What Does a Crime Scene Investigator or Technician Do?
Are you considering a career as a crime scene investigator (CSI) or forensic science technician? Professionals in this field aid criminal investigations by collecting and analyzing evidence on-site. This includes taking photographs, making sketches, recording observations, determining what items should be collected, and cataloging evidence. If you possess skills in math, science, problem-solving, critical-thinking, and communication, and aren’t upset by criminal or even violent acts, this may be a career worth pursuing.
Forensic science technicians often have to work in a wide variety of conditions, including all types of weather. They also tend to spend long hours in laboratories and/or offices. Additionally, these professionals must be able to work constructively with law enforcement personnel and other specialists to solve crimes.
Employment opportunities for crime scene technicians are fairly limited. As a relatively small occupation, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported there were only 17,200 jobs available in the United States in 2019. While the career field is expected to grow by 14% by 2029, this will only result in approximately 2,400 additional positions overall.
What Programs Are Available for Crime Scene Investigator or Technician?
Those interested in becoming crime scene workers should research prospective agencies carefully, as employment requirements can vary significantly, especially by state. While most professionals need at least a bachelor’s degree, it may be possible to begin a career as a crime scene investigator with minimal formal education, such as an associate degree. There are numerous academic options to choose from including associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees, as well as professional certificate programs.
It’s possible to qualify for some entry-level crime scene positions with an associate degree in criminal justice, legal studies, or a related physical or biological science field. This will largely depend on state regulations, however, so it’s imperative to verify requirements prior to submitting an application. Most associate degrees consist of 60 credit hours of coursework and take full-time students approximately two years to complete.
While an associate degree may technically fulfill educational requirements in some states, most employers expect candidates to have, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree in physical or biological science such as biology, chemistry, forensic science, or crime scene investigation. This is particularly important for professionals who expect to advance in their careers over time. Most bachelor degree programs in accounting consist of 120 credit hours of coursework and take full-time students approximately four years to complete.
The most successful forensic science technicians typically have an undergraduate degree in the natural sciences and a master’s degree in forensic science. Individuals interested in pursuing managerial or consultant positions are also likely to benefit from completing this level of education. Not only will graduates have more specialized knowledge, but they will also be significantly more competitive in applicant pools. Most master’s degrees in this field consist of 30 credit hours of coursework and take full-time students approximately two years to complete.
A doctoral degree in forensic science will qualify candidates for executive-level positions within private corporations, non-profits, and government agencies. With medical training and specialized licensure, graduates may also be able to pursue clinical occupations. This level of education is also required for those pursuing roles in postsecondary education. Most doctorate degrees in forensic science consist of at least 70 credit hours of coursework and take full-time students approximately five to seven years to complete. A dissertation is required.
Some states also allow schools to offer professional certificate programs in crime scene investigation. This option generally consists of fewer credit hours, allowing students to graduate in as little as 18 months. The viability of the resulting certificate will depend on academic level, institution reputation, accreditation, and the curriculum.
The American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) provides a list of schools offering degrees in forensic science on its website. AAFS strives to ensure information is accurate, but makes no claims, promises, or guarantees.
Some of the referenced institutions include:
- University of Alabama Birmingham
- University of Florida
- University of North Texas
- Syracuse University Integrated Learning
- Waynesburg University
What Will You Learn in a Forensic Science or Crime Scene Program?
The subject matter covered in program curriculums will vary depending on the institution and degree level sought. No two schools are exactly alike, so it is important to review a complete list of core classes and possible elective courses prior to enrolling.
Most programs will focus on teaching students how to apply scientific knowledge and methods to criminal investigations. It’s important to note that degrees often consist of content related to either crime scene investigation or laboratory analysis.
While the specific coursework and titles will differ, most forensic science degree programs include classes that cover the following topics:
- Introduction to Forensic Science
- Introduction to Criminal Justice
- Law and Criminal Evidence
- Forensic Chemistry
- Forensic Toxicology
- Forensic Anthropology
- Crime Scene Investigation
- Criminal Profiling
- Blood Distribution and Splatter
Additionally, many bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in forensic science offer students an opportunity to specialize their educations by selecting a concentration.
Some of the most common options include:
- Forensic Chemistry
- Computer Forensics
- Investigative Forensics
- Forensic Biology
- Forensic Anthropology
- Forensic Psychology
- Environmental Forensics
- Criminal Justice
Financing and Scholarships
Earning a degree in crime scene investigation or a related natural science can be an expensive endeavor. There are many financial aid options available to students such as scholarships, grants, and loans. One of the best ways to limit your out-of-pocket cost is to apply for scholarships because the money awarded does not need to be repaid in the future.
