Careers in Forensic Sciences

Degrees, Careers, Professional Organizations & Salaries

From firearms to blood pattern analysis, from psychological testing to DNA sampling, the world of forensic science offers numerous career paths for those who are interested in pursuing a fascinating career.

banner-main

What Are the Forensic Sciences?

question

Forensic science is any science that can be used in the legal system. Forensic scientists look at evidence with scientific principles in mind. Though much forensic work applies to criminal cases, sometimes it applies to civil proceedings as well.

Some forensic scientists focus on crime scene investigation, at the scene where a crime was committed, searching for clues that will help other investigators figure out what happened. Their work focuses strongly on the physical sciences, and includes (but is not limited to):

  • Ballistics and Firearms

    Firearms experts focus on ammunition, the weapon that fired it, how to match them up, the trajectory of a shot (or its ricochet) and more.

  • Arson and Explosives

    A strong understanding of a variety of explosives and accelerants, as well as flashpoints and burn patterns, forms the basis of arson and explosives investigations.

  • Fingerprints

    The prints left behind can mean anything from identification of key parties to a solid conviction of a perpetrator. Fingerprint analysis is one of the oldest and most common ways to determine who was at a crime scene.

  • Trace Evidence

    During the commission of a crime, even the most seasoned criminal leaves something behind. It might be as simple as skin cells under a victim’s nails, a single strand of hair, or a seemingly innocuous fiber from a sweater – forensic scientists can drill down into the essence of this evidence to find much more.

  • Accident Reconstruction

    When an accident occurs, it falls to the forensic scientist to figure out what exactly happened. To do this, they reconstruct the exact conditions of the accident, using clues such as skid marks, vehicle positioning and the like.

  • Bloodstain Pattern Analysis

    Where there is a murder, there is often blood. Forensic scientists can examine the pattern of bloodstains to determine where a person was standing, exactly how the perpetrator attacked them, and perhaps even the weapon used.

Some forensic scientists focus on biological and life sciences to help those in the legal world understand what happened in a particular situation. These scientists can often be found in laboratory or other investigative setting, where they closely examine a variety of evidence. The work of a forensic scientist in this area might include:

Medicolegal

The forensic pathologist often uses autopsy to determine information on death, and might review records to determine method of injury for victims who are still alive. Their work is often heavily scrutinized at criminal trials, so the analysis must be thorough.

Serology and Toxicology of Body Fluids

The body can provide a wealth of information through the fluids that come out of it. Some scientists specialize in the study of those bodily fluids. They can determine many things, such as which medications were in the body, how a person might have reacted to those drugs, and much more.

Drugs and Identification

Forensic scientists might be called to examine drugs or drug paraphernalia to determine exactly what the substances are. Besides that, they often work with toxicology results to determine the level of drugs in a body, what certain drugs might do to the tissues, and other points that are important in cases of overdose of poisoning.

DNA

A groundbreaking advancement in criminal investigations, DNA analysis has become an incredibly valuable tool. Forensic scientists who focus on DNA investigations and analysis often unlock criminal mysteries, identify victims, and even aid in civil suits, especially concerning paternity.

Forensic Odontology

Some victims are found in a state that makes them almost impossible to identify. A forensic odontologist is a dentist who works with remains and identifies victims through dental records.

Forensic Anthropology

What if there are no dental records for a victim? Forensic anthropologists use other means of identification, and can often provide the sex, height, weight, approximate age, manner of death and much more.

Forensic Entomology

Where there’s decomposition, there are sure to be bugs. Entomologists study the insects found at a crime scene or on a victim to determine important facts, such as estimated time of death, manner of disposal and whether the body was stored for a while.

Other forensic scientists focus on the behavioral sciences; specifically, they look at the psychology behind certain criminal behaviors. They might also look at how the witnesses and victims respond to crime. They use a variety of tools to help them make assessments of individuals, with the goal of helping the legal system – as well as the victims, witnesses and even criminals – deal with the actions and consequences surrounding crime. Their work might include:

  • Psychology & Psychiatry

    From working with victims to preparing witnesses for trial to determining the sanity or competency of the accused, psychology and psychiatry are key elements to criminal investigations.

  • Eyewitness ID

    In criminal cases, eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable – that’s because many people can see the same thing happen but report different versions of the event. It’s the job of a forensic scientist to piece together eyewitness testimony in an effort to figure out what really happened.

  • Hypnosis

    Sometimes, victims or witnesses of crime have trouble remembering what happened. In cases like this, hypnosis might be the answer to unlocking the memories and leading investigators to something new.

