Whether working alongside law enforcement at crime scenes or analyzing evidence in laboratories, forensic scientists play a critical role in criminal investigations. Forensic scientists utilize a toolbox of science-based skills and specialized knowledge that they obtain through various undergraduate, graduate, and certificate programs. Often a fulfilling career, these professionals can expect this field to grow by as much as 16% over the next decade.
On the following page, we explore what forensic scientists do, their career prospects, and the steps you’ll take to begin your career. Keep reading to learn more about this exciting and growing career.
What Do Forensic Scientists Do?
Forensic scientists work alongside law enforcement and assist in criminal investigations. These professionals help collect and analyze evidence and, depending on their specialization, work with crime scenes or in a laboratory setting. Forensic science generalists—also known as criminalists—perform a broad range of duties while utilizing their own set of specialized skills.
Forensic science professionals who primarily work in laboratory settings often have job titles such as forensic chemist or forensic biologist. We’ve highlighted some standard job requirements below.
- Analyze crime scenes and collect evidence
- Diligently record information and observations at crime scenes
- Document and photograph crime scenes and evidence
- Use databases to catalog evidence
- Perform various biological and chemical tests on evidence
- Collaborate with professionals in other fields such as odontologists and toxicologists
Forensic Scientist Salary and Career Outlook
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), forensic science technicians earn a median annual salary of nearly $62,000. And while projections don’t guarantee job growth, students preparing for a career in forensic science can anticipate a career field that’s projected to grow by 16% between 2020 and 2030.
But that median income only tells part of the story—a forensic scientist’s location, experience, and specific role can significantly impact how much they earn. Top earning forensic science technicians earn more than $100,000 per year.
Forensic science technicians work for various governmental employers at the state and local levels. These professionals also find themselves working in various testing, medical, and diagnostic laboratories.
Alongside earning a bachelor’s degree, forensic science professionals can expand career opportunities and earning potential through various certificate programs, professional certifications, and graduate degrees.
How to Know if You Would Enjoy a Job as a Forensic Scientist Field
Before embarking on your forensic science career, it’s worth considering whether or not this career is a solid choice. Forensic science students typically have a knack for STEM-based coursework with an interest in working in a collaborative, lab-based environment. Prospective forensic scientists should also feel comfortable working alongside law enforcement.
Some common skills for forensic scientists include critical thinking, decision-making, interpersonal skills, and attention to detail. As with many careers, computer proficiency, time management, and communications skills are also essential. Future forensic scientists should also recognize that they will likely encounter violent crime scenes and human loss.
Steps to Becoming a Forensic Scientist
While there’s not a single path toward becoming a forensic scientist, you’ll need to secure at least a bachelor’s degree, preferably a forensic science degree or biology degree. Additionally, some students pursue graduate degrees or professional certificates to enhance their career options. In the following section, we outline the step you need to take when pursuing a career in forensic science.
Step One: Earn An Education
Forensic scientists must hold a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution. Most students complete science-based degrees like biology, while others seek out schools that offer undergraduate degrees in forensic science. Some students with an undergraduate science degree often tackle a master’s in forensic science as an academic foundation for their forensic science career.
Step Two: On-the-job training
Before you’re cut loose to handle the responsibilities of a forensic scientist alone, graduates new to the field receive ample hands-on training. New hires typically work alongside an experienced forensic professional to learn the ins and outs of the job. Depending on your specialization and professional requirements, the training period can last from months to years.
Step Three: Boost Your Resume
While most careers associated with forensic science do not require licensure, individuals working in the field can enhance their skillset and professional competitiveness through various certifications. Professional certificates and competencies cover forensic specializations such as toxicology, document examination, odontology, arson, and anthropology.
Step Four: Complete Professional Certification
While not necessarily required, forensic professionals can further enhance their resumes by pursuing professional certification. Groups like the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB) and the American Board of Forensic Toxicology (ABFT) both offer certifications for experienced professionals. Applicants to certification programs must have several years of relevant experience and submit an application with letters of recommendation and all associated fees.
How Long Does it Take to Become a Forensic Scientist?
Forensic scientists traditionally hold at least a bachelor’s degree in forensic science. Students can complete these 120-credit programs in about four years and tackle core classes that include topics such as criminal procedure, criminalistics, and digital forensics.
Those holding a bachelor’s degree who want to enhance their credentials or start a new career can enroll in a master’s program in forensic science. These programs typically take two years to complete, but online programs often allow distance learners to earn their degrees more quickly. Standard master’s coursework covers topics like forensic biology, forensic accounting, and organizational information systems.
Forensic science graduates also have access to a sizeable list of graduate certificate programs. These certificate programs cover topics such as death investigation, toxicology, drug chemistry, and DNA and serology.
What is the Difference Between Forensic Scientists and Criminalists?
Discerning the difference between forensic scientists and criminalists can be tricky. This is further muddied because the BLS lumps forensic scientists, crime scene investigators, and criminalists together. In short, criminalists are a professional subset that falls under the umbrella of forensic science. Other specializations include forensic computer examiners, digital forensic analysts, forensic biologists, and forensic chemists.
Forensic scientists assist in criminal investigations and utilize specialized training to analyze crime scenes, collect evidence, and catalog their findings. Additionally, some of these professionals work in a laboratory setting and perform various chemical and biological examinations.
Individuals interested in a forensic science career traditionally hold a four-year bachelor’s degree in forensic science or a related field. Some students also pursue graduate-level degrees to enhance career options and expand earning potential.
The amount forensic scientists can earn depends on various factors, including education, experience, professional certifications, and location. That said, the median income for forensic science technicians is nearly $62,000 per year.
Pursuing a forensic science career is a solid choice for individuals with a knack for STEM coursework and a desire to work alongside law enforcement. According to the BLS, forensic science technician jobs are projected to grow by 16% between 2020 and 2030.