Fortunately, there are several great scholarship options for students interested in this field. While extremely helpful, a single scholarship rarely covers all educational expenses. If possible, consider applying for multiple awards.
There are many scholarships available to forensic science majors, but a few prominent ones include:
The Barry Goldwater Scholarship is awarded to college sophomores and juniors who intend to pursue research careers in that natural sciences, mathematics, and engineering. It is managed by the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation, which was established by Congress in 1986. Recipients are provided with a maximum of $7,500 to help cover the cost of tuition, mandatory fees, books, and room and board.
The George W. Chin Memorial Scholarship is awarded to full-time undergraduate students in their junior or senior years currently enrolled in a forensic science program. Full and part-time graduate students may also apply. It is managed by the Northeastern Association of Forensic Scientists (FEAFS). Recipients are provided with $2,000, as well as associate membership for one year in NEAFS.
The Gladys Carol Scholarship is awarded to high school seniors, high school graduates, and current undergraduate level students accepted to or enrolled in a full-time STEM program. It is merit-based and managed by the Gladys Carol Scholarship Program. Recipients are provided with $2,500 for one year of study, but can renew the scholarship for a second $2,500 the following year. Additional one-time $1,000 and $500 awards may be supplied based on fundraising success.
In addition to outside scholarships, you will usually receive a financial aid package after being admitted to a college or university. Most institutions require prospective students to file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is used to determine how much federal financial aid can be provided.
Choosing a Crime Scene Technician or Investigator Program
Online vs. On-Campus
Forensic science and crime scene investigation students are not limited to traditional, on-campus learning. Many colleges and universities offer online alternatives. Distance learning is generally ideal for students who already work full-time or have restrictive responsibilities at home. The flexible scheduling options can make earning a degree much more attainable.
Those interested in a career as a forensic science technician or crime scene investigator will have little trouble finding online degree programs at every level.
While online programs offer flexible scheduling and can be completed at a slower pace, there are some drawbacks you should be aware of. The primary problem with distance learning is the lack of fact-to-face interaction with instructors and peers. Some institutions address this by offering hybrid degrees. Students enrolled in a hybrid program complete the majority of their coursework online, but must periodically visit the campus for short residency sessions. These workshops allow for some in-person instruction, hands-on experience, and networking.
Job Placement Assistance
Because the forensic science and crime scene investigation field is fairly small, it can be difficult to find employment after completing the necessary education requirements. Even with a projected increase in availability, graduates should expect significant competition for most jobs.
Fortunately, many educational institutions attempt to make the transition from student to professional a little easier. While employment is never guaranteed, many programs provide current and past students access to career-related resources.
Post graduate job placement assistance programs vary, but often include one or more of the following:
- Interview Preparation
- Resume Development
- Career Coaching Services
- Internship Opportunities
- Job Fairs
It’s a good idea to research potential forensic science and crime scene investigation programs thoroughly to verify that job placement assistance is available before enrolling. Many institutions also publish employment rate statistics, showing the percentage of graduates who find employment after graduation.
How long does it take to complete a forensic science program?
The length of time necessary to complete a forensic science program will depend primarily upon the type of degree sought. In general, associate and master’s degrees take full-time students approximately two years to complete. A bachelor’s degree, on the other hand, typically requires four years of coursework, and a doctorate can take up to seven years to finish. A certificate program may provide the shortest timeframe, with some programs taking only one year to 18 months to complete.
It’s important to realize that enrolling part-time will cause delays. Part-time students should expect to graduate at least one to three years later than the estimates mentioned above. There are ways to meet education requirements faster as well, however. Transferring course credits from advanced placement high school classes or associate’s programs can help students graduate earlier.
How much does a forensic sciences or crime scene technician/investigator program cost?
The cost of enrolling in a forensic sciences or crime scene technician program will vary significantly depending on a number of important factors.
The total amount you will pay will likely depend on the following:
- Degree Type
- Institution Type
- Technology Fees
- Books and Supplies
Additionally, many colleges and universities (public institutions) charge more for out-of-state students than they do for residents. This can make a huge difference if you are considering an institution that is further away.
Is there specific accreditation for forensic sciences?
When looking for a program in forensic science or a related field, students should always consider the college or university’s accreditation status. Institutions may be regionally or nationally accredited. Regional accreditation is most common and is overseen by the Council of Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).
Regional agencies approved by CHEA and the U.S. Board of Education include:
- Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
- New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC)
- North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement (NCACS)
- Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
- Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS COC)
- Western Association of Schools and Colleges Accrediting Commission for Schools (WASC ACS
Departments and programs can also seek specialized accreditation within their fields. In this case, the most prominent specialized accreditation organization is the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC). This organization is responsible for evaluating bachelor’s and master’s degrees but does not deal with associate degrees or certificate programs.