How to Become a Forensic Scientist

Do you like CSI? Is the idea of investigating crimes appealing to you?

What about the idea of working in a lab, assisting police solving cases?

Careers in forensic science have taken off in the past few years.

Forensic scientists are trained in the art of observation and use scientific investigation techniques to assist police solving crimes.

They are trained to perform several kinds of physical, chemical, and biological analyses to provide important information on crimes. From testing blood samples to examining chemical residue left at the crime scene, forensic scientists teams play an integral role in law enforcement.

So if a career in forensic scientists sounds like a good fit for you, read on to figure out how you can become a forensic scientist!

What Does a Forensic Scientist Do?

Forensic scientists work with law enforcement officers to analyze evidence left at the scene of the crime.

Forensic scientists are among the first to arrive on the crime scene, where they meticulously collect and catalog potential evidence.

They then move to the lab, where they use scientific techniques to classify unknown substances and objects and see how they relate to crime.

Among these techniques are the identification of foreign chemical, analysis of blood spatters, identifying the cause of death in a victim, and more.

Because their work is so science intensive, they must have a solid education in the sciences (biology, chemistry, physics, psychology) and also have a thorough understanding of the criminal justice system and its operation.

The field of forensic science has many subfields and specializations that are based on the kind of evidence examined, including:

  • Forensic anthropology: Examining human remains
  • Forensic pathology: Identifying injuries and causes of death
  • Forensic chemistry: Identification and classification of unknown chemical substances
  • Forensic psychology/psychiatry: Assessment of mental illness or other psychopathology
  • Digital forensics: Examining digital evidence (i.e. phones, networks, data comparison, etc.)
  • Forensic odontology: Examining dental remains and dental records for identification

In short, if there is a specific type of evidence, there is a forensic scientist trained to handle that kind of evidence.

Forensic scientists also use their knowledge to help police recreate the scene of the crime and perform DNA analysis on biological materials to identify victims and suspects. For example, a blood spatter analyst helps investigators recreate crime scenes based on the patterns of blood found at the crime science, or a forensic pathologist helps recreate the steps leading up to the death or injury of the victim.

Forensic scientists may also use their knowledge to examine ballistics and identify any weapons that may have been used. After performing their analyses, forensic scientists detail their findings in a report that is handed off to investigators.

Forensic scientists are the support wing of law enforcement who perform the difficult scientific leg work to give investigators the information they need to solve crimes. In that vein, forensic scientists are an extremely important part of law enforcement and play a crucial role in bringing criminals to justice.

Forensic Scientist Duties

Forensic scientists are trained in scientific theory and lab techniques.

  • Common duties of forensic scientists include:
  • Performing lab examination and analyses
  • Carrying out testing using lab techniques like infrared spectroscopy, mass spectroscopy, chemical separation, and more
  • Data entry of key findings in lab reports
  • Preparing written reports of findings
  • Examining and collecting evidence at crime scenes
  • Serving as experts witnesses in court
  • Maintaining and calibrating lab equipment
  • Acting as a liaison between lab teams and investigators
  • Developing and updating SOPs and quality standards for the lab

The higher position and the more specialized your degree, the more focused these duties will be on a particular type of evidence and analysis. Forensic pathologists, for example, perform duties focused on identifying the causes of death or injury in victims, while forensic psychiatrists focus on issues such as criminal motivation and criminal competency in a court of law.

Desirable Skills & Qualities of a Forensic Scientist

Forensic scientists are scientists first and foremost, so they must cultivate skills and work habits that help scientists succeed and discover the truth.

Attention to Detail

Forensic scientists must be extremely attentive to details and handle their lab duties in a meticulous manner. Often, a small detail can make or break a case, a detail that can be easily overlooked by a team that is inattentive to details. This includes having an exhaustive knowledge of lab and criminal proceedings. Additionally, the specific forensic techniques in the lab are extremely precise and must be carried out in a precise and accurate manner. A mix up in the lab could potentially ruin a sample or accidentally destroy crucial evidence.

