What is a Crime Scene Investigator (CSI)?
Depending on how a school’s program is set up, you may choose an Associate of Science (AS) or Associate of Applied Science (AAS) that is focused on law enforcement, so that, once you graduate and find a job, you’ll have the knowledge and skills for more than one job role.
If you’re interested in crime scene investigation, you might choose to look for a trade school program offering a concentration in this field. After graduation, you should be able to function at an entry-level and work on an investigative team that processes and studies crime scenes.
Steps to Become a CSI:
A CSI has been specially trained to work with law enforcement and collect forensic evidence (physical, such as footprints, fingerprints, DNA, etc.) so they can run tests on the existing evidence and interpret findings. As a CSI, you help move forward the investigative and judicial processes to solve crimes and obtain convictions.
Step 1: Find and Enroll in a CSI Trade School or Criminal Justice Degree Program
Step 2: Take Part in an Internship
Step 3: Find an Entry-Level CSI Position
Step 4: Become Certified
Step 1: Find and Enroll in a CSI Trade School or Criminal Justice Degree Program
It’s common for students like you to find a criminal justice technology degree program and choose a crime scene concentration or specialization. Crime scene investigator programs are designed for new students who want to go straight into this field, or for current law enforcement officers who need extra education or training for future work in a crime scene unit. If you are a new student planning on working as a CSI, you’ll complete police academy training and your probation. After you satisfactorily complete probation, you’re now able to apply for a spot as a CSI or investigator.
In the trade school program, you’ll learn the basics of criminal investigations and crime-scene processing. You’ll work on case preparation and forensic science techniques. Your instructor will also teach you about applications and equipment using theoretical and hands-on training in the field.
Step 2: Take Part in an Internship
The professional field you have chosen is very important, and you may be required by either your crime scene investigator program or state to have completed a criminal justice internship in the field before you can earn certification. Your college and a criminal justice agency (local law enforcement in your community) should have an agreement that allows you and your fellow students to report to the agency, where you’ll undergo hands-on training in crime scene investigation techniques if this is a requirement where you live/attend school.
You may be involved in collecting physical evidence at a crime scene and also be supervised as you process the evidence you collected at the crime scene. Each internship comes with its own requirements such as the total hours you must complete, what you’ll learn, and how you’ll be graded.
Step 3: Find an Entry-Level CSI Position
During your final semester, you should be ready to start your job search. Once you’ve identified the positions you’re most interested in applying to, polish up your resume and write your cover letters. A campus career placement office may be able to offer you guidance on this important step.
While this is a difficult career field, the work you do will eventually help families to find relief from the grief and anger they experience after the loss of a beloved family member. And you may help to take dangerous people off the streets.
While you may hope to land a position with more responsibility, remember you’ll begin in an entry-level position where you’ll get valuable and needed training. One advantage of entry-level positions is that you’re less likely to need previous experience. You may have to accept a lower pay at this level or you may need to move to another community or state so that you can begin working in the field you have chosen.
Step 4: Become Certified
After graduation and finding your first job, you’ll have to find a crime scene investigation certification program. This certification will add new knowledge to your existing education. In many forensics positions, you are required to study for and earn a certification that attests to your level of knowledge so that your supervisors and future employers know you have the skills and knowledge you need to work in this demanding field.
You are able to choose from colleges and universities with crime scene investigators certification programs or you look into associations for crime scene investigators, which may offer a few of these programs to members every year. Before you make your choice, you need to see what each crime scene investigators certification program will be teaching and testing on. These should include the scientific method, application of the law, techniques, and the recognition of the delicacy and intricacy that the examination of physical evidence requires.
Also look at the requirements you’ll need to meet: how many hours of post-secondary courses are required, how many questions do you need to answer correctly to pass the exam, and how often must you renew your certification?
What Does a Crime Scene Investigator Do?
A CSI will do more than simply collect evidence, though the collection of evidence is a huge part of their job – both collecting it is acceptable ways and maintaining the chain of custody so that it can be used in court cases. After the evidence is collected, you may also be involved in studying it in order to discover more about the crime scene than is obvious to the naked eye. In your courses, you may learn how to use equipment to examine each piece of evidence physically and visually. For instance, if you collect hair, gunshot residue, or biological fluids, you need to know how to run tests on each piece of evidence so you can get a better idea of who was involved in the crime.
