Become a Forensic Pathologist: Training and Career Guide

Find out how to become a forensic pathologist. Research the education and training requirements and learn about the experience you need to advance your career in forensic pathology.

Should I Become A Forensic Pathologist?

Forensic pathologists are medical doctors who specialize in the legal aspects of pathology. They are also referred to as medical examiners. Forensic pathologists perform autopsies on deceased individuals. Using scientific and medical technology, they attempt to determine cause of death. Medical examiners are responsible for declaring that a death was due to natural causes, an accident, a suicide, or homicide.

Forensic pathologists work mostly in laboratory settings, often in a morgue. Most medical examiners work on a full-time basis and are likely to be employed by a city or local government. Because medical examiners work with dead bodies, there is a risk of exposure to infectious diseases, although protective gear such as gloves and masks are worn. The job can be stressful and may be emotionally difficult for some.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Doctor of Medicine
Degree Field Medicine
Experience 4-5 years of experience in pathology residency program.
Licensure and Certification Physician's license, board certification in forensic pathology.
Key Skills Extensive medical and pathology knowledge, expertise in the collection of forensic evidence and giving forensic testimony, comfort with autopsy procedures, knowledge of laboratory methods.
Salary (2015) $176,692 per year (Median Salary for Pathologists).

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics,, American Board of Pathology,

Step 1: Complete Undergraduate Studies

Before entering medical school, students must complete a bachelor's degree. There is no required major for aspiring medical students, but a strong background in the natural sciences is required by most medical schools. Many universities offer pre-med programs structured to help students prepare for medical school. These pre-med courses concentrate on biology, physics, math and chemistry.

Success Tip:

  • Major in forensic science. Undergraduate students can major in forensic science as a way to prepare for a forensic pathology career. Programs teach students how forensic science can help law enforcement agencies solve crimes, exploring topics like crime scene investigation, forensic chemistry, criminal evidence, crime scene photography and forensic law.

Step 2: Attend and Graduate from Medical School

Typically, it takes four years to earn an MD degree. During the first two years, medical students spend most of their time in lectures and labs studying topics like anatomy, organ systems and physiology. In years three and four, students participate in clinical rotations. Each rotation covers a different field of medicine, such as pediatrics, family medicine, neurology, surgery and internal medicine.

Success Tip:

  • Study autopsy pathology. Courses in autopsy pathology provide preparation for careers in forensic pathology. During the first years of medical school, students can choose these lecture courses as electives. Later, they can volunteer for autopsy pathology clinical rotations.

Step 3: Become a Licensed Physician

Physicians must obtain licensing in accordance with state guidelines. While each state may have slightly different procedures, most require licensing applicants to pass the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). Other requirements can include completion of residency training programs.

Step 4: Complete a Pathology Residency Program

The majority of pathology residency programs teach students about clinical pathology (CP) and anatomic pathology (AP). These programs typically last four years and include formal lectures as well as hands-on training. AP topics include autopsies, gastrointestinal pathology and surgical pathology. CP topics cover hematology, cytogenetics and molecular diagnostics.

Success Tip:

  • Focus on AP electives. Although experience in CP provides important training with lab testing and instrumentation, AP electives tend to offer more direct forensic pathology career training.

Step 5: Advance Your Career By Earning Board Certification

Almost all practicing pathologists become board certified to show a professional level of knowledge within their specialty. The American Board of Pathology (ABP) provides general certification in CP, AP or both. After individuals become certified in general pathology, they may pursue subspecialty certification in forensic pathology.

Initial certification in CP and/or AP requires meeting education and experience criteria, such as passing medical school, completing the appropriate pathology residency programs and possessing a license to practice medicine. General and subspecialty pathology certification exams include written and practical sections.

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