Forensic Scientist

When a crime is committed, physical evidence is gathered from the scene. The evidence is then sent to a laboratory where it is analyzed by skilled professionals known as forensic scientists. The results of the analysis can help law enforcement identify suspects and bring them to justice. Keep reading to learn more about the forensic scientist.

What Does a Forensic Scientist Do?

The titles crime scene investigator and forensic scientist are often used interchangeably. While both play an important part in criminal investigations, each role has unique job duties. A crime scene investigator is responsible for gathering and preserving evidence left at the crime scene. Forensic scientists on the other hand, spend most of their time in a laboratory interpreting this evidence before summarizing their findings. The findings are presented to law enforcement and then used to catch, convict, or acquit suspects in criminal matters.

Forensics involves many branches of science, and it is not uncommon for the someone in this position to specialize in one or two areas. Some of the most fields a forensic scientist may specialize in include:

  • Arson and Explosives – This area of science focuses on burn patterns and determining if accelerants were used to start a fire.
  • Ballistics and Firearms – This may entail matching up ammunition weapons, determining trajectory of a shot, or figuring out the weapon used.
  • Bloodstain Pattern Analysis – Science is used to study the pattern of the bloodstain in order to determine the location of the suspect and the victim, and sometimes even the weapon used.
  • Fingerprints – This involves analyzing fingerprints to identify parties at the crime scene.
  • Trace Evidence – This branch includes determining the origin of skin cells, strands of hair, or fibers from clothing and carpet.

The job duties of a forensic technician are more extensive than just analyzing evidence. They are also responsible for:

  • Serving as expert witnesses in court
  • Entering data into computer programs
  • Utilizing database information
  • Maintaining and calibrating lab equipment
  • Preparing written reports based on their findings

Professional Requirements to Become a Forensic Scientist

To become a forensic scientist, there are requirements that must be met. Commonly, the individual going into this profession must have a bachelor’s degree in a natural or forensic science from an accredited college or university. Some employers prefer applicants that have completed programs approved by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences’ Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC).

Sometimes individuals have completed police academy training and started out as law enforcement officers before becoming forensic scientists. Instead of obtaining a bachelor’s degree, they are trained by seasoned forensic technicians and learn through hands-on experience.

Additional Education and Experience

After receiving a bachelor’s degree, students can go on to complete a master’s or doctorate program. Applicants with these degrees are often more desirable to the law enforcement field.

Forensic scientists generally receive certification, which may require the passing of an exam. There are different forensic science certification boards including:

  • The American Board of Forensic Document Examiners
  • The American Board of Criminalistics
  • The American Board of Forensic Toxicology

Where Can You Work as a Forensic Scientist?

The most common place to work as a forensic scientist is in a police department or law enforcement agency on the local, state, or federal level. They spend most of their time inside the forensic or crime laboratory, though they may be called to the scene of the crime as needed. They may also appear in court to testify on their findings.

How do Forensic Scientists Get Paid?

How forensic scientists get paid varies depending on where they are employed. In most circumstances, they are considered paid employees and are eligible for various benefits including insurance. Some earn an hourly wage, while others receive a salary. Employees earning a salary receive a fixed amount each pay period, regardless of the number of hours they put in.

A small percentage of forensic scientists work as independent contractors. They are hired by different departments or agencies to work on specific jobs. These freelance workers determine how much they are paid and they can request the money up front or when the job is complete.

Forensic Scientists Salary

The median annual salary for crime scene investigators is $57,850 per year, 27.81/hr as of 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (“BLS”) Occupational Outlook Handbook. Experience, education, and geographic location play a factor in the amount of salary received. Those with advanced degrees or working for the federal government tend to fall on the higher end of the pay scale.

Employment Outlook for Forensic Scientists

The projected employment rate for forensic scientist is expected to grow around 17% by 2026. This rate is faster than average for all occupations in the U.S. Only about 2,900 new jobs are expected to become available within the next 8 years however, because it is such a small career field.

How to Get a Job as a Forensic Scientist

To get a job as a forensic scientist, you must first acquire the education and experience needed for the position. The next step is finding and applying for available forensic scientist position. There are resources you can use to find open positions within the field including websites that connect employees and employers. You can also check with your city or state official website as many list job openings on the government level. Your local Chamber of Commerce may also list employment opportunities. Another option is attending local job fairs.

Essential Information

Degree Level Bachelor’s degree
Degree Field(s) Chemistry, forensics, or another physical or natural science
License/Certification Certification required by some departments
Key Skills Mathematical knowledge, problem–solving, oral and written communication, analytical thinking, attention to detail, work under pressure, familiar with computers
Number of Jobs (2016) 15,400
Job Outlook
17% growth rate (much faster than average)
Median Salary (2017) $57,850*
On the Job Training Moderate term of on–the–job training
Top Earners Top earners in the forensics field are employed by the federal government

(*Source: the BLS)