Monday, April 7, 2014

FAQ#3: Interested in Becoming a Forensic Pathologist? Some Advice for Students

One of the most common questions I get is "What advice do you have for me if I want to become a forensic pathologist?" These are my answers for students at different levels of training:

For high school students:

First and foremost you need to focus on getting good grades in high school so that you can get into a good four-year college. Make sure you are doing well in your math and science classes. If you are not sure you want to be a doctor and want to pursue other aspects of forensic science (criminalist, technician) I would suggest you research college programs in forensic sciences. George Washington University and Florida State University have well-respected programs, but there are others, so when you are touring and interviewing colleges in your junior and senior year, make sure you tell them about your career interest and see what programs they have to offer.

For college students:

If you are in college, I would focus right now on pre-med requirements and get those out of the way first. Meet with your pre-med advisor early to make sure you have the list of all the requirements and get the classes complete (and with good grades) before your applications for medical school are due.

See if you can find some part-time volunteer or paid work in a laboratory or at the your university's closest affiliated medical school. You can start by looking up professors at your own institution, typing up your resume and a short cover letter saying that you are looking for part-time research work, and dropping it in their mail slot or stopping by office hours. You can pick professors you like who have taught you, or just browse the on-line profiles of educators in your field of interest on the university website. Before you meet with the professor, read (and try to understand) some of their papers and see if their research inspires you. Don't be discouraged if the scientific papers go "above your head." Look up the terms, or meet with a graduate student advisor who can help you understand them. And don't be discouraged if the professor says "No." If the prof is too busy, has too many students and turns you away, ask if he/she can refer you to a colleague. Working or volunteering at a lab will give you much -needed hands-on experience while you are in college, and will allow you to build a relationship with your professor so that you can then get recommendations for medical school or another laboratory job when you graduate.

The American Academy of Forensic Sciences offers grants to college students to attend their meetings. You can go on line and look at the student resources at their website and see if you can attend the annual meeting. I would recommend holding off on applying and going to their meetings until you are a junior or senior in college and about to apply to medical school or graduate school in the sciences. That way it will look good on your resume when you apply to medical or grad school.

For medical school students:
Pathology is usually covered in the second year of most medical school curriculums in the United States. While taking the classes, get to know your teachers and ask them if there is an elective rotation in pathology that you can take in your third or fourth year of medical school. Talk to pathology residents in your institution and ask them who the best professors are to work with, then find a part-time lab job. If you can even spare a few free hours a week after school to help with experiments or do library research for another doctor, you will build a good relationship and get exposure/mentorship that no classroom experience will match. Find out if there is an elective rotation at the medical examiner or coroner's office, or just call up the local office and see if they are willing to take you on to do some volunteer work. This will give you the exposure you need to see if this is the right field for you.

For pathology residents:
Most pathology programs have a required forensics rotation. Compared to other subspecialties, forensic pathology fellowship programs are not that competitive. Some remain unfilled every year, but the best ones fill early. New York City requires you do a rotation at the office if you want to be considered for fellowship, generally in September or October in your second year of residency (after you have some autopsy experience). Other good fellowship programs are in Albuquerque, NM, Miami, FL and Baltimore, MD. I suggest you call the programs you are interested in and schedule a rotation month there, regardless of whether it is required. It will give you an opportunity to meet the forensic pathologists, see their work and learn what you need to pass the boards.

Become a member of NAME and AAFS and start reading their publications. They have discounted membership rates for residents and there are job ads there as well as fascinating journal articles that will inspire you. 

Foreign Medical Gradutaes:
First of all, contact your medical school and see if they have information that might be helpful. The American Medical Association has information about the ECFMG (the examination needed to get an American medical license) on line at

Once you pass the ECFMG test you can apply for an Anatomic Pathology residency in the United States. I would contact the American Board of Pathology (ABP) and the American College of Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) about residency programs. Every year there are are residencies in pathology that don't fill so if you're open to working anywhere in the US you will likely be able to find a program. In your first year of residency training you should do a rotation at the Coroner or Medical Examiner's Office and apply for fellowship. 

For all:
Forensic pathology is not the only path to a career in the forensic sciences. Not everyone has the grades, ambition, or money to get them through the 8+ years of schooling required for a medical degree. There are other fields in the forensic sciences that may be right for you and these include Forensic Nursing, Forensic Toxicology, Crime Scene Analysis, Forensic Psychology, Medicolegal Death Scene Investigation, Law Enforcement or litigation. If you are interested in any one of these fields there are many forensic science professional organizations on the internet that can help guide you. Many of these organizations have free or reduced fees for attending their annual conferences specifically targeted toward students or non-members who are interested in the field. These include:

The American Academy of Forensic Sciences

The National Association of Medical Examiners

International Association of Forensic Nurses

American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators