Forensic pathologists use medical expertise to examine victims of violent crimes and determine what has happened to them.
In legal investigations, a forensic pathologist's word can be what kicks a suspicious accident into a full blown murder trial or reveals a genetic disease that led to the death, ruling out suicide. Trained forensic pathologists must be particularly adept at identifying factors that may have led to a victim's unexpected death and using these to declare the cause of death. By going through a victim's medical records (if they are available), organs and tissues (if they are intact), and any circumstantial evidence, they are able to determine whether a death occurred as the result of a homicide, suicide, accidental death, natural death, or unknown reason. In addition to this, forensic pathologists may work alongside other experts to figure out the manner of death - was it poison, heart disease, blunt force trauma, a gunshot? Once the cause and manner are known, they must be reported thoroughly.
Forensic pathology work may include...
- Examining victims
- Determining cause and manner of death
- Conducting autopsies
- Collecting evidence from the body for analysis
- Preparing written scientific reports that may be used as evidence
- Presenting scientific evidence in court
Likely due to the combination of the demands of the job and the rigorous education required to achieve it, some areas have shortages of qualified applicants, meaning the workload for each forensic pathologist may be heavier than is ideal. This is a field that's not going anywhere; people are always dying, and the legal system needs to know how they passed. Typically, forensic pathologists are employed by hospitals and municipalities at the state, county, city, or federal level.
This is a career that requires not only a medical degree, but extensive, field-specific training. The path to pathology involves a Bachelor's degree with sufficient scientific content to qualify an applicant for a medical program. In med school, it's important to focus on pathology; some programs offer anatomic, clinical, and autopsy pathology - if you're especially committed to a career in forensics, it's good to get as much autopsy experience as possible in school. Afterwards, further training in pathology is typical and can take the form of an extended program, fellowship or residency. Once you've collected all the essential knowledge and credentials, it will be time to get field experience. Finally, you will be eligible to take a certification exam and become a diplomat with a field specific organization such as the American Board of Pathology.
This is one of those forensics careers that consists mostly of handling corpses in various states, so it's definitely not for the faint hearted; the day to day of a medical examiner involves intense, hands-on, detailed dissection of people who have died in suspicious ways. If that’s something you could not only stomach but come to appreciate, you might be an ideal candidate for a career in forensic pathology.
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