Forensic science is the ultimate puzzle: one where the pieces are bullets, blood and bodies. It takes an analytical mind and an iron will to be excellent at it. Still, those who are willing to put in the time to pursue a forensic science degree have the power to change hundreds of people’s lives in an instant.
A forensic scientist uses technological and scientific equipment to process and investigate artifacts and samples taken from crime scenes by crime scene investigators. Those who pursue a forensic scientist career use chemical and biological science to help police reconstruct a crime based on limited evidence. In addition, a crime scene investigator spends a large amount of time writing and presenting findings to lawyers, judges, investigators and juries.
Although television shows like CSI and NCIS give the impression that forensic scientists spend most of their time at crime scenes and doing investigative work, these are primarily scientific laboratory positions. Forensic scientists often do work with district attorneys, private lawyers and investigators, but often through reports on their findings relating to evidence that has been collected by others.
Due to the popularity and interest in forensic science careers and crime scene investigation jobs, it is likely that competition will be fierce over the next few years. In the 2012-2013 edition of the Occupational Outlook Handbook, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that forensic scientist careers are expected to increase by 19 percent by the year 2020, which is an average rate of growth.
In short, forensic scientist supply, fueled by thrilling popular culture depictions of the career, may outpace demand. And as many forensic scientist jobs are entirely regulated by state, local and federal budgets, there is some risk of an unforeseen slowdown in job growth due to financial strain.
Still, the FBI released a report in 2004 through their Laboratory Communications publication that discussed the problem of a high turnover rate in the career despite an ongoing demand for new forensic scientists. A Case Study of Forensic Scientist Turnover (2004) reported difficulty keeping new forensic scientists despite huge needs to analyze ever-growing amounts of DNA evidence. The lack of upward mobility and uncompetitive salaries were mentioned as probable causes for this turnover.
Although there are private forensic scientist jobs, over 80 percent of the jobs in the field are governmental positions. Florida and California are the largest employers of forensic scientists, with almost 1,500 employed in each state (BLS, 2012).
Since Florida and California are the biggest employers of forensic scientists, it is not surprising that the forensic science job outlook is the best in these states. The highest-paying states include the District of Columbia (D.C), California, Michigan and Massachusetts. The lowest paying states included Idaho, South Carolina and Georgia. (BLS, 2012)
The typical forensic scientist salary in the best paying jobs make between $65,000 and $72,000 per year, according to 2012 data from the BLS. For new forensic scientists, the typical forensic scientist salary is between $48,000 and $60,000 per year. Overall, the median in 2010 was $51, 570, BLS data from 2010 shows.
Within the forensic science category, there are several specialties that may change salary and compensation.
Serology is the examination and identification of genetic material in bodily fluids. According to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (2013), a typical serologist makes between $51,000 and $60,000 per year. In order to be a serologist, typically students complete a 4-year degree in chemistry or biology and complete a certification program in serology.
Latent print examination is the specialization of taking and analyzing fingerprints. According to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (2013), the annual forensic scientist salary of a latent print examiner is between $55,000 and $78,000 per year. This specialization is usually acquired through a 4-year bachelor’s degree in a biological science in addition to a certification in forensic print examination.
Crime scene investigation is the specialization of acquiring criminal data at the scene of the crime. One of the least educationally intensive subsets of forensic science, typical salaries are between $38,000 and $55,000 per year, according to the American Academy of Forensic Science (2013). Those interested in crime scene investigation should try to gain a 4-year degree in a biological science in addition to experience with crime scene investigation (usually in a police field).
In order to be successful in pursuit of a forensic scientist salary, there are a number of skills and educational benchmarks that a student must have met beforehand.
Students who succeed as forensic scientists have extensive education in the biological sciences. A 4-year degree from an accredited university, usually in the fields of biology or chemistry, is the best choice for those interested in this career.
After completing a 4-year degree, students should complete either a certification in a forensic field (such as toxicology, serology, etc.), or go on to complete a master’s degree in forensic science. There are a number of excellent on-campus and online accredited masters degrees in forensic science, such as through the University of Florida.
There is an alternate method for those interested in crime scene investigation specifically, as many CSI specialists start as police officers and are not required to have the same intense scientific background as forensic scientists and lab specialists. Often, state and federal labs want to see at least a year of experience with crime scene assisting or lab work when looking to hire forensic scientists and crime scene investigators.
There is no specific federal body that accredits or certifies forensic scientists. Still, most students choose to become certified through one of the forensic specialty boards. The Forensics Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB) helps to monitor and regulate the different certifications available for specialties such as forensic odontology, forensic anthropology and medicolegal death investigators.
Those who choose to get a master’s degree in forensic science should look for a college that has a program approved through the Forensic Science Education Programs Commission (FEPAC). The organization provides a list of all accredited colleges through their commission.
Although certification with specialty boards and a master’s degree are not usually required for employment, many state and federal bodies are more likely to hire a person with a specialty certification or advanced degree. Forensic labs looking to hire for management positions, federal jobs and high-profile private lab work may look for an advanced degree or extensive experience in the field.
Willow is a blogger, parent, former educator and regular contributor to ForensicsColleges.com. When she's not writing about forensic science, you'll find her blogging about education online, or enjoying the beauty of Oregon.
Barry is Managing Editor of ForensicsColleges.com, operated by educational web publisher Sechel Ventures Partners LLC, which he co-founded. Barry was previously VP for a financial software company, and currently sits on the board of a K-8 school and lives with his wife and daughters in the San Francisco Bay Area.