A part of your learning shows you how to use the right preservation methods to store evidence so that there is documentation of every person who touches it; this is called the chain of custody. You’ll also learn about the different scientific methods to use when you examine the evidence you have found. You’ll compare forensic photographs and fingerprints. You’ll take pictures of suspects, victims, and any documents connected to the crime. To be fair, you likely won’t do all of these tasks, but you will work within a team who has all of these responsibilities. You may focus in on one aspect, such as collecting physical samples or taking appropriate photographs so that investigators can refer to them during their investigation or during a trial.
No matter what you choose to focus on, you should be ready to be flexible in your working hours—if a crime happens at two in the morning, that’s when you’ll be called to the scene. You’ll often be working closely with cadavers and in gory crime scenes, so you should have a strong stomach.
Crime Scene Investigator Skills to Acquire
If you’ve watched any of the “CSI” franchise shows, you get something of an idea about what crime scene investigation entails, though, of course, since this is TV you should take this representation with a grain of salt. Each team member is likely to be responsible for a small slice of the investigative work being done. Your skills will be developed and tested in your first, entry-level job.
Skills you’ll need to succeed in these positions include:
- Attention to detail:
You’ll be busy sorting through huge amounts of data as you examine tiny bits of evidence. If your specialty is computer forensics, you’ll be working with a variety of technologies (mobile devices, operating systems, computers, and identifying security breaches and hacks), possibly more than one at a time. You’ll need to be able to deal with all this information while not missing the details that can make or break an investigation.
- Understanding of the law and criminal investigation:
It will be very important that you understand the many laws our legal system has put in place. Depending on your specialty (computer forensics, blood analysis, etc.), you will likely be working within the realm of some very specific laws (think, white collar crime vs assault or murder). , but that doesn’t mean you don’t constantly keep your eyes open for any criminal activity during an investigation.
- Communication skills:
Using oral and written communication, you’ll be explaining your findings to your colleagues, a judge, or a jury. Your communication skills should enable you to help others understand what you are saying, especially if they don’t have the same technical expertise that you have.
- Collection and examination of physical evidence:
At the crime scene, you’ll search for and collect hair, DNA, and fiber evidence and then analyze these items. This is a skill you can improve as you learn about collection techniques and how to protect your evidence.
It may not be necessary for you to go to community college or a trade school to earn a degree in law enforcement. While some job listings specify that a 4-year degree is required, other job listings may inform you that you only need a GED or high school diploma.
If you are planning to enter this field as a crime scene technician, then a less formal education may be all you need. However, some agencies will require that you complete training at the police academy in your community or state, then be sworn in as a police officer before you apply for a position as a crime scene investigator.
You may prefer to earn an online certificate or degree specifically in forensic science or crime scene investigations. If you choose this pathway, ensure that the college’s program is respected. The certificate program offers a basic study course which takes up to a year to complete.
Whether you choose to go to school for a degree or not, you’ll be more likely to get a job offer if you develop a clear understanding of what this position really means and what it will require of you.
Crime Scene Investigator Careers & Salary
Where Might You Work?
Your job setting may not always be in a crime lab. In fact, you are more likely to be employed by and work within a law enforcement agency (state, local, or federal). Examples of these agencies include the state police in your state, the FBI, and the sheriff’s office in your county.
Within the scope of your position, you may work alongside law enforcement to secure the crime scene so that it and the evidence won’t be contaminated. You’ll collect, preserve, and package the evidence you find, as well as identifying and mark the areas of the crime scene. It may be up to you or an officer to transport the physical evidence you find to the forensic lab, where you or a team will work with what you found, depending on the size of the agency and the resources at their disposal.
If you work the more technical side of the investigation, you may work solely in the lab. This lab may be one maintained by the city or state you work for, or you may work in an independent lab that offers services for a fee to law enforcement in your state.
You’ll use equipment to help collect and analyze the evidence, then write and maintain detailed logs and reports. You may use the reports you write to testify in the criminal hearing about the evidence you collected and tested. You may also responsible for making repairs to and maintaining the scientific equipment, depending on your role in the lab.
You may also work for a branch of the military in a forensic investigation unit as a crime scene investigator. You may investigate events that occur on military bases or scenes related to potential terrorism.
This field is expected to grow 14% between 2019 and 2029; this is much higher than for all other occupations. But since there aren’t many of these positions available in general, that rate of growth will only add 2,400 new positions within 10 years.
