Determining the cause of death by examination of a cadaver is the job of a forensic pathologist. This autopsy is carried out by a coroner or a medical examiner and usually is associated with the investigation of a crime. In many cases, the forensic pathologist is charged with confirming the identity of a deceased person.
Studying the cause of death by examining a dead body combines a branch of medicine with the legal system.
Forensic Pathologist Requirements
This career is for medical doctors (MDs) who have completed training in anatomical pathology and have sub-specialized training in forensic pathology. This is a highly specialized field that requires a significant investment of time and money in education.
In the United States the education required after completing high school is usually 13 years in duration. You will have 4 years of undergraduate education followed by 4 years of medical school. This is followed by 4 years of residency in anatomic and clinical pathology plus one year of a forensic pathology fellowship.
Another requirement is passing the certification examination administered by The American Board of Pathology.
For any aspiring doctor, the critical period is gaining admission to medical school. For the board certification exams, the failure rates for anatomic and forensic pathology are 30-40 percent and 40-50 percent, respectively.
Although this may sound like a career with little (live) human interaction, good communication skills are an important aspect of this job. You not only need to be able to explain your findings but must be able to defend them in court when they are attacked by opposing counsel. There will be cases where your professional opinion is not popular with a family or a spouse and you must be able to calmly defend your conclusions and support your evidence.
Forensic Pathologist Education and Training
This is a career where education must be completed and you must be board certified to reach the level of forensic pathologist. As with any medical specialty field, professional training is ongoing with new developments occurring frequently.
Only experience on the job can hone your detective skills so that you can think and analyze a case based on the evidence you collect without being influenced by the opinions or needs of others involved in the case.
Forensic Pathologist Salary
If your interest is in crime scene investigation you will be working for a government agency at some level (local, county, state, or federal) and may find entry salaries begin at $80,000.
Working for a private crime lab may pay significantly higher starting salaries but those positions often are accompanied by longer or more erratic work hours.
One advantage enjoyed by forensic pathologists is the likelihood that work hours will be a standard 40 hour week and seldom more than 50 hours in a week. For the most part, you’ll have evenings and weekends off which is rare for any doctor.
It is not unusual to find salaries in the $175,000 – $200,000 range for a forensic pathologist with some experience and even higher for those few experts recognized as being at the top of their field.
Forensic Pathologist Career Opportunities
If you love unraveling a mystery and are curious about the pathology of the human body, the forensic pathologist career may be perfect for you. In an autopsy, you collect information, test tissue and use the information you find to draw a conclusion about the cause of death, the time of death and other relevant information that might help solve a potential crime.
Your time is divided between performing autopsies, acquiring data about the circumstances of the death from law enforcement and testifying in court. Although the crime scene investigators on popular television programs visit the physical scene of the crime in every episode, this activity is not common for most forensic pathologists.
Take a look at other great Criminal Justice Careers.