So you want to be a forensic pathologist? Read part three of our comprehensive guide to getting ahead.
A career in forensic science appeals to those of us who have a natural curiosity, love to solve problems, understand the scientific method and have an affinity for history, mathematics or anthropology. Does this describe you? Are you on the edge of your seat when you watch CSI and NCIS? For those of you struggling to make a career decision before entering college, the paths to forensic anthropology, forensic pathology, forensic ecology or another branch of forensic science are both intriguing and rewarding. Still, specializing means identifying what you really want to pursue.
Doors opening doors: defining how you enter a profession
In the first in this series about career paths in forensic science, we discussed how a high school student might prepare by learning the basics in order to enter college or university prepared to specialize. Each branch of forensic science is based on science, mathematics, procedure and protocol. However, one branch in particular requires advanced degrees. The forensic pathologist, sometimes referred to as the medical examiner, demands a Medical Degree (MD) or MBBS in the UK and a Certificate of Specialization.
The doctor will see you now.
A forensic pathologist is the individual in all of the TV shows who, dressed in a doctor’s clean smock, leans over the autopsy table at the opened corpse, with its skin and bones pulled apart to reveal the damaged organs and the top of the skull removed to show the hematoma. If you have a squeamish stomach, you now know that this position is not for you — but if you still want to be involved in this aspect of crime-solving, look into forensic anthropology. If you enjoyed lab work in school, making chemicals change color and matching elements, try forensic chemistry.
The discipline of forensic pathology, simply put, is the investigation of human death, from a medical and legal perspective. The subjects who end up on the autopsy table will have met their end through tragic means: homicide, suicide and other unnatural causes. Each murder, each dead bystander, and each person who may or may not have taken his or her own life leaves different clues, and it is the job of the forensic pathologist not only to find all of the clues on a body, but also to determine what they mean.
Recovering evidence in a body has to be done with finesse. Recovering a bullet slug which ricocheted around inside a body cavity, nicking organs and bones, must be recovered for ballistics examination and identification by another specialist. The pathway of damage through the organism is also important to solving a crime and must be preserved, even though organic material begins deteriorating moments after death. A skilled pathologist will not just pop an instrument into a bullet hole and dig around until a solid object can be recovered. That destroys the organic evidence.
Aside from autopsies and looking at soft tissue under a microscope, the forensic pathologist requires different skills than a medical doctor. They will ultimately be required to testify in court. Police procedure will become second nature, as well as filling out reports, observing chains of custody, meeting and comparing notes with criminologists and collecting and protecting evidence.
Forensic pathologists also find themselves consulting with other specialists in niche areas of medicine or forensics, such as cardiac pathologists, neuropathologists, forensic odontologists, blood spatter experts, ballistics experts and more. In some cases, they will interact with families of the victim, and help to determine or confirm an identity. The forensic pathologist is part of a team, and is tasked to solve crimes and puzzles that have resulted in mortality.
The pathologist’s journey.
The educational path to pathology is long — usually 13 to 15 years — before a graduate can enter the profession. Four years of college science and mathematics, anthropology and anatomy will get the ball rolling. Follow this with four years of medical school, and then a residency. Anatomic pathology residency requires four additional years, but if one was to combine that with clinical pathology, you must add a year to that. Once you have a moment to take and pass your exams with high marks, you will celebrate your accomplishments and get ready for the home stretch: one or two more years of a forensic pathology fellowship leading up to a specific forensic pathology board exam.
If you have lived up to your commitment, you will enjoy the rewards. You can apply for a position doing work that is fascinating, important and fast-paced.
The goal at the end of the autopsy table.
Depending on the skill and experience level, the geographic location, the size of the facility and the nature of the work, salaries can range from $60,000 per year in the US for a new graduate, up to $600,000 per year for a Chief Medical Examiner or Chief Consultant (one who has a bullet proof reputation in court and has undertaken hundreds, if not thousands of cases). The current median for forensic pathologists in the United States is $214,029. The very best, who have an outgoing personality and good communication skills, can add substantially to that amount by working as one of the corps of elite expert witnesses, who work on high profile cases around the world.
Your Turn: Intrigued by our article and want to pursue a career in forensic pathology? Tell us all about where you are in your career journey. Otherwise, share all your questions and comments below.