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Law-Related Career Center


heart_crimeCoroner and Medical Examiner

Coroners are typically elected officeholders. Medical examiners are medical doctors trained as forensic pathologists and serve through appointment or as part of the civil service. Counties throughout the nation either have coroner or medical examiner offices.

Both have the duty generally to investigate the causes and circumstances of violent, sudden, or unusual deaths, as well as deaths without an attending physician. They verify causes of death, sign death certificates and transport bodies. The process sometimes requires investigations into the cause of death. From time to time, they perform autopsies (surgical examinations of corpses) to determine cause of death.

Medical examiners can also work in the private sector. Their primary responsibilities are to investigate deaths by conducting autopsies and looking for evidence to determine cause of death. They may also be called upon to testify in court about their findings and any reports they drafted.

As an elected position, the qualifications for coroners vary widely. In some places, no training is required. In others, they must be qualified as medical examiners.

A medical examiner requires a bachelor's degree and a medical degree. Medical school typically requires four years for graduation. Graduates must then complete a supervised residency at a hospital, clinic, or other medical office lasting several years. They also require additional training in forensics.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the occupation of coroner under the heading of compliance officer. In May 2011, the median annual wage for a compliance officer was $60,740.

The average salary of medical examiners ranges from $75,000 to $200,000. This range is so broad because some examiners work in the private sector and usually earn more.

Forensic Scientist/Criminalist

Forensic scientists analyze physical evidence that police gather at the scene of the crime. Forensic scientists specialize in many fields, such as ballistics, fingerprinting, handwriting, or biochemistry.

After analyzing the evidence, they provide a report of their findings. Forensic scientists analyze hair, skin tissue, blood, chemicals, and fiber collected throughout an investigation. They may also specialize in ballistics (related to firearms and ammunition) or computer forensics (retrieving, analyzing, and storing digital evidence). Forensic scientists also testify as expert witnesses at trial regarding evidence and crime laboratory techniques.

A career in forensic science generally requires a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, biology, physics, or other related sciences. Some colleges have programs specifically in criminalistics or forensic science. Laboratory experience is also important. Specializing in a subcategory of forensic science may require a master’s degree or PhD.

In May 2010, the median annual pay for forensic science technicians was $51,570, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Photo: Mark Ide