Forensic Pathologist - How to Become a Forensic Pathologist

Forensic Pathologist

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Forensic Pathologist Job Description

Forensic pathologists, also known as medical examiners, are the professionals who determine the cause of death for a person who died unexpectedly or violently. The pathologist examines the person's dead body to determine the cause of death – that is, the exact reason. They are also responsible for ascertaining if the death was natural, accidental, a murder, or a suicide – the “manner of death.”

Forensic pathologists work closely with law enforcement and may be appointed as medical examiners at the city, county, or state level. After meticulous evidence collection, the forensic pathologist often presents, explains, and defends their findings in a courtroom.




The forensic pathologist uses a complex mix of medical and forensic techniques to determine how the person died. This usually includes conducting an autopsy, examining crime scene evidence and witness testimony, collecting medical evidence from the cadaver, analyzing other evidence like ballistics or toxicology, analyzing blood (serology), and utilizing DNA technology. 





Must effectively communicate with your co-workers to ensure the best care and the proper procedures. Must be able to communicate in high-stress environments.

Active Listening

Offering your full attention to an individual person or group in order to fully understand problems and their nature.

Critical Thinking

Must use logic and reasoning to identify the strengths and weaknesses of alternative solutions, conclusions or approaches to problems.

Judgment and Decision Making

Needs to be able to act autonomously and make difficult decisions that would benefit the patient or make corrections. Must consider all benefits and repercussions of potential actions and choose the appropriate one. 

Complex Problem Solving

Must be able to identify complex problems and develop and evaluate corrective options and implement solutions. 

Stress Management

Must be able to endure intense situations and handle pressure that comes with extreme situations you may encounter.


Must be trustworthy because you have people's lives in your hands and what you do could help or hurt them. They are entrusted with a great responsibility and must live up to it. 


Gauging how people react and read their body language to decipher their feelings and predict their actions. They must be able to determine if people could be a risk to themselves or others and to distinguish truths from lies.


Working Conditions


Forensic pathologists work in the laboratory most of the time, often standing or sitting for extended periods of time. Typical work includes conducting autopsies and using a microscope to analyze tissue samples. A workday may range from 10 to 12 hours or longer and may involve travel to a remote death site. The pathologist needs to write clear, thorough, accurate reports. Occasional court appearances are necessary.

A forensic pathologist may work for a medical school, hospital, or other private organization that provides autopsy services to the government. Others work directly for the government at the city, county, state, or federal level.

Forensic pathologists undergo difficult training requiring a minimum of 13 years. While physical demands from the job are minimal, these experts are subjected to extremely disturbing sites, intensely unpleasant odors of decay, and the repeated sight of human bodies mangled by violence. The profession calls for strong nerves and may have long-term emotional effects on those who practice it.



How to Become a Forensic Pathologist:


1. Earn a Bachelor's Degree (4 Years)


It takes years of preparation to become a forensic pathologist. Completion of a four-year college degree is required and must include appropriate coursework. Students must maintain a high GPA that he or she will be accepted into medical school after graduation.

Aspiring medical students should declare their major as pre-med or another focused on the sciences, such as chemistry, biology, anatomy, or physics. Expect to tackle the more challenging courses that the school has to offer, and make use of all resources available.

The preparation timeline below provides an example pre-med curriculum:


Grade Level

Example Courses

Freshman Year


  • General Biology I

  • General Biology II

  • General Chemistry I & Lab

  • General Chemistry II & Lab

  • Pre-Calculus

  • Calculus I

  • English I

  • English II

  • Humanities Requirement/Electives

Sophomore Year

  • Physics I & Lab

  • Physics II & Lab

  • Organic Chemistry I & Lab

  • Organic Chemistry II & Lab

  • Microbial Diversity

  • Humanities Requirement/Electives

Junior Year


  • Biochemistry I & Lab

  • Biochemistry II & Lab

  • Genetics

  • Psychology

  • Molecular Biology

  • Public Speaking

  • Humanities Requirement/Electives

Senior Year

  • Developmental Biology

  • Chemistry & Cancer

  • Medicinal Chemistry

  • Pathenogenic Bacteriology & Immunology

  • Remaining Electives


2. Take the Medical School Admission Test (MCAT)


To be admitted into medical school, candidates must first take the MCAT, or Medical College Admission Test, a 7.5 hour, standardized, multiple choice exam used to assess the applicant's knowledge of science, reasoning, communication, and writing skills.


The MCAT is divided into four sections:



 Section Breakdown

Biological & Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems

  • 59 multiple-choice questions

  • 95 minutes

  • Tests biology, organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, and biochemistry

Chemical & Physical Foundations of Biological Systems

  • 59 multiple-choice questions

  • 95 minutes

  • Tests biochemistry, biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics

Psychological, Social, & Biological Foundations of Behavior

  • 59 multiple-choice questions

  • 95 minutes

  • Tests introductory psychology, sociology, and biology

Critical Analysis & Reasoning Skills

  • 53 multiple-choice questions

  • 90 minutes

  • Tests reading comprehension, humanities, and social sciences


You can find study materials, MCAT registration, and your test scores on the AAMC website.


