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What does a Coroner do?

The popularity of crime scene investigation (CSI) television shows and movies have prompted a wave of renewed interest in CSI-related careers. Coroners, or the people who ultimately determine one's cause of death, are among them, though it is common to confuse the role of a coroner with that of a medical examiner. This guide helps set the record straight.

What coroners do: Coroners vs. medical examiners

As noted above, coroners determine the time, manner and cause of a person's death. What many do not realize, however, is that a coroner is actually an elected or appointed official who may or may not have had training in forensic pathology. In some states, for example, district attorneys double as county coroners. In most cases, however, coroners are physicians with some training in forensic medical examination.

The State of Indiana notes that most coroners do not actually examine the deceased, a common misconception. Instead, these professionals rely on reports provided by medical examiners. Medical examiners, also called forensic pathologists, actually conduct the required physical examinations or tests, including toxicology screenings or DNA testing, which means this is not a career for the squeamish. While a medical examiner will often use their expertise to suggest one's cause of death, a coroner makes the official decision, sometimes overruling the medical examiner.

How to become a coroner

A coroner is actually an elected or appointed county official, which means you cannot simply apply go to school and then apply for the position. Regulations vary from one county to the next; while some states require coroners to be trained in forensic pathology, others will accept physicians with other specialties, even if they are unrelated. Still others do not require any medical training, though these coroners tend to rely more heavily upon trained medical examiners when reporting one's cause of death. Note that most coroners must have lived in their jurisdictions for at least a year and must also complete additional training within their reigning departments.

One way to improve your odds of becoming a coroner is to first become a medical examiner, which means investing at least seven years in your education. According to Florida State University's (FSU) School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, medical examiners must typically earn medical degrees, or MDs. While some medical schools offer training in forensics, others do not, so it is wise to pursue some forensic and criminology training while completing your undergraduate work, such as a bachelor's degree in biology or chemistry.

Coroner salary, career outlook

FSU reports that coroners and medical examiners are among the most highly paid criminology professionals.

Every county in the country has a coroner, which means there is sure to be a position near you, but also that landing it will be competitive. Coroners' and death investigation offices will often hire more than one medical examiner, however, so it would be wise to begin your journey there.

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