Logical and Independent Thinking

Forensic scientists must be able to reason from available facts and examine how they fit into the larger case. This requires a substantial amount of critical thinking and skills in logic. Forensic scientists must be able to translate their lab findings into information that is relevant to the case and must know what kinds of inferences they can draw from the evidence. Like normal scientists, forensic scientists are aimed at discovering the truth and finding the truth requires the rigorous application of evidence and logic. Forensic scientists must also be able to set their prejudices aside and examine evidence in an objective and detached manner.

Written and Oral Communication Skills

As with virtually any profession, forensic scientists must have excellent written and oral communication skills. Forensic scientists must be able to take complex lab reports and translate their findings into accessible language for investigation teams. They must also be able to clearly and concisely communicate with other lab and law enforcement personnel. Typically, forensic scientists have a lot of evidence to dig through so they have to know how to communicate relevant findings and what relevance they have to the case.

High Tolerance for Stress

Unfortunately, forensic scientists will most likely have to deal with violent and psychologically disturbing crimes. Examining evidence from crime scenes (particularly violent crimes) can take an emotional toll. So, forensic scientists need to be able to separate their emotions from their work and be able to handle stress well. Too much stress clouds objectivity, so it is required that you can keep a clear mental state when in a stressful situation.

Additionally, forensic scientists often have to work under pressure and be sensitive to deadlines. When investigating a case, time is often of the essence, so good forensic scientists must be responsive to time constraints.

Forensic Scientist Education Requirements

Not just anyone can become a forensic scientist. Becoming a forensic scientist takes education and specialized training. Strictly speaking, forensic science is a broad field with many subfields and specializations (pathology, toxicology, psychiatry, etc). Becoming a specialist in one of these areas often requires a substantial amount of extra training and education. However, an entry-level position as a forensic science technician normally does not require substantial amounts of higher education.

In general, becoming a forensic scientist requires a 4-year degree from an accredited university. While there do exist specific degree programs in forensic sciences, it is not necessary to have such a degree to work as a forensic scientist. Many forensic scientists do have a background in a scientific field (biology, chemistry, psychology). The main thing employers will look for is experience working in a lab and familiarity with standardized procedures and techniques. Additional experience and knowledge in law enforcement is a plus, but not necessarily required.

Accreditation

In general, there are no legal requirements for accreditation and certification to work as a forensic science technician. You do not need a degree specifically in forensic science, but a degree in some scientific field is desired. Certain specializations may require legal certification, but these specifics differ depending on the state.

The Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC) has a list of universities that offer accredited programs in forensic science. While not necessary, a degree from a FEPAC accredited university will make the job hunt much easier as you will have a pedigree from a renowned university. Such accredited programs also tend to have very high education standards so you are guaranteed to get the highest quality training on up to date lab procedures and techniques. Accredited programs also tend to include on the job training. Often, forensic science programs include some courses in legal theory and criminal justice as well.

Aside from degree programs, there exist forensic science certification programs for undergraduates and graduates. Certification programs normally supplement a science degree with courses related to forensic science but fall short of a full-blown degree in forensic science. A certificate program in forensic science is a good option for those who want to add to their science degree.

What You’ll Study

Forensic scientists usually take a wide range of basic courses in the sciences. If you are working towards a degree specifically in forensic sciences, then these basic courses will be supplemented with courses geared specifically towards the application of scientific principles in a forensic lab setting.

Some course you will take in a forensic science program include:

  • General chemistry
  • Organic chemistry
  • Forensic pathology
  • Forensic toxicology
  • Crime scene processing
  • Physical evidence
  • Forensic lab techniques
  • Fingerprint analysis
  • Computer science

If you are working towards a BS, then this course list will be supplemented by whatever core requirements your school has set down.

Training Information & Types of Forensic Science Degrees

Forensic science is a multifaceted profession that has many opportunities for advancement and promotion. The job field is highly competitive, which means that advanced degrees often lead to better employment opportunities.

The “standard” path to becoming a forensic scientist involves obtaining an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree in forensic science. Once you complete that, you will be qualified to work as a forensic scientist. Higher degrees (MA/MSc, Ph.D., other) are required for more senior positions or specializing in a particular subfield of forensic science.

There is also the option of picking up an undergraduate or graduate certificate in forensic science. Undergrads are recommended to pick up a certificate to supplement their main degree, and graduate certificates are recommended for graduates and professionals who already have some work experience under their belt who want to specialize in a certain field.

