We're all familiar with the image of a forensics team arriving at the crime scene, dusting for fingerprints, and collecting DNA samples. But what is it that a forensic scientist does with that data?
Working at the intersection of law and science, forensic scientists play a vital role in the criminal justice system. They are professionals who use science to provide, document, and analyze evidence and investigate crime. They work in various fields, including DNA, toxicology, ballistics, and handwriting analysis.
If you're interested in this career path, we've compiled a list of everything you need to know to get started.
What Does a Forensic Scientist Do?
Forensic science is the application of science to the criminal justice system. Specialists from this branch use their skills in two primary environments, depending on their specialty: at the crime scene and the laboratory.
At the Crime Scene
Those who work in the field collect evidence, such as fingerprints, DNA samples, fibers, explosives, bloodstains, and bodily fluids. Then, they document their findings using photography, reports, or drawings and submit them to the laboratory for analysis. They also attempt to reconstruct the crime scene to piece together what happened and help identify the perpetrator.
In the Laboratory
In the laboratory, a forensic scientist's job is to analyze the evidence collected from crime scenes. They use a variety of sophisticated scientific techniques, depending on the type of evidence they are dealing with. For example, DNA analysis is used to identify individuals from blood, hair, or skin samples, ballistics to match a bullet to a gun, or toxicology to determine if a victim was poisoned.
They also examine fingerprints using the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) and try to determine if there are matches with known offenders in the database.
How to Become a Forensic Scientist
If you're interested in becoming a forensic science expert, you'll need a strong foundation in science. A bachelor's degree in forensic science, chemistry, biology, or another scientific discipline is required. Some positions may require a master's degree or higher.
Another typical requirement is on-the-job training, both for those who work in labs and those engaged in the field.
Forensic Scientist Education
During high school, it’s recommended to pay particular attention to classes such as biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. A good idea would be to apply to volunteer in a local laboratory, police department, or even fire department, to acquire experience.
The next step would be studying for a bachelor’s degree in forensic science, chemistry, biology, and other natural sciences. During their studies, students are encouraged to pursue programs and courses accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC), as it will make them more eligible for jobs. These include forensic chemistry, biochemistry, molecular biology, criminal investigation, and evidence identification.
Even though completing a master's degree or Ph.D. isn’t among the forensic scientist requirements education-wise, it’s an alternative option many students go for. After completing a bachelor's degree in forensic science, you might choose to specialize in areas such as DNA analysis, ballistics, or toxicology.
Some universities also offer programs that allow you to combine forensic science with other areas of study, such as criminal law or criminal psychology.
Forensic scientists should typically be certified by a professional organization, such as the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, The American Board of Criminalistics (ABC), or any regional accrediting agencies recognized by the US Department of Education.
In addition to forensic scientist education requirements, these professionals also need strong analytical and problem-solving skills. They must be able to understand and apply complex scientific concepts and use critical thinking to interpret data. They also need to be detail-oriented and have good communication skills, as they often have to present their findings to lawyers, police officers, and other law enforcement professionals.
Job Outlook for Forensic Scientists
Forensic science is a rapidly growing field with immense potential. Due to an increase in high-profile cases in the past few decades, as well as familiarization via popular culture, public interest in forensic science has skyrocketed, leading to a greater demand for qualified professionals.
A skilled forensic scientist trained in DNA analysis, is in high demand as the use of DNA evidence in criminal cases is ever-present.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the employment of forensic scientists is projected to grow by 16% from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the average for all occupations. As of May 2021, the median annual wage for forensic science technicians was $61,930, which is $29.78 per hour.
The number of jobs in the field reached 17,200, with an average projection of some 2,500 additional openings for forensic science technicians each year over the following decade.
With its combination of excitement and job security, a forensic scientist’s career is an excellent choice for anyone interested in solving puzzles and helping keep society safe.
Different Types of Job Positions in the Field
There are several types of positions forensic scientists can hold. Some may work in a crime lab, analyzing evidence from crime scenes. Others may work for the medical examiner’s office, investigating deaths to determine the manner and cause of death. Finally, they may work directly for law enforcement agencies.
Forensic scientist jobs will often depend on their area of expertise. Here's a list of some of the most common niche careers in the field.
- Crime Scene Investigator (CSI) - A criminalist is a scientist specializing in collecting and analyzing physical evidence. While examining evidence, crime scene investigators use techniques including DNA, fingerprints, and ballistics analysis.
- Medicolegal Death Investigator - These professionals examine corpses to determine the manner and cause of death. In some cases, they may also be responsible for determining the deceased's identity.
- Forensic Accountant - one of the less-known forensic scientist careers is the job of a forensic accountant, who investigates fraud and other financial crimes. Becoming an expert in this field requires not only a strong understanding of accounting but also an understanding of the law.
- Forensic Odontologist - A forensic odontologist is a dentist who specializes in identifying teeth, teeth marks, and other dental evidence. In many cases, forensic odontologists can identify a corpse by examining its teeth.
- Forensic Anthropologist - These anthropologists deal with human remains that are in advanced states of decomposition. Their focus is on identifying the individual, as well as determining the cause and manner of death.
- Forensic Computer Scientist - These forensic experts use computer science skills to investigate cyber crimes. To become one, you will need a degree in computer science or a related field.
If you are interested in working in forensic science, you can choose from multiple positions. Depending on your education and experience, you may find yourself working as a crime scene investigator, forensic accountant, or computer examiner.
With a positive job outlook and a high average salary for forensic scientist experts, working in this field can be a very rewarding career choice.