Do You Need a Degree to Be a Coroner?

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Many coroners are trained forensic pathologists with doctoral degrees in medicine.
Many coroners are trained forensic pathologists with doctoral degrees in medicine. (Image: Darrin Klimek/Digital Vision/Getty Images)

A coroner is a government employee who handles various aspects of deaths, such as issuing death certificates, maintaining death records, overseeing death investigations and determining cause of death. A coroner is not the same as a medical examiner; medical examiners have a medical education background. However, often, coroners with medical degrees also serve as medical examiners. Coroners need a higher education degree, but because a coroner's job encompasses so many death-related tasks, you may enter the profession with degrees in different areas.

Jurisdiction Variance

Coroner positions require knowledge in multiple areas, including law, medicine and forensics. Additionally, not all jurisdictions expect their coroners to handle the same tasks; for instance, in some jurisdictions, the coroner is the medical examiner, and in other jurisdictions, the coroner is more of a manager for those in the death investigation. Thus, the type and length of degree an employer wants for a coroner job varies widely. If you're thinking about becoming a coroner, contact your coroner's office or state licensing agency to find out what degree it prefers you to have.

Option #1: Medical Degree

Many coroners enter the profession through the medical field as licensed doctors, usually with a residency and certification in forensic pathology. Medical doctors may have either a Medical Doctor (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathy (D.O.) degree; there is little difference in the two degrees in terms of licensing, but osteopaths tend to focus on the musculoskeletal system and take more holistic approaches, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. If you are serving as the medical examiner as a coroner, a medical degree will help you determine cause of death, perform autopsies and give medical testimony if necessary.

Option #2: Criminal Justice Degree

The coroner sometimes is not responsible for medical examination. In these cases, the coroner's job is to coordinate the investigation of a death in accordance with the current regulations of the jurisdiction. These types of coroners are more law enforcement officers than medical experts. Many coroners are retired police or military officers. In most jurisdictions, police departments and prefer to hire candidates with a degree in criminal justice or a related field, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Option #3: Mortuary Science Degree

Some coroners have mortician training. Morticians often are able to act as coroners because they are familiar with regulations on when and how to dispose of bodies properly and have had training related to anatomy and biology. They also are able to make good deductions about cause of death, as they receive bodies in a host of conditions. Most mortuary science programs offer bachelor degrees, although some offer two-year associate's degrees. Like doctors, morticians must be licensed in all states.

Degree Length

As pointed out by the Criminal Justice Degree Directory website, some coroner job postings do not require a four-year diploma, suggesting that an associate degree is acceptable for some coroner positions. Most coroners have at least a bachelor's degree, according to the U.S. News University Directory website. Some have advanced degrees. Those most likely to have a post-graduate degree are those who enter the field through medical study, as physicians always have a doctorate as well as additional training in a residency program or internship.

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