Becoming a Medical Examiner: Salary Info & Job Description

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Get the truth about a medical examiner's salary, education and training requirements and career prospects. Read the job duties and descriptions and see the pros and cons of becoming a medical examiner.
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A Medical Examiner Career: Pros and Cons

Few statistics have been published that relate only to medical examiners, but related fields offer insight. Pathologists, for example, are expected to see a higher-than-average job growth rate. Read on to learn more about the pros and cons of this position.

Pros of a Medical Examiner Career
Job growth projected at about 15%-21% between 2012 and 2022*
Certification is granted for life***
May assist police in solving crimes*
May find job satisfaction through job aspects such as assisting families of victims****

Cons of a Medical Examiner Career
Extensive education and training requirements**
Moderate income offered for high level of education and training*
Irregular working hours may be required*
Job may become stressful*

Sources: *O*Net, **Maricopa County Office of the Medical Examiner, ***National Board of Medical Examiners, ****New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner

Medical Examiner Career Information

Job Description and Duties

Medical examiner is an appointed position that works with protective services but remains a separate entity in order to offer an objective perspective. These professionals perform medicolegal investigation procedures to help determine time and cause of death in instances that may be deemed unnatural. They also investigate as a matter of course in instances such as deaths that occur while people are incarcerated or weren't under the care of a physician.

As a medical examiner, it's your job to determine the cause of death through scientific methods that can be presented in a court of law. This may include autopsies, collection of evidence that may be related to the victim's death and factors that may have contributed. It's important to have an understanding of both the medical and legal aspects of the job to be successful in your position.

Job Growth and Salary

Although average statistics for medical examiners' salaries aren't readily available, some local publications report the individual salaries of medical examiners in their regions. For example, a Cook County, Illinois, salary report showed that the Chief Medical Examiner earned approximately $230,000 as of November 2012, and the Assistant Chief Medical Examiner earned almost $191,000. In comparison, El Paso County Commissioners approved a $250,000 salary for the county's Chief Medical Examiner, while the deputy examiner was expected to earn about $172,000, according to a July 2012 news report. Salaries in other locations may vary.

Using the pathologist category, you can see an employment opportunity increase of about 15%-21% through the 2012-2022 decade. This is considered higher than average.

What Are the Requirements?

Education and Training

Most medical examiners are medical doctors with pathologist or forensic pathologist certifications. This means to become eligible for most entry-level positions in the field, you'll need to complete 4 years of undergraduate work, 4 years of medical school, 5 years residency training in anatomical and clinical pathology and a fellowship year of forensic pathology training. There may be slight variations depending on local laws, but generally you'll need about 14 years of education and training before you can apply for a job.

What Are Employers Looking For?

Actual job postings for medical examiners are few and far between, but many medical examiner office sites describe job duties, requirements and the personality type that combines to create an ideal candidate. A professional doctor's degree is standard and most require you to have either your clinical or forensic pathology certification. Below you'll see other criteria and variations that were found in November 2012.

  • Virginia has a position known as a local medical examiner. This position is paid on a case-by-case basis at a rate of $150-$200 per case, depending on whether or not you need to visit the actual scene. Services will also need to be provided to mortuaries for cremation certificates.
  • Arizona specifies the need for objectivity in a medical examiner. Regardless how you may be personally affected by a death scene, you must be able to remain detached enough to accurately document the circumstances surrounding the person's death. An example cited is the ability to assess the state of an infant's bedding.
  • In New York, the chief medical examiner also holds a faculty position at the Institute of Forensic Medicine at New York University. The office of the medical examiner in New York City provides a variety of services including connecting the families of victims with resources such as counseling services.

How to Stand Out

Gain Experience

You can begin early by participating in an internship program. Protective service agencies offer internship programs in forensic science that can give you a head start in the legal aspects of the profession. You can also take a job such as the on-call, local medical examiner position in Virginia - which may not turn out to be full-time, but can show you've actually acquired genuine field experience when you're ready to embark on your career.

Get Certified

The National Board of Medical Examiners offers certification. Not all positions require you to have a medical examiner certification, but becoming board certified shows a level of professionalism that can be invaluable on your resume. To earn your certification, you'll need to be a licensed physician and complete one year of forensic medical training before you can qualify to take the test. You'll only need to go through the certification process once, and it never needs to be renewed.

Continue Your Education

There are agencies that offer continuing education programs for medical examiners throughout the country. For example, in Oregon, anyone working in a forensic, emergency response or related legal field is offered free continuing education courses. Colleges in every state also offer forensic education programs.

Alternate Careers

Physicians and Surgeons

You might discover that you're more attuned to helping the living than investigating the dead. Physicians and surgeons go through the same amount of basic education and training required of medical examiners, plus residency terms for specialization fields. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted that physicians and surgeons would see an employment opportunity increase of 24% in the 2010-2020 decade. The BLS also noted as of May 2011 that physicians and surgeons reported an annual mean wage of about $185,000.

Forensic Science Technicians

If the extensive education and training requirements are daunting, you might consider a career as a forensic science technician. Forensic science technician positions allow you to choose between laboratory and protective service fields. If you work in a lab, you'll probably need a bachelor's degree in a forensic or lab science; if you work in the field, you may need to become a sworn police officer. The BLS predicted an employment opportunity increase of 19% for this field between 2010 and 2020. In another report, the BLS cited forensic science technicians as having made an annual mean wage of almost $56,000 in May 2011.

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