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What Courses Do You Have to Take to Be a Forensic Pathologist?

by Gale Thompson

Forensic pathologists are licensed medical doctors who examine bodies for evidence to determine cause of death. Otherwise known as medical examiners, forensic pathologists perform autopsies and other types of investigations, document their findings in a report and must sometimes testify in court trials involving death. Becoming a forensic pathologist requires not only an undergraduate degree, but a medical degree as well, in addition to a specific pathology residency.

High School Preparation

Future forensic pathologists should begin preparing for medical school as early as possible, due to the rigor of the undergraduate pre-medical track. Students should start by taking as many science and math classes as possible. Although many medical schools do not accept Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate scores for biology, chemistry and physics for college credit, taking these demanding courses in high school will provide a solid foundation for undergraduate-level course work. College preparatory or college-credit calculus and statistics courses will be helpful as well.

Undergraduate Course Work

Because forensic pathologists need a medical degree to practice, students must take the necessary premedical course work in college that prepares them for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and the rigorous medical school curriculum. Future forensic pathologists may come from any major, but many choose between either a discipline in the sciences or forensic science. Pre-med students typically begin with general biology, general and organic chemistry and physics, complete with labs. Courses in anatomy and physiology are also essential for future forensic pathologists. Additional pre-medical course work includes calculus, statistics, English composition, literature and psychology.

Medical School Curriculum

Prospective forensic pathologists will typically spend four years in medical school, earning a general M.D. degree. The first two years are spent taking classroom-based courses such as anatomy and physiology, biochemistry, cell biology, embryology, genetics and immunology. The third and fourth years of medical school are spent on clinical rotations and direct patient-care experience, according to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center website. During this time, students are exposed to the medical specialties, including family and internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, surgery, acute care and ambulatory care.

Residency and Fellowship

Once students have completed medical school, they typically complete both a pathology residency and a forensic pathology fellowship in order to become a licensed forensic pathologist. The pathology residency at Johns Hopkins University is a four-year program providing training in areas of clinical pathology and anatomic pathology, including autopsy, forensic pathology and molecular diagnostics. Most of the residency includes clinical rotations, and students complete the program with a solid foundation in clinical training and patient care. The forensic pathology fellowship at Emory University is a one-year program providing specific training and experience necessary to become a certified forensic pathologist. Rotations are completed at a local crime lab and other related facilities to give fellows experience in autopsy, toxicology and other disciplines.

About the Author

Gale Marie Thompson's work has been published in "Denver Quarterly," "Los Angeles Review" and "Best New Poets 2012." Thompson holds a BA in English and creative writing from the College of Charleston, a MFA from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and is working on a PhD at the University of Georgia.

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