Forensic Pathology Degree

Forensic pathology is a specialized branch of criminal justice which involves training in criminal investigation as well as medical sciences. Individuals considering this field should be aware of the fact that on average it can take thirteen years to become a forensic pathologist.

University of Southern California

Kaplan University Online

The George Washington University

What is Forensic Pathology?

Forensic pathology is defined as a sub-specialty of pathology concerned with determining the circumstances, causes, and means of an individual’s death. These examinations are usually carried out in circumstances where an individual has died suddenly, unnaturally, suspiciously, or unexpectedly.
The field of forensic pathology is an application of the medical profession. This means that in order to qualify as a forensic pathologist, one must be a certified medical doctor. These doctors specialize in pathology and forensic pathology.

What do Forensic Pathologists do?

A forensic pathologist, also known as a medical examiner, is a trained physician who can examine deceased individuals, victims of crimes and their injuries,as well as crime scenes. Their primary duty is to determine the cause and manner of the cessation of life. To do this, a forensic pathologist carries out autopsies and postmortem examinations.
During the course of their work, these professionals may carry out the following tasks:

  • Study the medical history of the patient or body they are required to examine
  • Visit crime scenes to evaluate evidence and obtain witness reports if necessary
  • Coordinate their work with crime scene investigators and law enforcement officials to ensure evidence is collected properly
  • Carry out forensic photography of bodies and crime scenes
  • Collect trace and medical evidence from bodies for analysis
  • Document their findings
  • Testify in court

The majority of forensic pathologists can be found working for or alongside law enforcement, in hospitals or laboratories, in a medical examiner’s office, or for a government agency.

What is required to become a Forensic Pathologist?

To become a forensic pathologist, you must complete a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathy (D.O.) degree followed by a residency in pathology and a fellowship in forensic pathology. Forensic pathologists need a medical license to practice.
Following the completion of those requirements, you must seek to gain state licensure, which is required to practice. Furthermore, most employers require applicants to have a board certification, so that is something you will need to look into.
Listed below are the general steps which must be taken to become a forensic pathologist:

  • Bachelor’s degree– a bachelor’s degree must be taken with all the requisite pre-med courses.
  • Medical school– this takes 4 years to complete.
  • Pathology residency– a residency program can last anywhere from 3-4 years and is intended to provide new physicians with clinical experience.
  • Forensic Pathology fellowship– a 1 year forensic pathology fellowship allows a physician to specialize in the field of forensic pathology.
  • State certification–prospective forensic pathologists must be certified by the American Board of Pathology to practice.

Programs for becoming a Forensic Pathologist

Forensic pathologists are certified medical doctors with training in forensic pathology and pathology. This training usually begins at the residency or postdoctoral fellowship programs. There are no dedicated forensic pathology degrees. However, you can take courses in forensic pathology at various colleges and university.

Graduate Programs for Forensic Pathology

A Master’s level education in forensic pathology is ideal for those individuals who are working and who want to add to their forensic skills. Remember that if you wish to be a forensic pathologist, you need a Doctor of Medicine in addition to master’s level study of forensic pathology. A master's degree program in forensic science with a concentration in forensic pathology is available to those seeking this level of qualification.
Entry Requirements

  • Bachelor’s degree in biology, medical sciences, or a forensics related field
  • GRE scores
  • Professional experience in a forensics related field and a current resume
  • Miller Analogies Test (MAT) scores
  • Letters of recommendation
  • A personal essay

This program teaches you the characteristics of different forms of death, how to collect evidence from crime scenes, the procedures and principles of toxicology and DNA screenings, how to identify human remains, etc.
Some of the courses you can expect to take are:

  • Toxicology
  • Evidence collection
  • Scientific writing
  • Statistics
  • Forensic pathology
  • Criminalistics
  • Molecular biology
  • Evidence analysis
  • Genetics