Option 1: Forensic Science Associate’s Degree

The most basic degree option in forensic science is an Associate’s degree.

Associate’s degrees normally take about 2 years (4 semesters) to complete. In general, an associates degree will prepare on to pursue a bachelor’s or master’s degree in the subject.

Associate course work in forensic science involves classes on the basic goals and methods of forensic science, basic lab and forensic analysis techniques, and courses on the relationship between forensic investigation and law.

After completing an associate’s degree, you will be qualified for entry-level positions in the field, but many students choose to carry on and acquire a bachelor’s.

Admission Requirements

There are generally no special requirements for applying to an associate’s in forensic sciences program, other than a high school diploma or GED. Some programs may require letters of recommendation or require students to take an exam for course placement.

Courses

A hypothetical associate’s degree curriculum for a semester might look like:

  • Basic accident investigation
  • Physical identifiers
  • Fire and arson investigation
  • Forensic psychology and law

These courses are geared towards solidifying a basic repertoire of forensic investigation methods, techniques, and theory.

Option 2: Forensic Science Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s in forensic science covers much of the same technical groundwork as an associates program, but more in-depth and supplemented with course in the main sciences, such as biology, chemistry, physics, anatomy, etc.

Bachelor’s programs also have courses on the social and ethical elements of crime and the criminal justice system.

Many programs in forensic science have internship requirements so students can get hands-on experience working in a lab with other forensic science technicians.

Admission Requirements

Generally, admission to a bachelor’s program only requires a high school diploma or GED.

Many applicants come directly from acquiring their associate’s degree which, while not required for admission, often gives them a leg up on the competition.

Courses

Courses in a bachelor’s of forensic science program cover the technical methods of forensic science and core courses in the natural sciences such as:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Organic chemistry
  • Physics
  • Calculus

Bachelor’s-level courses in forensic science specifically are based on cultivating a deep understanding of forensic investigation methods and techniques and include:

  • Clinical Microbiology
  • Bloodstain evidence
  • Forensic pathology
  • Logic
  • Anatomy
  • Criminal proceedings

Additionally, many programs offer courses for students to specialize in certain areas of forensic science, such as:

  • DNA analysis
  • Toxicology
  • Computer forensics
  • Document analysis

Option 3: Masters/Ph.D in Forensic Science

While normally not required for employment in the field, higher degrees in forensic sciences are required for specializing in certain areas. In general, masters programs and higher degree programs are tightly focused on a core set of issues relevant to a specific domain of forensic science. For example, a digital forensics master’s programs might have courses focusing on computer science, computer architecture, and computer law.

Aside from forensic science-focused programs, several master programs in legal studies or criminal justice involve coursework related to the forensic aspects of law enforcement investigation.

A Ph.D. in forensic science is only required for scientists who want to work in academia, government labs, or private organizations as specialists. Ph.D. programs in forensic science are heavily researched focused and are supplemented by advanced courses in forensic theory and application.

Admission Requirements

Most higher degree programs in the forensic sciences require at least a bachelor’s degree to apply. Admissions departments for master’s programs look for excellent students who have hands-on experience researching in a forensics lab. Many programs require students to take the General Requisite Exam (GRE), a national standardized test for graduate schools and require letters of recommendation from teachers or employers.

Courses

Courses for a master’s program in forensic science might include:

  • Advanced Toxicology
  • Statistics and research methods
  • Cybersecurity
  • Criminal profiling
  • Blood spatter analysis

Ph.D. programs in forensic science focus primarily on research and so do not have a typical course load. In general, the course will be related to the area of specialization of the degree seeker.

Option 4: Certificate

A certificate in forensic science is a way to supplement your main degree with course related to the forensic sciences. Certificates are a good idea for undergraduates who want to add to their science degree or professionals who want to bolster their resume to apply to masters programs.

Admission Requirements

There are no general requirements for applying to a certificate program, other than those for a 4-year university or master’s program.

Courses

The courses in a certificate program depend on the level of the certificate, i.e. if it is undergraduate or graduate level. Most of these courses are focus specifically on forensic science methods and techniques.