  • Polygraph

    Though the method has met with some controversy, the use of a polygraph can sometimes provide law enforcement with important information on people involved in a criminal case. The key is a well-trained expert who knows how to read a polygraph and relate the findings to investigators.

Forensic Science Careers

Forensic science offers numerous career paths to graduates. Though someone pursuing forensic science might begin their education with many of the same courses as others in the program, they will eventually specialize through elective courses that lead them onto their own path. Here are a few of the most common forensic science careers and what students can expect if they choose to go this route. (Note: Salary information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Payscale.)

  • Forensic Science Technician

    Forensic science technicians usually work in one of two areas: They go to crime scenes to collect and analyze evidence in the field, or they work in the laboratory, where they perform assessments on the evidence collected. Both jobs require impeccable attention to detail, following proper protocol to sustain evidence chain of custody, and writing reports. Some technicians might specialize in a variety of areas, including fingerprint analysis or digital forensics.

    Education Required:

    Bachelor’s degree in a natural science field and on-the-job training

    Annual Salary:

    $56,320 median (2015, BLS)

  • Medical Examiner

    Also known as coroners, medical examiners perform medicolegal examinations and autopsies, which include locating and assessing bodily trauma, determining cause of death and identifying victims. They might also interview those who discovered the body, evaluate photographs of the crime scene and seek out medical history information on the victim, among many other duties. They also complete death certificates and determine the cause and manner of death.

    Education Required:

    A doctoral degree in medicine

    Annual Salary:

    $95,000 median (2017, Payscale.com)

  • Forensic Psychologist

    Forensic psychologists work at the intersection of psychology and the law. They often work with those in the legal system, including lawyers, judges and police departments, to evaluate those who have been accused or convicted of crimes. They might evaluate perpetrators to determine the risk of reoffending, help victims deal with the trauma they have endured or decide whether someone is fit to stand trial. Though some do work in medical or research settings, most in this field are hands on with law enforcement issues.

    Education Required:

    A doctoral degree in psychology

    Annual Salary:

    $70,580 median (2015, BLS)

  • Latent Fingerprint Examiner

    These forensic scientists are highly specialized in identifying, lifting and analyzing latent prints at a crime scene. Though many work at the crime scenes, some stay in the laboratory to perform detailed analysis of even the tiniest fragment of a print. They then present their reports to the appropriate law enforcement officials. The results of their work could mean anything from a suspect being questioned to a criminal conviction.

    Education Required:

    Bachelor’s degree in science or related field and extensive training

    Annual Salary:

    $41,395 median (2017, Payscale.com, crime scene specialist)

  • Criminal Investigator

    Though a criminal investigator might attend to cataloguing details at a crime scene, their primary job tends to involve interviewing witnesses or subjects, identifying needed evidence, obtaining and using search warrants, determining scope of investigations, testifying before grand juries, and conducting research or surveillance, among many other responsibilities. A criminal investigator might be involved with a case from the moment the crime is discovered to well after a suspect has been convicted.

    Education Required:

    Minimum of associate degree in forensic science, criminal justice or related field

    Annual Salary:

    $77,210 median (2015, BLS)

How to Become a Forensic Scientist

Those who want to work as a forensic scientist will find many paths that lead to that goal. Though earning a degree in forensic science is always a great way to get started, many students will find that a degree in a related field is quite sufficient. In addition, they might be surprised to learn just how different the variety of positions in the field can be. Here is what students need to know about becoming a forensic scientist.

Forensic Scientist vs Crime Scene Investigator

The words “forensic scientist” immediately bring to mind exciting television shows that depict crime scene investigators staring into microscopes, collecting evidence at crime scenes and even engaging in shootouts with the bad guys. In the world of Hollywood, there is no difference between forensic scientists and crime scene investigators. But in the real world, the differences are profound, and the educational paths to get there are too. Here’s what a forensic scientist needs to know about the realities of the two professions.

VS

Forensic Scientist

Crime Scene Investigator

Work Environment
Forensic Scientist

The vast majority of forensic scientists work in laboratories, where they analyze the information gathered by crime scene investigators.

VS
Crime Scene Investigator

This work involves going to the crime scene to collect evidence and analyze the space. Crime scenes can be in a wide variety of locales, from dense forests to neat and tidy apartments to bodies of water.

Educational Requirements
Forensic Scientist

The certifications and coursework for the forensic scientist focuses on sciences, such as biology, chemistry, toxicology and the like. A forensic scientist must have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree.