3. Earn a Medical Degree (4 Years)


A list of accredited medical education programs is available through the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME). For more information and advice on successfully getting into medical school, you can check with the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Medical school consists of four years of studying the basics in science and participating in clinical “rotations.” These are hands-on clinical experiences in real health care settings. In most med schools, the first two years are taken up with classroom studies before students are assigned to do rotations. The current trend, however, finds a number of medical schools exposing students to early clinical experiences that continue throughout the four-year program.

Most medical schools base their curriculum on a system-based approach that focuses on one physiological system at a time, such as the respiratory system or the nervous system. Still others may use a case-based curriculum that teaches about the human body’s normal functioning and disease processes by assigning students to following individual patient cases from start to finish. Still other med schools use a combination of these approaches to educate their students.

The most common lines of coursework among medical schools consist of the following subjects:

  • Anatomy

  • Biochemistry

  • Ethics

  • Pharmacology

  • Physiology

  • Psychology

During the last two years of schooling, students are required to obtain hands-on experience at hospitals and clinics, learning to diagnose and treat patients while working under the supervision of licensed physicians.

Upon completion of four years of med school, a student is awarded a medical degree, or M.D. Another popular trend is for schools to offer combination degree programs, such as MD/MPH, MD/PHD or MD/JD. The AAMC’s website on Medical School Admission Requirements offers more information on this option.


The preparation timeline below provides an example medical school curriculum:



Example Courses

Year 1


  • Cells and Tissues

  • Molecular Foundations of Medicine

  • Applied Biochemistry 

  • Genetics

  • Disease Mechanisms & Development

  • Cardiac Life Support

  • The Nervous System

  • Immunology

  • Gross Anatomy of Head & Neck

  • Microbiology

  • Pulmonary System

  • Cardiovascular System

  • Microbiology

Year 2

  • Renal/Genitourinary System

  • Gastrointestinal System

  • Skin/Endocrine Systems

  • Reproduction & Women's Health

  • Microbiology

  • Behavior & the Brain

  • Hematology

  • Systemic Diseases

  • Microbiology

  • Clinical Clerkship

Year 3, 4, 5


  • Internal Medicine

  • Pediatrics

  • Surgery

  • Obstetrics & Gynecology

  • Family Medicine

  • Psychiatry

  • Neurology

  • Critical Care

  • Ambulatory Med

  • Research, Reflections and Advances in Patient Care


4. Take the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE)


In order to practice medicine, aspiring geriatricians must pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). This exam is sponsored by the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) and the National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME).

The exam consists of three steps:

Step & Purpose

Format & Other Info

Step 1

Assesses the ability to apply scientific concepts, basic to practicing medicine, emphasizing mechanisms underlying health, disease, and therapy.

  • 310 multiple-choice questions

  • Divided into 7 60-minute blocks

  • Administered via computer

  • One day session

Step 2

Divided into 2 sub-steps: clinical knowledge (CK) & clinical skills (CS).

 The clinical knowledge section assesses the ability to apply medical knowledge, skills, and clinical science to patient care.

The clinical skills section assesses the ability to gather information from patients, perform physical exams, and communicate findings with colleagues.

  • Clinical Knowledge

    • 350 multiple-choice questions

    • Divided into 8 60-minute blocks

    • One day session

  • Clinical Skills

    • 12 patient cases

    • 15 minutes per patient case 

    • 10 minutes to record each patient note (PN)

    • Administered at 6 test centers in the US: Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, & Philadelphia.

    • One day session

Step 3

Divided into 2 sub-steps: Foundations of Independent Practice(FIP) & Advanced Clinical Medicine (ACM)

 Foundations of Independent Practice assesses the knowledge and principles essential for effective health care.

Advanced Clinical Medicine assesses the ability to apply knowledge of health and disease to the context of patient management and an evolving disease.

  • Foundations of Independent Practice

    • 260 multiple-choice questions

    • Divided into 6 60-minute blocks, each w/ 44 questions

    • One day session

  • Advanced Clinical Medicine (ACM)

    • 200 multiple-choice questions

    • Divided into 6 45-minute blocks, each with 33 questions

    • 13 computer-based case simulations, each allotted 10 or 20 minutes

    • One day session


5. Complete a Pathology Residency Program


A four-year residency program focusing on clinical and anatomic pathology must be completed to ultimately become a forensic pathologist. Along with first-person training, these residencies consist of regular lectures on topics including autopsies, gastrointestinal pathology, surgical pathology, hematology, cytogenetics, and molecular diagnostics. However, aspiring forensic pathologists should focus on anatomic pathology electives as they are geared more toward the career and will well-prepare students for the position.


6. Consider Earning a Board Certification


The American Board of Pathology (ABP) offers general certifications in clinical and/or anatomical pathology and a specialized certification in forensic pathology may be earned afterward. In order to be eligible, candidates must have completed medical school and a residency, as well as earned a license to practice. Exams include written and practical sections.


Salary Outlook