Common Types of Forensic Pathology Courses

  • Forensic Photography Course – teaches students the procedures and techniques involved in photographing crime scenes, surveillance, and evidence.
  • Forensic Anthropology Course- A forensic anthropologist is someone who examines human skeletal remains to determine the cause and time of death. In this course students will be introduced to types of bones, and the various stages of human decomposition, and the degree and nature of trauma these bones can suffer.
  • Homicide Investigation Course – teaches students the principles and techniques of a homicide investigation.
  • Biological Evidence Analysis Course – teaches students how to examine samples of hair, blood and DNA to determine cause of death. You are also taught how to present these findings in court.
  • Forensic Firearms Identification Course – teaches the difference between firearms and how to identify wounds and injuries caused by these firearms.
  • Forensic Pathology and Medico-legal Investigation Course – teaches students the basic principles and techniques used in an autopsy. This includes how to identify different types of diseases, injuries, and trauma. The documentation of all of these findings and how to present this information in court is also taught.

Forensic Pathology Certification and Training Program

You must be certified by the American Board of Pathology to work as a forensic pathologist. Candidates must have a medical degree and have completed all necessary residency and fellowship training programs to be eligible for certification.
To become certified, candidates must successfully complete two exams. The first or primary exam is concerned with anatomic and clinical pathology concepts. The second exam, or specialty exam, is in forensic pathology. Questions will be both written and practical in nature.
The certification is valid for ten years, after which forensic pathologists must pass a recertification exam and earn a Continuing Medical Education (CME) credit.

Job Prospects and Salary

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, here is the data applicable for Forensic Science Technicians:

  • In 2012, forensic science technicians made an annual median salary of $52,840
  • The top ten percent made more than $85,210

Forensic pathology is a field which combines medical expertise with criminal investigation. To qualify and practice as a forensic pathologist, one would first need to complete a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) program followed by a residency and fellowship. The field is not suitable for the faint of heart and requires a tremendous amount of dedication and commitment.  


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Q:What is the common coursework for a phd in forensic pathology?

A:The coursework will vary greatly according to the specialization you choose to go for. You might be required to study subjects relevant to anthropology of pregnancy and childbirth, evolutionary medicine and anthropology of genocide. There are also subjects in chemistry that you can explore with a Ph.D. in forensic pathology; for instance you could study forensic analysis of biological materials, forensic molecular biology or techniques in polymer science. Similarly, you can also explore coursework in subject areas like computer science and psychology.

Q:What are the educational prerequisites to get into forensic pathology graduate programs?

A:To get into a forensic pathology graduate program, you need to hold at least an undergraduate degree in any of the relevant subject areas such as behavioral, biological, physical or medical sciences. In addition to that, you might also be required to have completed two semesters of general chemistry and organic chemistry laboratory each, since these are concepts that will be very frequently discussed in a graduate program. The requirements for admission will vary from college to college.

Q:What can you tell me about a forensic pathology certification?

A:A forensic pathology certification may be needed to work in some states. A professional certification will reflect your level of expertise, and can improve career prospects. The American Board of Pathology is offering forensic pathology certifications. Individuals must meet a certain criteria and pass a certification exam conducted by the board. Requirements may include medical training, license, and medical school degree.

Q:What can I do with a forensic pathology degree?

A:There are various career fields you could go for with a degree in forensic pathology. Some careers might be directly relevant to your degree, such as analyst chemist, forensic scientist, toxicologist, teaching laboratory technician or a biomedical scientist. You could also go for careers that are not that directly relevant to your degree such as a police officer, solicitor, secondary school teacher, higher education lecturer and so on.

Q:What is covered in forensic pathology degree programs?

A:Most schools are offering forensic degree programs with a concentration in pathology. The coursework may vary a little, but generally includes subjects such as the following: toxicology, molecular biology, statistics, genetics, forensic psychology, evidence analysis, and criminal justice. The curriculum may include hands on training and practical learning as well.

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