VS
Crime Scene Investigator

Although a degree in natural science or forensic science is recommended, some crime scene investigators begin as police officers and lean on their work experience to move into the investigator position. They might hold an associate degree or certificate.

Tools Used
Forensic Scientist

Tools used are those typically found in a laboratory, including microscopes, mass spectrometers, drying cabinets, fume extractors, and specialized equipment for liquid chromatography, powder handling, liquid evaporation, toxicology, histology and more.

VS
Crime Scene Investigator

Tools used include high-quality cameras, adhesive lift tapes or sheets, forceps and tweezers, collection bags, bindle paper, flashlights, specialized lights for revealing evidence, vials and slides, impression kits, blood collection kits and identifying placards, among others.

Average Annual Salary, 2015 BLS
Forensic Scientist

$56,320

VS
Crime Scene Investigator

$77,210

Job Variety
Forensic Scientist

Forensic scientists have the option to specialize in a wide variety of areas, including latent prints, DNA analysis, ballistics, multimedia, digital forensics, toxicology and more.

VS
Crime Scene Investigator

Crime scene investigation is a rather narrow field. The skills necessary might translate into other investigative options, such as working for the FBI or other organizations.

Steps to a Career in Forensic Science

The education and training required for a forensic science career varies depending upon the goal of the student. These steps can give aspiring forensic scientists a roadmap of where they can expect to go over the next several years.

  • 1

    Earn an associate degree

    For those who want to work in crime scene investigation, the associate degree offers a taste of what the work will entail and prepares the student to move a law enforcement position. Many criminal investigators begin their careers as police officers, and earning a degree is always helpful to an officer who wants to climb the ladder.

  • 2

    Earn a bachelor’s degree

    In most cases, a forensic scientist will need at least a bachelor’s degree to qualify for entry-level jobs. Forensic science technicians need a bachelor’s degree as well, but they can stop their education at this stage and find a solid entry-level job that will provide further training as they work. However, keep in mind that many employers prefer or insist on hiring only those who have earned a master’s degree in forensic science.

  • 3

    Narrow down a specialty

    At this point, students will also decide what area they might like to specialize in; for instance, a forensic science technician who wants to work with latent prints or ballistics will begin taking elective courses that focus on those areas. The student who wants to take on higher levels of responsibility, such as that of a forensic psychologist of medical examiner, should start preparing for the graduate degree.

  • 4

    Earn the master’s or doctorate (if applicable)

    Those who choose to continue their education should do so by pursuing the master’s degree, and later, the doctoral degree, if it applies to their career goals.

    Keep in mind that in some cases, there will not be a forensic science degree at the master’s or doctoral level; instead, the student will pursue a degree in a broader field with an emphasis or specialization in forensic science. An example of this is the forensic psychologist, who will focus on a psychology degree, but will also choose the forensic science concentration.

  • 5

    Complete degree requirements (if applicable)

    Once the degree is earned, the work is just beginning. Many who choose an advanced degree will go through several years of in-depth training or residency in order to practice in their profession. An example of this is the medical examiner, who must have a medical degree in order to practice, or the forensic odontologist, who must earn a degree in dentistry. Those individuals will be expected to complete several years of training before moving into their forensic science roles.

  • 6

    Engage in on-the-job training

    Training while on the job is a very important aspect of working in forensic science, as much of the work cannot be learned through a book; it must be explored through hands-on training and instruction. Though some bachelor’s programs offer this opportunity for students, it doesn’t go as far as on-the-job training. This training might take several months to several years.

  • 7

    Earn credentials or certification

    In some states or jurisdictions, forensic scientists are encouraged (and in some areas, required) to earn specialty certifications. Though these certifications or credentials are not necessary to enter the profession, they can certainly open doors to better employment in the future. Potential certifications to explore include those in drug analysis, fire debris analysis, molecular biology, hairs and fibers, and paints and polymers.

Degrees in Forensic Science

Bachelor’s Degrees in Forensic Science

While not all schools have degrees in forensic science, other undergraduate degrees are useful for a person who wants to work in the field. Here are a few of the more common degree options.

  • Chemistry

    The study of chemistry includes everything from learning to handle certain laboratory equipment to understanding the chemical reactions that happen in the body in response to certain substances. A chemistry program also provides a strong base in math, statistics and writing skills, all of which are vital for a forensic scientist.

  • Forensic Science

    This highly targeted degree focuses on sciences used daily in most forensic careers. Students can expect to become proficient in chemistry, biology, mathematics, oral communication skills, biochemistry, molecular biology and other related topics.

