What is a Forensic Scientist?
A forensic scientist is a professional who collects and analyzes evidence for criminal cases. They typically spend many hours in laboratories using microscopes or other examination equipment. However, they also visit crime scenes and work alongside investigators to find and collect evidence. Forensic scientists must learn and implements best practices for collection so that they don't harm the chain of evidence and thereby taint the samples.
Commonly known as Forensic Science Technicians, these professionals frequently specialize in areas such as DNA analysis, trace evidence, or fingerprints, among many others. If you choose this path, it is likely that you will need to pursue a master's degree, or even a Ph.D. Since this is a growing field, the time to start is now!
Steps to Take
if you want to become a Forensic Scientist, also known as a Forensic Science Technician, you must first take certain steps. The first, and perhaps most important, step is to determine that this is the career for you. When you are confident that you are dedicated to this path, you should then find and complete an appropriate undergraduate program. You should probably go on to complete a master's and even a Ph.D. degree.
Step 1: Do I really want to be a Forensic Science Technician?
Step 2: Bachelor's Degree
Step 3: Master's Degree
Step 4: Certificates and Doctoral Program
Step 1: Do I really want to be a Forensic Science Technician?
Before you get started, you will need to determine that this is the ideal career path for you. Since many are drawn to this field as a result of television shows such as CSI or Dexter, ask yourself if you truly are drawn to science. That is, do you enjoy the lab portion of your high school biology classes? Consider that you will spend the majority of your working hours staring through microscopes at tiny fibers, blood drops, or other tissue samples. The way these specialists are portrayed on television is not how they function in real life. You won’t spend your time in the field with officers, but rather in the lab with your fellow forensic experts.
Step 2: Bachelor's Degree
Once you've determined that you want to become a forensic scientist, you must enter a four-year degree program to establish a foundation in the field. While you might be able to achieve the basic skills needed by working through a degree in biology, you should look for an accredited degree program that is specialized. That is because forensic science bridges a gap between law and science, so you will need a more well-rounded and focused course of study. Along the way, you will take courses that can include, but are not limited to:
- Criminal Law
- Firearms Examination
- Forensic Geology
- Laws of Evidence
- Forensic Microscopy
As an undergraduate student, you should also start looking for internships or other experiential learning opportunities. Seek out opportunities at crime labs or with your state or local police departments. In lieu of such opportunities, you might also look for work in any sort of laboratory setting that will give you experience with the fundamentals of laboratory work. That is, you might spend time cleaning or cataloging equipment, filing samples, or other seemingly mundane activities that are, in fact, vital to the functioning of the profession.
Step 3: Master's Degree
Once you have completed your undergraduate work, you might delve straight into a job with a crime lab. On the other hand, you could pursue a master's degree in forensic science. Your grad school experience will be far more focused than your first four years in undergrad. By this time, you should have a clear idea of what specific focus you wish to pursue. A few specialty areas to consider include:
- Molecular Biology
- Forensic Toxicology
- Forensic DNA & Serology
- Forensic Drug Chemistry
- Forensic Toxicology
No matter what specialty area you choose, you will spend a lot of time in the laboratory, examining specimens. You will also spend lots of time in a traditional classroom learning about the criminal justice system, professional ethics, and statistics.
Step 4: Certificates and Doctoral Programs
Once you have your master's degree, your career will kick into high gear. However, you can still return to school for additional specialty graduate certificates in fields that intrigue you. When you add these specialties to your resume, employers will appreciate your diversification, and you will enjoy being able to solve multiple types of problems and gain more responsibilities in your workplace. You can also return to school to complete a Ph.D.
Once you complete a doctoral degree, you will be able to work as a university professor and you'll find it easier to command higher salaries. Further, your courtroom testimony is sure to be more persuasive when you can attest to having such a lauded degree.
What Does a Forensic Scientist Do?
A Forensic Scientist spends much of their day staring through a microscope or using other technology to review and analyze evidence. If you become a forensic scientist, you might specialize in things like trace evidence where you can help investigators determine how a violent act was committed. You can even analyze blood itself to determine to whom it belongs.
You will also be part of the evidence-gathering process. As a forensic science technician, you will visit crime scenes in your jurisdiction where you will follow the rules of evidence gathering. This means you will have guidelines for collecting, storing, and labeling the sample that you will take to your lab and analyze. This prevents contamination of both the scene and the selected samples, hopefully allowing you to keep the evidence on the list of items that can be used in any associated court case.
Once you have reviewed evidence and submitted a final report to the rest of the law enforcement team, you might be called to testify in court. You might also be deposed by defense counsel for an individual interview.
Skills to Acquire
A forensic scientist must be able to assess a crime scene both in a big-picture and microscopic sense. When you approach a scene, you should be able to account for multiple factors that impact where you might find the relevant fibers or biological evidence you need to process, and recreate, the event.
One large part of your job will involve photography. You must have intimate working knowledge of this vital tool so that you can take clear, well-lit photographs. These will be used later in court but can also help you recreate the crime scene when you need a reference later.