Online Forensic Science Programs

Several universities offer either full-time or part-time online courses towards degrees in forensic science. For the most part, full-time online courses will be constrained to associate’s programs, while bachelor’s and higher programs may offer some part-time online course work. In general, though, higher degree programs involve mostly in-person courses.

How to Get Your Forensic Scientist License

It is generally not required to have a license or certificate to work as a forensic science technician, though the rules may vary from state to state. Typically, entry-level positions are free from any legal requirements and do not have any continuing education requirements.

It is more common to require a license or certification if you are employed in a specialized area of forensic science. These sorts of positions also tend to have high degree requirements as well. For example, forensic pathologists must have an advanced medical degree (M.D or D.O) and must have at least a one-year residency or fellowship. They must then pass an exam to acquire board certification and then they are able to work as a forensic pathologist.

The exact licensing and degree requirements for specialized positions in the forensic sciences vary greatly depending on the subfield.

License Renewal

For positions that do require a license to operate, recertification after a period of time is often required. Again, the exact requirements vary depending on the field and state, but most often involve continuing education and passing a new exam.

Becoming a Forensic Scientist

So let’s go over the main steps on how to become a forensic scientist.

Step 1. Obtain an Associate’s/Bachelor’s Degree

The first step is to obtain a degree from a respected program. Again, while not required, FEPAC accredited programs are the most competitive and offer hands-on experiences and better job opportunities after graduation. A certificate in forensic science is a good addition to an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. It is not strictly required for any employment opportunities but may help for graduate school applications.

Depending on the exact position you want, you may need to move on to higher education after finishing your associate’s/bachelor’s degree.

Step 2. Gain Certification (Optional)

Depending on the field, you may need to first become legally certified to work. These positions tend to be highly specialized senior positions.

Step 3. Find Employment

The next step after finishing your degrees (and gaining any licenses) is to find your job. Most degree programs involve heavy networking and employment opportunities. Most degree programs also require work internships to give students some valuable professional experience.

Step 4. Maintain License

If you work in an advanced field of forensic science you may need to periodically renew your license. Maintaining a license usually involves continuing education credits and reexamination.

Forensic Scientist Salary & Growth

Forensic scientists face good entry-level salaries and numerous opportunities for job growth. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for forensic science technicians in 2018 was $58,230 ($27.99/hr). From 2016-2026, the profession is expected to grow by 17%, indicating ample employment opportunity in the field. It is a competitive profession so job-seekers must have good academic and work-related records.

Forensic Scientist Associations, Groups & Resources

  • American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS)
  • Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC)
  • National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC)
  • Midwestern Association of Forensic Scientists (MAFS)
  • Center for Forensic Science Research and Education (CFSRE)

Frequently Asked Questions

It depends on your level of specialization. To become an entry-level worker in the profession only takes about 2 years as the only real requirement is an associate's degree. Further specialization involves more education. For instance, becoming a licensed forensic pathologist can take about 13 years - 4 years of collegiate study, 4 years of medical school, and up to 5 years of residencies and fellowships.
Most forensic scientists are employed by law enforcement agencies or crime laboratories operated by the government. Many forensic scientists are also employed by hospitals and federal agencies such as the FBI and CIA. The majority of forensic science work takes place in a lab but does require a substantial amount of field work.
It depends on the kind of forensic scientist you want to be. Entry level positions only require a 2 or 4-year degree from a university, or a comparable amount of experience. More specialized positions require much more schooling.
You do not “need” any specific degree to become a forensic science technician, but most employed forensic scientists have at least an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in the field of the general sciences. More advanced positions commonly have degree and licensing requirements.

Forensic scientists wear specialized protective equipment depending on the kind of substances they are dealing with. Eye protection and hand protection are common accessories worn in the lab, along with other clothing to prevent exposure to potentially harmful chemicals and to prevent contamination and destruction of evidence.

Some risks involved with being a forensic scientist include:

  • Possible exposure to harmful chemicals
  • Injury from lab equipment
  • Psychological distress from gore and aspects of criminality
  • Fatigue from potentially irregular work and sleep schedules
Some universities offer online coursework for forensic science degrees. Usually, these online courses are offered in addition to in-person coursework. Some programs may offer a full-time online degree for an associate’s degree.
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Noel Griffith

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