  • Criminology and
    Justice Studies

    Those who opt for a criminal justice program can also find a home in forensic science. Students focus on the philosophy and practice of the justice system, as well as applied research methods and best practices for fieldwork. Students can opt for elective courses that focus on the natural sciences to bolster their knowledge and prepare for a forensic science career.

Here are a few examples of courses students may encounter in their studies:
  • 1. Forensic Chemistry and Trace Evidence Analysis

  • 2. Forensic Fingerprint Analysis

  • 3.Psychology for Law Enforcement

  • 4.Research Methods in Criminal Justice

  • 5.Principles of Molecular Biology

Forensic Certification & Accreditation

Accreditation means a school has been evaluated by an independent body and determined to meet the standards of a rigorous, high-quality education. When attending a program in natural sciences or criminal justice, a student can look to the school or program accreditation to determine whether the program might be a good fit. Students looking into forensic science programs can see the schools that have earned accreditation at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

Though forensic certifications aren’t usually required to begin working in the field, some are recommended for those who want to showcase their abilities. Here are a few certifications that might interest forensic science grads:

  • The American Board of Criminalistics

    offers several certifications, including those in molecular biology, drug analysis and fire debris analysis. Passing of exams leads to two types of certification, depending upon the area of expertise and experience. Recent college graduates without the two years of experience required can opt for the Affiliate Status Certification, which will then award a certification upon completing the experience requirement. Certifications are good for five years.

  • The American College of Forensic Examiners Institute

    offers certifications for those in the forensic science field, including certified medical investigator, certified criminal investigator, and certified forensic nurse. Requirements for each program vary, but in general, certification is good for three years and completing an in-depth program and examination on the material.

  • The International Association for Identification

    is home to numerous credentials, including forensic video, forensic photography, latent prints and crime scene reconstruction. Typically, the applicant must be working full-time in a career that focuses on the subject of their certification, have a certain amount of education and experience, earn professional development hours and pass an examination.

Master’s Degrees in Forensic Science

Though many forensic scientists enter the profession with a bachelor’s degree, many employers prefer to hire those who have earned the master’s degree in forensic science or a closely related field. Master’s degrees in forensic science might not always carry the same name. Examples include: Master of Professional Studies in Forensic Science, Master’s in forensic technology, or Master in Biochemical Forensic Science.

The master’s degree is geared toward those who choose to specialize, so at least one year of the master’s pursuit will be dedicated to targeted, in-depth study in the field of choice. For instance, students in forensic technology might focus on computer-related forensics, such as following web searches, uncovering hidden data caches, understanding software and hardware and learning techniques for extracting the maximum amount of information from them. Forensic science with a concentration in chemistry focuses on DNA profiling, instrumental analysis, analytical toxicology and courses in research.

Master’s program students must first earn the bachelor’s degree, though some hybrid programs allow students to complete the bachelor’s and master’s degree at the same time. Some programs have a work requirement as well.

Forensic Science Professional Organizations

The world of forensic science changes fast, with constantly evolving procedures and new insights into forensic analysis and criminal behavior. Professional organizations in the field stay on top of these changes and trends, providing their members with the most up-to-date information, certifications, continuing education and more.

These are some of the most important forensic science professional organizations. Keep in mind these are not reserved only for those who are currently working in the field; in most cases, students are welcome as well.

