SYWTBA: Become a Forensic Pathologist

autopsy table

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.

Comments

comments

13 Comments

  • Derrick Ogaro says:

    Mmh… pretty good..would love to b an accomplished forensic pathologist too.

    • Thanks, Derrick, your wish is certainly possible. We have quite a few articles that will provide more information about gaining an education and degree to be able to have a career in forensics. If you like pathology (one of the more stringent forensic courses), you will have many years of study and residency ahead of you. Find the right school, follow our suggestions and go for it. We need brilliant young people like you to carry on.

      Good luck, and keep an eye on us.

  • Tichania says:

    I too would love to become an accomplished forensic pathologist. I am currently applying to universities in the US and would like to know which schools would be the best to kick start my journey.

    • Hello Tichania,

      Congratulations on your career choice. You do have a long and arduous path ahead, leading through Medical School, residency and your specialty. Selecting a school to begin, however, is a matter of your location, your funding and acceptance. When you apply, talk to the guidance counselors and make your intentions well known about your Forensic interest. They will have the latest information about their school or related schools with programs that will fit your needs.

      In addition, we have many articles on different schools with Forensic programs on our site, as well as explanations as to how to succeed along your path. Check us out thoroughly, there is a lot of great advice from professionals and experts that will help you.

      Good luck on your fascinating journey, we look forward to reading about your interesting cases one day when you submit to Forensic Outreach in the future.

  • Kayla Orr says:

    This article helped me a lot! I am currently a senior in high school and I can’t wait to start my journey to becoming a Forensic Pathologist!

    • The Forensic Outreach Team says:

      Hi Kayla,

      Thanks very much for your comment!

      We strive to ensure that all students have access to the right resources in order to make informed decisions about their future careers. Let us know if you have any suggestions to help us improve this or other articles on the site. All the best!

  • quork says:

    I am quite nervous…I am also a senior in high school and want to talk forensics science courses in college along with a biology/pathology major. But do medical schools discriminate if they learn that you want to become a forensics pathologist, versus another job that interacts more heavily with live people? Thank you.

    • Hi Quork,

      Schools are there to help you find a career that fits your needs and support you in your choices, not to impose any prejudices – real or imagined – on what someone in the school prefers in his or her own life. Go for your dream. Talk to the college counselors. Don’t react to what you imagine someone will think. Forensic Pathology is a noble profession and perfectly honorable, once you have accomplished your degree, you will be proud of what you did and what work you will do.

      Good luck

  • Holly says:

    I absolutely love this section! I have searched and searched the internet for specifics on Forensic Pathology. None covered as many of my questions at once. But, now I have this! This is a GREAT read. I’m only in my Junior year of high school but my career choice of Forensic Pathology has been set since my sophomore year. I had the honor of visiting Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine for a week last summer. I participated in their SEE Program. We learned about the main parts of human anatomy (heart, brain, lungs, etc.). We also visited the anatomy lab several times. Bodies everywhere! Of course, they had to conceal the faces for confidentiality reasons. Most of said bodies died of natural causes. I’ve been looking for Forensic schools all over my state; I’ve only found two that offer a bachelor’s degree in Forensic Anthropology. I want to double major in Forensic Anthropology and Criminal Justice. Then branch off from there. Again, this is a great read!

    • The Forensic Outreach Team says:

      Hi Holly,

      Sounds like you’re committed to the cause. Thanks so much for your kind words — we’re delighted you enjoyed this article. Best of luck with your future endeavours and hope to hear how it all goes soon.

  • Anna says:

    I am a high school senior who wants to pursue a career in forensic pathology, but I don’t know what specific I can do to prepare for this career though I have already done a lot of research about this career. What should I study in college? The university I am going to attend only provides these majors/ minors that seem to be related to forensic pathology: forensic science as a minor, anthropology as a major/minor, bioinformatics as a major, clinical laboratory science as a major, criminal justice as a minor , and sociology as minor/major. I am planning to participate in the pre-medicine programme in college and major in bioinformatics. Will this lead to forensic pathology? My college counsellor simply told me to look at the major list since he doesn’t know anything concerning this career path.

  • Kavya says:

    Hi I have just finished my high school and would love to pursue a career in forensic pathology but I’m not sure which UG course should I choose now. Can you please help me.

  • Frank says:

    I had admission at UCC Ghana to offer forensic science but how do I become a forensic pathologist in Ghana

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