Medical examiners are typically doctors employed by a law enforcement or other government body whose primary function is to examine cadavers to ascertain causes of death, especially deaths suspected of not being from natural causes.
Background Needed to Be a Medical Examiner
Because medical examiners are generally physicians, they must have the same full medical education that any other physician needs. As undergraduates, medical examiners typically major in chemistry or biology or something else considered premed. They then complete a program at an accredited medical school, followed by a residency program where they specialize in pathology. In order to be certified, the physician must then pass a national exam administered by the American Board of Pathology. All told, expect to spend about ten to twelve years from your freshman year in college to being a board-certified pathologist who is then qualified to work as a medical examiner.
Some medical examiners also have a law degree or some lesser amount of training in law, since medical examiners are often called upon to testify in court.
What Does a Medical Examiner Do?
A medical examiner uses forensic medicine and pathology in examining cadavers to investigate causes of death. The job requires the ability to handle dealing on a regular basis with cutting up dead bodies, including those that have been murdered in all manner of sadistic and gruesome ways. It may be necessary to examine blood, DNA, or other material taken from the bodies under microscopes.
A medical examiner must be able to explain his or her conclusions and the evidence that led to them to non-physician law enforcement and family, as well as when testifying in court.
The job of a medical examiner is rarely boring, as it involves high level puzzle solving, and considerable variety from case to case. A medical examiner must be skilled at using the limited clues a cadaver provides to infer how a person died.
There are also medical examiners who work outside the field of forensics, performing autopsies and examining the material from cadavers in order to better understand the spread of disease and other matters relevant to public health.
A coroner is a bit different from a medical examiner. A coroner is typically a government official-often elected to office-who is not a physician, but who works with or supervises the medical examiners and other pathology professionals who study cadavers for law enforcement or public health purposes.
Career Prospects for a Medical Examiner
Medical examiners, being full physicians, are generally the highest paid of forensic professionals, though on average as government employees they make less than pathologists in the private sector. Typical is an annual salary between $75,000 and $200,000.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected employment for medical examiners to grow by 14% from 2006 to 2016. Given the popularity of television shows featuring forensic detective work, the number of people seeking these jobs is likely to grow by more than that. Someone qualified to be a medical examiner, though, will be qualified for other desirable, well-paying (typically better-paying) jobs in the medical field if they are not able to secure a position as a medical examiner.
Dale Nute, “Advice About a Career in Forensic Science.” The Florida State University College of Criminology & Criminal Justice.
“How to Become a Medical Examiner.” eHow.
“Medical Examiner: Job Duties, Career Outlook, and Educational Requirements.” Degree Directory.
“So You Want to Be a Forensic Scientist!” American Academy of Forensic Scientists.