  • American Academy of Forensic Science
    • A professional society with eleven sections spanning a wide variety of expertise; members include lawyers, physicians, dentists, anthropologists, document examiners, psychiatrists, engineers, criminalists, educators and more
    • In addition to pertinent forensic science information for all members, the AAFS also provides comprehensive information for students
    • Offers numerous meetings throughout the year
    • Established the Academy Standards Board, which develops documentary standards for forensics
    • Offers a wealth of resources for members and non-members
  • American Board of Criminalistics
    • Offers information on the Forensic Science Assessment Test (FSAT)
    • Provides the Comprehensive Criminalistics Examination, as well as certification exams in drug analysis, molecular biology, fire debris analysis, hair and fibers and paints and polymers
    • Proficiency testing is available for those who want to maintain their Fellow certification
    • Offers a study guide that can be of help not only to those who are taking a test, but for those interested in forensic science in general
  • American Board of Forensic Toxicology
    • Establishes and enhances voluntary standards for the practice of forensic toxicology
    • Provides Laboratory Accreditation to identify laboratories that meet the qualifications and competence for excellent forensic toxicology examination
    • Professional certifications are available as Diplomate in Forensic Toxicology, Diplomate in Forensic Drug Toxicology, Diplomate in Forensic Alcohol Toxicology, and Fellow in Forensic Toxicology
    • The ABFT is accredited by the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board
  • American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors
    • A professional society for crime laboratory directors and forensic science managers
    • Membership is open to those in the United States and overseas whose primary job is to manage a crime laboratory
    • Membership includes access to file sharing resources, research and information exchange
    • Members receive the Forensic Science Policy and Management Journal
    • Offers an annual symposium for all members
    • The ASCLD Leadership Academy includes 12 online sessions, a capstone session at the symposium and a variety of training materials
    • Provides a job board, forensic conferences and forensic training
  • Association of Women in Forensic Science
    • Open to female forensic science professionals, as well as students and teenagers with an interest in the field
    • Home of “Club Philly Forensics,” an after-school program in the Philadelphia area for students in grades 5-12
    • Offers a workshop on drug prevention, open to all students with an interest
    • High school students can earn volunteer community service credit through AWIFS
  • Consortium of Forensic Science Organizations
    • Includes six forensic science organizations, including the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, American Society of Crime Lab Directors, International Association for Identification, International Association of Forensic Nurses, National Association of Medical Examiners, and Society of Forensic Toxicologists – American Board of Forensic Toxicology
    • Pushes for better funding for forensic science, including lobbying local, state and national policymakers, as well as a focus on U.S. Congressional legislation
    • Provides in-depth information on advocacy for members
    • Provides grant information for members
  • Council of Forensic Science Educators
    • Designed for those in the education of forensic science
    • Several committees have been established, including those for K-12 forensic studies, college students, Delta Delta Epsilon, and others.
    • Offers five classes of membership: full, associate, retired, honorary and sponsoring
    • Offers an annual meeting that corresponds with the annual American Academy of Forensic Sciences conference
  • International Association for Identification
    • The oldest and largest forensic association in the world; boasts over 6,500 members in 77 countries
    • Provides certifications in bloodstain pattern, crime scene (including investigator, analyst, reconstructionist and scene analysis), footwear, forensic art, forensic photography, forensic video, latent print and tenprint fingerprint
    • Offers an international conference each year and seminars throughout the year
    • A variety of memberships are available; members are carefully vetted to ensure they meet the standards of the organization. Full-time forensic science students can also apply for membership.
  • Society of Forensic Toxicologists
    • Offers continuing education, professional development fairs and student enrichment
    • Provides an annual meeting for members in conjunction with the International Association of Forensic Toxicologists
    • Full membership is open to working professionals in the field; associate, retired and student memberships are also available
    • Provides job listings for members
    • Offers awards for those in the field, as well as students who show particular aptitude for forensic toxicology

Interview with an Expert

expert

After a few years working in a crime lab, Dr. Raychelle Burks returned to academia, teaching, and forensic science research. An analytical chemist, Dr. Burks enjoys the challenge of developing detection methods for a wide-variety of analysis, including regulated drugs and explosives. She is the Assistant Professor of Chemistry at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas.

Many people are curious about forensic science, but are surprised to learn it’s not actually what they see on CSI and similar television shows. What are the biggest surprises for students when they enter the forensic science program?

Television shows like CSI rarely (if ever!) show the paperwork side of being a forensic scientist. Detailed documentation is an important feature of all sciences, but in forensic science, it’s even more imperative to document details given their status as evidence in court. Post analysis, reports must be issued and, often times, forensic scientists are part of casework peer review systems at work. Providing proper documentation and paperwork is critical to the process, but perhaps considered less than exciting at the start. Once you realize how important it is, it becomes a top priority!

Are there any particular traits or characteristics that make a student well-suited for forensic science studies?

It’s important for any top science student, and especially a forensic science student, to be an enthusiastic learner with the following qualities: A strong work ethic, good quantitative thinking skills, be task oriented, an ability to work independently and in a team setting, have a passion for science, and have a commitment to professional ethics.

Anything else you want to add about forensic science?

There are a tremendous number of opportunities in forensic science. The two chief things to consider are a sub-field to pursue, and the nature of your workday.

Forensic science is a diverse field with a variety of different niches, including forensic anthropology, biology, chemistry, physics, accounting, engineering, computer science – you name it, there’s likely a forensic science sub-field.

Depending on your preference, some roles are focused entirely in the lab, others are solely with paper and/or digital files, some are in the field or on scene, and yet others have a combination of these. Consider how and where you want to spend your working time.