How to Become a Medical Examiner: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a medical examiner. Research the job description and the education, licensing and certification requirements and find out how to start a career in forensic pathology.

Should I Become a Medical Examiner?

Medical examiners are licensed physicians who possess specialized training in forensic pathology. They perform autopsies and inspect organs, tissue and bodily fluids to determine the cause of death in violent or suspicious cases. Dealing with deceased individuals on a regular basis might be a negative for some doctors, but solving questions related to unexplained deaths may be rewarding for other professionals.

Career Requirements

Degree Level A medical degree is required; medical examiners should earn either an M.D. (Medical Doctor) or a D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine)
Licensure Medical examiners need to have state licensure
Certification Medical examiners must be certified by the American Board of Pathology (ABP) in forensic pathology
Experience Approximately 5 years of training after graduating from medical school is necessary
Key Skills Coordination, judgment, decision making abilities, critical thinking, social perceptiveness; Microsoft Word and Excel, graphics and photo imaging software, toxicology databases, Douglas Associates Forensic Filer; dexterity with autopsy tools
Salary $194,990 (average annual wage as of May 2014 for physicians and surgeons nationally)

Sources: National Association of Medical Examiners, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, ONet Online.

Step 1: Earn an Undergraduate Degree

Those who wish to become a medical examiner should first complete a bachelor's degree program. While no specific major is required, students should focus on undergraduate coursework that fulfills medical school prerequisites. Some courses that pre-med students may take include inorganic and organic chemistry, biology, mathematics and physics.

Success Tips:

  • Concentrate on academic achievement. Because entry into medical schools is competitive, extra attention should be paid to academic performance. Admission is based on a number of factors, including extracurricular activities and letters of recommendation, but academic performance is one of the most important factors.
  • Prepare for the Medical College Admissions Test. Coursework that prepares students for the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) can also be beneficial. Taking the MCAT is required for admission to medical school, and a good score should help to position candidates well against strong competition.

Step 2: Attain a Medical Degree

Students may earn either a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or a Doctor of Osteopathy (D.O.). Medical programs generally take four years to complete; the first two years are commonly spent in classrooms, while the final two years include more hands-on work and rotations wherein students explore various specialties. Students apply the skills they have learned under the supervision of experienced physicians.

Success Tip:

  • Focus on work with future career goals in mind. An aspiring medical examiner may wish to focus his or her experiential opportunities on forensic medicine. The opportunity to work under the guidance of trained individuals in the field is a valuable experience for future medical examiners.

Step 3: Enroll in a Residency Program

Medical school graduates must complete their residency in anatomic and forensic pathology in order to become medical examiners. Residency programs provide paid training and typically last four years. Forensic pathology residents gain practical experience by participating in autopsies and investigations.

Success Tips:

  • Sharpen key skills. Medical examiners have strong skills in coordination, critical thinking and social perceptiveness. Completing a residency program allows medical school graduates to hone these critical skills through real-world experience.
  • Take advantage of specialty electives. Residency programs usually offer a variety of elective options. This is a great chance for students to learn about the pathology of the systems they're interested in, such as molecular pathology, neuropathology and transplant pathology.

Step 4: Complete a Fellowship

Fellows work on a forensic team at a medical examiner's or coroner's office following the completion of a residency. They may participate in crime scene investigations, prepare courtroom testimonies, test body fluids and assist with autopsies. They typically receive a stipend for about one year of work. Over the course of that year, resident trainees perform up to 300 autopsies while under the supervision of a certified forensic pathologist.

Step 5: Acquire Licensure and Certification

Medical examiners must obtain their state medical license before they can become board certified. This step can be done after graduating from medical school or during the course of a residency program. Licensing requirements for medical examiners vary between states, but common requirements include graduating from an accredited medical school, passing the exams and completing a residency or training program. Once they are licensed medical doctors, medical examiners are eligible for the national certification exam. The exam is offered by the American Board of Pathology and consists of questions regarding the practices and procedures used in forensic pathology.

Step 6: Opportunities for Career Advancement

After a person gains enough experience as a deputy medical examiner, they can pursue advanced options such as becoming a chief medical examiner. Often, this new job title comes with a substantial increase in pay, but there will be increased responsibilities during autopsies. A chief medical examiner will also be more involved with the government agencies working in tandem with the medical examiners.

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