Since your education steeps you in highly technical and scientific lingo, you need to be able to communicate your knowledge in ways that laypeople can understand. For instance, the police officers and prosecutors will need a briefing that is both thorough and understandable. Then, if you are called to testify in court, you must have clear and accurate summations handy to deliver for the jury.
- Scientific Skills and Knowledge:
Without these skills you will be sunk in your career. Your academic background will provide you ample knowledge of biology, chemistry, physics, and even mathematics to help you analyze the samples you collect. You will also learn how to use your microscope or other lab equipment so that you process evidence in the most effective way.
Since there is no licensure or other regulatory requirements for a forensic science technician, the field is potentially open to a wide range of backgrounds. However, if you do not graduate with a forensic science degree, you’ll be expected to have completed a bachelor's degree in some sort of laboratory science, such as biology or chemistry. That background will prove that you are familiar with the technologies and protocols involved in lab work. In fact, if you are able to accrue enough lab experience during an associate's degree it is possible to land a job in the field. However, with a two-year degree you will more likely need to complete at least one internship or work as a lab assistant prior to receiving a promotion.
If you are able to get started without a degree specific to your field, it is likely that you will need to return to school for additional training. You could return for a second bachelor's degree in forensic science, or you might even be able to complete a few additional requirements and then apply for a graduate degree.
Forensic Scientist Career & Salary
Where Might You Work?
As a forensic science technician, you will likely report to work in a government crime lab. This lab is most likely to be the domain of your local government, but it could also be managed by your state government. You could also work in medical diagnostic laboratories, and a very small percentage of forensic science technicians work in testing labs.
Depending on the budget for your forensic lab, you could work with state-of-the-art forensic tools. However, smaller jurisdictions might not have the resources for such equipment. You might then need to ship samples to a more advanced lab or visit in person to use their facilities.
While the lab will probably be your headquarters or home office, you will also be called to crime scenes to gather evidence for later analysis. Once your analysis is complete and a relevant case comes to trial, you will probably be called to testify. You could also be called to testify in a sworn deposition in an attorney's office.
Potential Career Paths
If you have an interest in forensic science but aren't convinced that it's the exact right fit for you, you might be interested in some of the following career paths. There are other fields that perform much the same type of functions – they gather and analyze evidence in the service of solving crimes. There are also fields that require similar scientific skills and knowledge, but which are part of the wider scientific community. If you want to make your career about tracking down evidence and solving problems, or if you love laboratory work, consider these potential career paths:
In this position, you will work under a biological or medical scientist who is conducting research. Your duties might involve aggregating a wide selection of samples and subjecting those to various tests. Your results will then be entered for analysis as part of the broader research project.
Medical Technologists and Technicians:
There are many different specific avenues for you in this general career trajectory. For instance, you could work as a radiology technician and help doctors diagnose diseases such as cancer. You could also work as an ultrasound technician who shows expecting parents the first images of their soon-to-be newborn.
When a fire is considered suspicious you will be called to analyze the fire scene to determine its origin and then recreate how it spread. Your work will possibly be used to prosecute an arsonist or will be part of an insurance claim file.
Hazardous Materials Removal:
This profession helps protect the wider community from exposure to toxic materials such as arsenic, radiation, or other toxic elements. For instance, you could be called to clean up and remove petroleum materials from an old gas station. You could also be called to remove asbestos as part of a building's renovation process.
Police and Detective:
These professionals investigate crimes and gather a variety of evidence used to prosecute crimes. You might spend time interviewing suspects, victims, and consulting with prosecuting attorneys to determine how to best proceed toward a conviction.
In this line of work you could make a practice of following spouses who are suspected of infidelity, researching adoption cases, or helping divorce attorneys protect their clients. There are many other sorts of cases you might become involved with, including so-called cold case murder cases.
Forensic Science Salaries
|Crime Scene Investigator||$31,300||$43,500||$73,800|
**Salary info provided by PayScale
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Forensic Science Technicians have a bright future ahead. They state that the profession is due to grow by 17% through 2026, which they note is much faster than average. 2017 BLS statistics show that the profession netted a median pay of $57,850 that year. Because most jobs in this field are in the public sector, they are subject to political approval for pay raises, frequently a priority is given to jobs in law enforcement. Thus, you should see gradual pay raises over time. Further, most governments provide retirement and health benefits.
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Advancing from Here
Your career as a forensic science technician can continue to grow for the duration of your tenure in the field. Once you start working with your bachelor's degree you can work your way up within your local jurisdiction. From there you might apply to larger jurisdictions or even find work in a federal crime lab.
Forensic science technicians can also return to graduate school and cultivate a new specialty focus. Once you have achieved your first graduate degree you can also consider teaching at the post-graduate level. With a PhD, you might land a tenure track position. Further, if you stay in the lab you might discover and cultivate new methodologies for your work. Once you've made such a breakthrough, you could tour the nation and train forensic labs to replicate your work.