Examiners
31479 Arrow Lane
Marceline, MO 64658
(660) 734-1891

National Board of Medical Examiners
3750 Market St.
Philadelphia, PA 19104-3102

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