I'm often asked how to get into forensics. "Forensics" is actually a broad field, with multiple disciplines. The area I know best is forensic pathology. I've volunteered for a medical examiner's office and did a clinical rotation there during grad school. Before that, I spent four years working in a suite out of a medical examiner's office while employed with an organ procurement organization. I've also been hired as a death investigator, but never worked as one. For those interested, I offer career advice based on my observations and interactions with individuals who work in these fields.
Forensic pathology is the field which deals with investigating suspicious or unnatural deaths to determine the cause and manner of death.
Jobs in this field include forensic pathologist, autopsy technician, and medicolegal death investigator(occasionally pathologists' assistants will work in the forensic field, but it is rare). In the United States, these professionals will typically work for a state-run medical examiner or coroner's office. Every state has a different system.
Where I come from, we have a statewide medical examiner system(there is one medical examiner's office for the entire state), which is what I describe here. Some states have multiple offices. Coroner systems are set up similarly, with multiple offices, but also have elected officials.
The following setup is typical of most medical examiner's offices. Medicolegal death investigators go to the scene of a death to determine if the person needs an autopsy. They write a report of their findings, take photos, and arrange for transportation of the body to the office.
After the body arrives, an autopsy is carried out by a forensic pathologist(also known as a medical examiner), with the help of an autopsy technician.
Based on the autopsy and scene findings, the forensic pathologist will determine the person's cause and manner of death.
Now, onto the career advice!
How to Become a Death Investigator
Image source: Getty
Death investigators are the eyes and ears of the medical examiners office. It's important to note that they are NOT crime scene investigators. Crime scene investigators work for the police and do not handle dead bodies at all. They are interested in the collection of evidence related to the body, but the body itself is the responsibility of the medical examiner/death investigator. Also, death investigators don't enjoy being called CSIs.
Fact: there are no formal educational requirements to become a death investigator. Hiring requirements vary from office to office. Many locations prefer applicants to have a bachelor’s degree.
Recommended college majors are chemistry and biology, or any hard science. Take forensic science courses as electives instead of as a major. A degree in forensic science is acceptable for this job, but a degree in a broader scientific field is a wiser choice, as it will make your resume more well-rounded and give you better options if you choose to advance in your career or change fields.
The basic understanding of law and medicine necessary for the job can also be gained through previous work experience. Jobs as an emergency medical technician, nurse, or in law enforcement are excellent qualifiers.
The American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators(AMBDI) offers a board certification, which can be obtained after the investigator is listed in the AMBDI registry and has passed an exam. To be placed on the registry, the applicant must have a high school diploma, be employed as a death investigator, and have worked for 640 hours. To be eligible for the exam, the applicant must possess an associate degree. Becoming board certified demonstrates an investigator’s commitment to their profession and is great to have on a resume.
Salaries for this position vary from state to state and can range from an estimated $25.000-60,000 per year.
For more information on death investigation certification, see the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators(AMBDI) website.
For a detailed guide to death scene investigation to learn what the job is like, check out the National Institute of Justice's Death Scene Investigation Guide
How to Become a Forensic Pathologist
Dr. G examines a body in a dramatically lit morgue. Photo by Jenna Larson/Discovery Health. Note-morgue lighting is usually better and not quite so blue.
Forensic pathologists are medical doctors and forensic pathology is a subspecialty of pathology.
To become a forensic pathologist in the US, you’ll need to obtain a bachelor’s degree, go to medical school, complete a four year pathology residency, and do a one year forensic pathology fellowship. This takes a total of 12-13 years.
Recommended undergraduate majors to become a forensic pathologist include, but are not limited to, hard sciences such as biology and chemistry. Some schools offer pre-med majors. Other majors are acceptable, provided certain courses are completed. Medical schools have varying coursework requirements, but at minimum, prospective students are expected to have taken general biology, physics, calculus, English, and general and organic chemistry. A suggested way to determine which courses to take is to choose several medical schools that you would like to attend, and look up the admission requirements on their websites.
Entrance to medical school is competitive, requiring a high GPA(above 3.5) and MCAT(Medical College Admission Test) scores, along with exceptional life experiences. Previous medical research, volunteering, or humanitarian work qualify as acceptable experiences. Shadowing medical professionals and volunteering in a medical setting while in high school or college is suggested. How do you find people to shadow? Call hospitals and medical practices to inquire, or have a parent ask. Some hospitals offer shadowing programs. Perhaps you or your parents know someone who works in the medical field(this is optimal). If you wish to shadow in a hospital pathology department and don't know any pathologists, getting a surgeon to ask a pathologist if you can shadow is the next best thing(pathologists like to keep surgeons happy).
If you have already completed college and are considering medical school, but haven’t taken the necessary classes, one year postbac programs are available to get you up to speed. These programs often offer guaranteed admission to medical school, provided students maintain a certain GPA.
While in medical school, you'll want to do a clinical rotation in pathology. Some medical examiner's offices allow student rotators as well, which is great experience! When you are in your last year of medical school, you'll need to interview and apply for pathology residency programs.
Once in residency, you'll do required forensic pathology rotations, where you can get to know forensic pathologists who may help you get a fellowship. It's important to make a good first impression and go above and beyond what is expected of you as a resident. Attending forensic conferences, being on various professional organizational boards, and doing academic presentations on forensic pathology related subjects will look great on your fellowship applications.
Fellows spend a year working in a medical examiner/coroner's office performing autopsies, going to court, and learning about related fields like ballistics, toxicology and anthropology.
Once fellowship is completed, you're finally done!
Salaries for this position range from approximately $100.000-300.000 per year.
Dr. Judy Melinek, medical examiner and author of bestselling memoir Working Stiff offers GREAT additional advice on her blog to students who are interested in forensic pathology, giving excellent information on what to do while in medical school and pathology residency: http://pathologyexpert.blogspot.com/2014/04/faq3.htm
How to Become an Autopsy Technician
This scene in horror film "Pathology" is fairly accurate. Techs actually do use pruning shears to cut ribs!
An autopsy technician assists in the removal of human organs for postmortem examination(known as evisceration). They are responsible for replacing the organs after they’ve been examined, suturing the body back together, and cleaning up the work area. Other duties revolve around processing, tracking, and releasing bodies. Technicians usually assist in multiple autopsies a day.
Autopsy tech training is typically done on the job. There are no specific educational requirements or certifications to be an autopsy technician, and many techs have a high school education or GED certificate. A medical background and previous experience working or volunteering in a hospital or mortuary environment will improve hireability. Connections with others in the field are extremely useful and the most likely way to obtain a job in this sector.
Salaries for this position range from an estimated $20.00-40.000 per year.
I hope you found this useful. Stay tuned for more posts about careers in death! If you have further questions, comments, or corrections, I'd love to hear them!