Become a Forensic Doctor: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a forensic doctor. Research the education and career requirements, training, and licensure information and experience required for starting a career in forensic medicine.

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Do I Want to Be a Forensic Doctor?

Forensic doctors, also known as forensic pathologists or medical examiners, perform autopsies and examine evidence to identify the time, manner, and cause of death. They may take part in criminal investigations and testify in court. A doctor working in an emergency room who collects evidence from a crime victim's body may also be called a forensic doctor.

The majority of forensic scientists, including doctors who serve as medical examiners, work in a laboratory setting. Hours may vary; while there will always be some forensic doctors who work during the day, some cases may require evening or weekend hours. Many forensic doctors work for local or state governments in positions that offer some job security and good benefits.

Job Requirements

Careers in medical forensics usually involve an exhaustive training process, including college, medical school, residency training, and fellowship programs. The following table outlines common requirements to become a forensic doctor:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Doctorate*
Degree Field Medicine*
Experience 4-5 years of residency training plus 1-2 years of fellowship training in forensic pathology**
Licensure and Certification A state-issued license is required, board certification is also required for specialty*
Key Skills Strong verbal and written communication skills, attention to detail, empathy, leadership skills, organizational skills, patience, problem-solving skills*
Technical Skills Knowledge of human anatomy and forensics***
Computer Skills Medical software, accounting software, research software***
Additional Requirements Stamina, dexterity*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), **MontgomeryCounty.org, ***O*Net OnLine

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Training for a career in medical forensics begins with completion of a bachelor's degree program, which is required for entrance into medical school. There is no required major for pre-medical degree programs; however, students should incorporate studies in physics, biology, chemistry, and other natural sciences. A possible choice may be a Bachelor of Science in Forensic Science, which focuses on instruction applicable to the profession. Courses may include human anatomy, genetics, microbiology, and criminal procedures. Some such degree programs require students to complete internships in forensic science during the senior year of study.

Aspiring forensic doctors must also take and pass the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). This examination allows medical schools to evaluate an applicant's knowledge through a skills assessment and a set of multiple-choice questions.

Success Tip

  • Participate in extracurricular activities. The BLS reports that extracurricular activities can help students demonstrate their leadership skills and stand out to medical school admissions boards. Joining honors societies, clubs, or other extracurricular activities related to the profession can help an aspiring forensic doctor gain new skills and stand out when applying to medical schools.

Step 2: Obtain a Medical Degree

Prospective forensic doctors must complete four years of medical school to earn a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree. The first two years of medical school focus on classroom and laboratory instruction, including courses in pharmacology, physiology, psychology, and medical ethics. Students may practice performing medical examinations and making diagnoses. In the final two years, students gain practical experience in hospitals and clinics, diagnosing and treating diseases under the supervision of licensed physicians.

Step 3: Obtain Licensure

After earning a medical degree, graduates can sit for a state licensing exam to earn medical licensure. The United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) is a 3-part exam that tests a physician's knowledge of human anatomy and medicine. Most residencies require that at least part of the USMLE has been taken and passed for entrance.

Step 4: Complete a Residency Program

Medical school graduates continue training for the occupation in postdoctoral residency programs. MDs typically begin residencies in clinical and anatomic pathology directly after graduation. These programs may offer resident physicians paid, hands-on experience treating patients in healthcare facilities.

Students may choose a residency in emergency medicine instead of pathology if they want to be forensic doctors who examines crime victims just after an assault or an attack. For example, rape victims may visit an emergency room for a rape kit exam. During this process, the doctor documents injuries and attempts to collect the attacker's body fluids for DNA analysis. Some states may establish specific training, beyond the residency, for such specialized doctors.

Step 5: Finish a Fellowship in Forensic Pathology

After completing residency programs, forensic doctors generally continue their postdoctoral training with fellowships in forensic pathology. These programs typically last one year, and fellows practice how to conduct autopsies and death investigations under the supervision of experienced forensic pathologists. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner usually oversees forensic pathology fellowships.

Step 6: Become Board-Certified

The American Board of Pathology must certify forensic pathologists in their specialty. There are two examinations involved in the certification process, each comprised of written and practical sections. Candidates must first pass a primary exam, which leads to certification in anatomic and clinical pathology. They may then take a subspecialty exam in forensic pathology. Upon passage of the exams, they become certified in forensic pathology. Forensic doctors must maintain certification by taking continuing education credits and passing a recertification exam every ten years.

Step 7: Continue Education

In order to renew licensure and certification, forensic doctors must regularly participate in continuing education opportunities. Continuing education can be obtained through approved agencies, such as the American College of Forensic Examiners Institute (ACFEI). Continuing education opportunities include courses, conferences, and seminars covering advanced topics in forensics. In addition to satisfying renewal requirements, continuing education can help a forensic doctor stay current in the field.

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