Both local and state governments may be hiring additional technicians in forensic science to help process their high numbers of cases. New technological and scientific advances will help to add to the availability, usefulness, and reliability of the scientific forensic information that is used to show proof of crime in trials. This means that those in these positions will soon be offering even more value once new developments, technology, and techniques became standard. This also means that additional forensic science technicians (crime scene investigators) will have to be hired to make available forensics information in a timely manner for law enforcement agencies and courts.
This is a highly popular career field, so you can expect to be competing against others who are just as prepared and interested in a position as you are. According to the International Crime Scene Investigators Association (ICSIA), 450 police departments hire full-time civilian CSIs (no police officer powers) and another 450 police departments hire full-time CSIs who are also sworn-in police officers.
After a crime has been committed and reported, law enforcement agencies send both police officers and CSI professionals to the scene. Depending on your education and training, you may be a crime scene analyst, criminalist, crime laboratory analyst, or a forensic scientist.
At the crime scene, you and your colleagues will investigate and collect every bit of evidence you can find. That evidence is bagged, described, and tagged so that, when you get back to the lab, you’ll know what you are testing and whether it belongs to the victim(s) or the potential perpetrator. You’ll write extensive notes as well.
Below are some positions you might be interested in, both in the forensics field and similar jobs in other fields if you decide the crime scene field is not for you.
- Chemical Technicians:
In this position, you’ll use special instruments and processes as you help chemists and chemical engineers. You need to have an associate degree for this position.
- Biological Technicians:
This job helps both biological and medical scientists to carry out lab tests and experiments. Earn a bachelor’s degree for this position.
- Chemists and Materials Scientists:
You should earn a bachelor’s degree for this position, so you are able to study substances at their atomic and molecular levels. You’ll study the ways that these substances interact with each other and create substances for a variety of uses.
- Environmental Science and Protection Technicians:
You need an associate degree for this position. You’ll help to monitor the environment and help other professionals to investigate and locate pollution and contamination sources.
- Clinical Laboratory Technologists and Technicians:
You need a bachelor’s degree to do this work. The role is to collect samples of body tissue, fluids, and other sources so you can carry out tests and analyze them.
- Hazardous Materials Removal Workers:
A high school diploma or GED is sufficient for you to do this work. You’ll help to identify and get rid of harmful substances (lead, asbestos, and radioactive waste) so they don’t cause further harm to the surroundings or to people.
- Fire Inspectors:
A high school diploma or GED, as well as on-the-job training, are sufficient for you to perform this job. You’ll inspect buildings, looking for fire hazards. You’ll also make sure that state, local, and federal fire codes are satisfied.
- Private Detectives and Investigators:
You’ll need to earn your high school diploma or GED to hold this position. You’ll be hired to search for information regarding legal, financial, and personal issues for your clients.
- Police and Detectives:
You should earn a high school diploma or college degree to hold this position. You’ll also need to complete police academy training and on-the-job training. You’ll be responsible for protecting the lives of the residents in your community.
Find Crime Scene Investigator Jobs Near You
Frequently Asked Questions
Advancing From Here
Once you have gained several years of experience, you may decide to go back to college. You could earn a medical degree and become a medical examiner, where you will also use evidence gathered at trial, but you may also lead CSI teams. You may also earn a doctorate in anthropology and work as a forensic anthropologist to assist crime labs in learning what happened to skeletal remains. However, there aren’t many places where this is likely to offer full-time employment, so you will most likely work as a consultant while engaging in another career full-time.
You could also earn a promotion to crime lab director. For this, you’ll need a PhD in forensic science, biology, chemistry, or another related science. You could also earn an advanced degree in criminal justice or a related degree field and become a college professor. In this position, you could teach criminology, law enforcement operations and administration, corrections, and more.
Do crime scene investigators have to work for a law enforcement agency?
Most crime scene investigators work for law enforcement agencies but some may work for private investigation or non-government laboratories.
What is the difference between forensic scientists and crime scene investigators?
Typically forensic scientists do not visit the crime scene. Forensic scientists spend most of their time in a lab analyzing and providing evidence to help law enforcement agencies. Crime scene investigators will typically work on the scene of the crime securing the scene and take detailed measurements.
What is the average salary for forensic scientists?
On average a forensic scientist makes $61,000 per year.
Is a bachelor's degree required to be a crime scene investigator?
A bachelor's degree is not required to be a crime scene investigator but it is recommended.
What qualities should a crime scene investigator have?
A crime scene investigator needs to be professional, persistent, and reliable. Crime scene investigators need to have integrity, persistence, and have the ability to solve problems.