Forensic Medical Examiner: Career and Salary Facts

Research what it takes to become a forensic medical examiner. Learn about job duties, education requirements, and salary potential to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Clinical Laboratory Science degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is a Forensic Medical Examiner?

A forensic medical examiner, also known as a forensic pathologist, is a medical doctor that is trained to evaluate the cause of death for people who die unexpectedly. To make the determination, they compile criminal evidence, discuss the case with law enforcement and run laboratory tests. Based on their findings, they write autopsy reports, which may be provided to interested parties like insurance companies, law firms and governmental agencies. Forensic pathologists may also be called to testify in court about their findings.

See the table below for information about education requirements, job outlook, and expected salary for those in this field.

Degree Required Doctor of Medicine often required, varies by location
Education Field of Study Forensic pathology or related field, varies by location
Licensure Required Physician's license often required
Job Growth (2014-2024) 15% (for unspecified physicians)*
Median Salary (October 2016) $98,709 (for all forensic pathologists)**

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **PayScale.com

What Would My Responsibilities Be as a Forensic Medical Examiner?

As a forensic medical examiner, you'd be involved in various medical and legal aspects of a death investigation. From a medical perspective, you might need to determine if the cause of a person's death was natural, accidental or intentional. This can be accomplished by working with forensic scientists, investigators, technicians and other specialists, who assist you in collecting information about the deceased person. While you'd usually use information from an autopsy to create official death reports, you might not always perform the autopsies yourself. In some cases, the personal physician of the deceased might conduct the autopsy.

From a legal perspective, you'd typically work in conjunction with police and lawyers in the investigation of a crime scene. For example, you might require that evidence, such as blood or hair samples, be taken from living individuals to assess their involvement in a possible homicide. You could also assist police by determining if substances, such as alcohol or illegal drugs, were involved in a person's death. Additionally, you could sometimes be called to testify in court as an expert witness.

What's the Difference Between a Forensic Medical Examiner and a Coroner?

Forensic medical examiners and coroners are both officials of local, state or federal government agencies. However, while the terms 'medical examiner' and 'coroner' are sometimes used interchangeably for common use, they are two different professions.

Coroners are usually elected laypersons who are responsible for a jurisdiction's administrative affairs that involve death reports. Depending on the governing authority, coroners are not required to have a medical background. Instead, many coroners obtain death evaluations from medical examiners or other forensic specialists, and in turn, complete death certificates and other court-related documents. On the other hand, medical examiners are commonly licensed physicians who have training in forensic pathology. Also, unlike coroners who are elected by the public, medical examiners are almost exclusively doctors appointed by the state or county.

What Education Do I Need?

The extent of the education you'll need varies by state. Generally, the first step to becoming a forensic medical examiner is to obtain an undergraduate degree and enter medical school. According to the National Association of Medical Examiners, your undergraduate degree can be in nearly any field - science-related or not (thename.org). However, since admission into medical school is very competitive, it might be advantageous to have majored in a life science discipline or at least have taken a substantive amount of life science courses, such as biology and chemistry.

Once you've graduated from medical school, you'll usually need to complete a residency with a specialization in forensic pathology. During your medical residency, you'll be trained in overall patient care; however, a pathology specialization provides additional training in death scene investigations, forensic toxicology and autopsies. Upon completing your residency, you can enter a fellowship program. A fellowship program frequently lasts one year and provides you with more training in forensic pathology and experience as a consultant while working closely with medical examiners.

Most states require you to become a licensed doctor before being appointed to a medical examiner position. You'll need to take a national examination, and you might be required to pass state-issued exams before earning a physician's license. It's common for medical examiners to also obtain board certification. You can pursue general or specialized certifications, depending on your career focus. Some certification boards include the American Board of Criminalistics, the American Board of Pathology and the National Board of Medical Examiners.

What Salary Could I Earn?

Statistics reported on PayScale.com from October 2016 showed that the salary range for most forensic pathologists was $40,425 to $197,265. Where you might fall in this spectrum is based on a number of factors: the county or state where you reside, your academic background, and/or your previous experience in the field.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Individuals who are interested in medicine may choose to specialize in a different area of the field. For instance, they may choose to work as pediatricians, anesthesiologists or surgeons. Like forensic pathologists, these professionals need to earn a medical degree, but they complete their residency and/or fellowships in a different specialization. A lower-level option in the field of forensics is a job as a forensic science technician. They are often responsible for collecting and evaluating criminal evidence at a crime scene, and they present the evidence to forensic medical examiners in the forms of photographs, sketches, artifacts and reports. To get a job as a forensic science technician, it is necessary to hold a bachelor's degree in forensic science or a related field.

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