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Crime Scene Investigation vs. Forensic Science

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Those who wish to work on the proverbial front lines of criminal justice, handling and analyzing physical evidence related to criminal actions, might pursue either a degree in crime scene investigation or forensic science. And, to be sure, a university or college-level degree in one of these fields can be an excellent first step.

But before picking one over the other, it is important to fully understand the similarities, differences, and overlap between the two. In light of this, we have provided this brief overview of degrees in crime scene investigation and forensic science, as well as a side-by-side comparison for convenient reference.

Similarities, Differences, and Overlap

To begin, it is imperative to understand the similarities between these fields of study. Both of these degrees will allow the holders to work in the field of criminal justice, and both are focused specifically on the aftermath of a crime. Indeed, the ultimate objective of crime scene investigators and of forensic scientists is aligned: to help enact justice by gathering and analyzing evidence, and utilizing it in order to uncover the truth and take action.

Outside of this, however, the two fields of study begin to diverge. While the education of a crime scene investigator may include the odd course in science, an aspiring forensic scientist should expect to take a heavy load of science courses, including biology, chemistry, physics, and other sciences involved in the forensic analysis process. Furthermore, because forensic scientists largely operate in a lab setting, their education will be heavily lab-based. In contrast, because crime scene investigators spend most of their time in the field, a CSI degree has a greater focus on investigative procedures and criminal investigation overall.

A crime scene investigator is often one of the first professionals at the scene of a crime (after first responders), tasked with examining the location and gathering evidence relevant to the investigation. This evidence may then be sent to a laboratory, where a forensic scientist will analyze what’s provided using various scientific methods. Each of these professionals plays an integral role in the flow of analysis in the criminal justice system.

Finally, it’s important to note that a crime scene investigator and a criminal investigator (or detective) are not the same. Indeed, the former gathers and analyzes information found at the scene of the crime, but once all necessary information is collected and analyzed from this specific location, his or her work concludes. Criminal investigators or detectives, on the other hand, are responsible for carrying the full criminal investigation through to completion.

Side-by-Side Comparison: Crime Scene Investigation vs. Forensic Science

Below you will find a side-by-side comparison of crime scene investigation and forensic science. Those interested in pursuing a degree in either field should use this as a convenient reference when deciding on a course of study.

Crime Scene InvestigatorForensic Scientist
How do the fields and professions define and differentiate themselves?Crime scene investigation, like forensic science, focuses on utilizing scientific and social analysis techniques to assist law enforcement in uncovering all information about a crime. Crime scene investigators work at the scene of a crime, gathering any relevant evidence for later analysis.Unlike crime scene investigators, forensic scientists don’t visit the crime scene. Instead, they work in a lab environment, examining and analyzing evidence provided by investigators to help law enforcement agencies in the pursuit of justice.
What bodies of knowledge will students focus on in pursuit of their degree?Students in crime scene investigation programs will spend a majority of their education learning about collection techniques, evidence handling and storage, crime scene procedure, and criminal justice overall. These students will also likely take courses on law and legal philosophy, as well as lab-based science, although not nearly to the extent that those in a forensic science program do.A student pursuing a degree in forensic science will inevitably be immersed in all varieties of lab-based science, including biology, chemistry, toxicology, pharmacology, and physics. Furthermore, these students will focus on other subjects related to criminal analysis, including chemistry and pathology with a focus on forensics.
What specific courses will students likely cover in this program?Although the curriculum will vary depending on the institution, courses that a student of crime scene investigation will likely take include the following, among others:

  • Introduction to criminal justice
  • Criminology
  • Judicial process
  • Corrections
  • Crime scene photography and management
  • Forensic fingerprint analysis
  • Trace evidence analysis
  • Violent crime scene analysis
  • Criminal law and investigations
  • Criminal justice ethics
  • Introduction to forensics
The following is a sample list of classes that would likely be found in any undergraduate or graduate forensic science program:

  • Biology (including cell biology, microbiology, and molecular biology)
  • Chemistry (including biochemistry, physical chemistry, organic and inorganic chemistry, and quantitative chemistry)
  • Physics
  • Calculus
  • Pharmacology
  • Genetics
  • Instrumental and forensic analysis
  • Crime and society
  • Forensic anthropology and pathology
What specializations, in any, are formally available as part of the program?Crime scene investigation may be a standalone program, or may be housed within the degree of criminal justice, and considered a specialization or concentration area itself, and in such cases there would be typically be no further specialization available. When crime scene investigation is a standalone program, however, a student in this field may be able to specialize in a number of fields, including forensic engineering and forensic odontology.In some programs, forensic science is often a specialization of the greater criminal justice degree. However, where forensic science is a standalone program, it will likely have a great emphasis on laboratory science, and students may have the opportunity to specialize in such fields as toxicology, DNA analysis, or even death investigation. In some programs, a student may also specialize in computer forensics and cybercrime, which may be a useful degree to obtain employment in a number of emerging occupations in the future.
What established occupations will students be prepared for after receiving a degree?Upon obtaining a degree in crime scene investigation (or a technician certificate), students will be prepared to work as crime scene investigators or technicians.A degree in forensic science allows the holder to obtain employment as a forensic scientist, generally in a laboratory setting.
What type of work environment can the professional expect?Crime scene investigators (and technicians) will work directly at the scene of the crime, analyzing the situation and gathering evidence relevant to investigation. Because crime occurs at all hours of the day, investigators may remain on-call as determined by their employer. When not at a crime scene, these individuals may perform other tasks at a police station or other law enforcement agency.Forensic scientists and technicians generally work in a lab setting, where they analyze the evidence provided by the crime scene investigation team. These scientists often have a routine schedule, unlike crime scene investigators. In some cases, forensic scientists or technicians may work in morgues or a coroner’s office, as well.
Are there additional educational opportunities available after pursuing an undergraduate degree in this field?Upon obtaining an undergraduate degree in crime scene investigation, a student may go on to pursue a master of science degree in the same field, or a graduate certificate, which can aid in obtaining employment that with a greater amount of responsibility and associated pay.After receiving a bachelor’s degree in forensic science, a student may continue on to obtain a graduate certificate or master’s degree in the same field. There are now even a couple of forensic science PhD programs available for those interested in teaching or research.

Also, a student with an undergraduate degree in biology or another natural science may be well qualified to pursue a graduate degree in forensic science.

Do technician degrees and jobs exist in this field?Crime scene investigation technicians are also responsible for gathering evidence at the scene of a crime, although they work directly under the supervision of a crime scene investigator.

The education requirements are generally lower for technicians than they are for investigators; indeed, a crime scene technician need only obtain a certificate in the field (instead of an undergraduate degree) before seeking employment.

A crime scene technician will likely have a limited working knowledge of forensics, although he or she will be well versed in collection techniques, criminal procedure and law, and evidence handling and storage.

Forensic science technicians (also referred to as forensic lab technicians) are no different than forensic scientists; indeed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics categorizes all work performed by a forensic scientist as that of a forensic science technician.
Name four schools that offer online degrees in this field.The following is a list of schools that offer online degree programs in crime scene investigation:

The following is a list of schools that offer online degree programs in forensic science:

Bottom line: specifics of each.A degree in crime scene investigation is an excellent choice for an individual who wishes to work in the field of criminal justice, especially at the scene of a crime.

A student in this field can expect to take courses focusing on criminal procedure and evidence management, as well as some courses in lab-based science.

A graduate may find employment as a crime scene investigator, who works directly with law enforcement to help uncover all relevant information about a crime in the pursuit of justice.

Anyone wishing to work in the field of criminal justice by analyzing crime scene evidence provided by investigators should consider a degree in forensic science.

Students of forensic science should expect to take courses in biology, chemistry, physics, pathology, and anthropology, many of which include labs.

Forensic scientists (or forensic science technicians) generally work in a laboratory setting, handling and examining evidence and providing their findings to criminal detectives for further action, or testifying in a court of law.

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