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.

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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 Snapshot

Degree Level Medical degree required; medical examiners should earn either an M.D. (Medical Doctor) or a D.O. (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine)
Licensure State licensure required
Certification Certification by the American Board of Pathology (ABP) in forensic pathology required
Experience Approximately 5 years of training after graduating from medical school
Key Skills Judgment, decision-making, and critical thinking skills; social perceptiveness; use of Microsoft Word and Excel, graphics and photo imaging software, toxicology databases, and Douglas Associates Forensic Filer; Coordination; dexterity with autopsy tools
Salary $187,200+ (2015 median for physicians and surgeons )

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

People who work in this field must have strong decision-making and critical thinking skills. They also need to be highly perceptive, make sound judgments, and possess the dexterity needed to operate autopsy tools with coordination and skill. Medical examiners often use Microsoft Word and Excel as well as graphics and photo imaging software, toxicology databases, and Forensic Filer, a specialized case management software program.

The median annual salary was at least $187,200 or more as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in May 2015.

How to Become a Medical Examiner

There are several steps required to become a medical examiner.

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.

In order to get ahead, 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.

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.

Boost your chances of success in a residency program. 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: Pursue 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.

Licensed medical doctors who earn board certification in forensic pathology can use their professional knowledge and skills to perform autopsies and investigate suspicious or violent deaths as necessary.

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