Did you know that dental records can be helpful in identifying bodies up to 93 percent of the time? That’s not the only intriguing fact about forensic science. Maggots, yes maggots, found on decomposing bodies can provide other clues, such as out how long a body has been decomposing. If these facts don’t make you at all squeamish and you like the natural sciences, like biology and chemistry, you might just want to consider a career in forensic science.
Of course, education is an important component to the career, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reporting that a bachelor’s degree –in the natural sciences—and a master’s degree in forensic science as the basic steps to entering the occupation. This type of college training can introduce you to the essentials in the sciences, and not just biology or chemistry, but also where these two combine, like biochemistry. You should also gain an understanding of criminal justice procedures and processes as well. That’s because whether you are working in a lab, or in any advanced niche forensic science field, like forensic entomology, understanding how the law applies to the science you are undertaking is fundamental.
If being out in the field is important to you – like actually being at the scene of the crime, a career in crime scene investigation (CSI) could be more up your alley. For CSI, you need to know how to collect and preserve evidence at a scene, but also how to secure a scene and even to make sure that evidence is not contaminated. Whether it’s working in a lab or out in the field, it could be hard to find a job unless you’ve got the needed background and training – and that’s typically through a college education, as well, in many cases of CSI, completing a police academy.
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Here’s another interesting feature of a forensic science career – the job can pay more than other occupations. Consider that the mean annual pay for forensic science technicians in the U.S. was $58,610, according to May 2014 data from the BLS. Guess what? This compares considerably well to the mean wages for all occupations combined in the U.S. — that of $47,320. That calculates to a more than $10,000 annual average difference. Of course, pay is never so cut and dry and wages can vary based on educational level, time on the job and even the state in which you work. As a side note, the mean pay for forensic science technicians working in Montana was $58,170. While this is slightly less than the nationwide pay for the field ($58,610), Montana offers a lower than average cost-of-living when it comes to utilities and transportation.
Nationwide, job opportunities for forensic science technicians are expected to grow by six percent from 2012-2022, according to the BLS. This is not spectacular growth by any means, but could result in approximately 700 new positions becoming available during this time. In Montana, job demand is even more favorable with opportunities expected to increase by nine percent from 2012-2022, according to CareerInfoNet.com.
A master’s degree is usually needed to become a forensic science technician, but one can make a start by building strong skills at the undergraduate level. Science will be an important part of your education whether you are pursuing forensic science at the very beginning or starting out with an undergraduate degree in a specific science. Below are a number of ways in which you can start building your forensic science skills.
Board certification can be a final step in developing a career. Not every field of forensic science offers certification, but it is available for forensic anthropology and forensic toxicology, as examples. Organizations like the American Board of Forensic Anthropology and the American Board of Forensic Toxicology provide more information about these two specific board certification processes. Other organizations offering certification can be found listed on the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board, Inc. website.
CSI provides a different way to enter the forensic science field. Instead of working in a lab, it gives individuals the opportunity to be out in the field actually collecting and preserving evidence and also keeping a scene secure to prevent evidence contamination. CSIs need to obtain a variety of skills related to the criminal justice system, including how to present evidence in court, which is why an education is so important. Steps to enter CSI include:
There are numerous certifications available in CSI, offered through organizations such as the International Association for Identification (IAI) and the ICSIA. Usually, specific education is needed to undergo the certification process and once certification has been obtained, there are very specific steps that need to be followed to be re-certified in the future.
Even though the population of Montana is just over one million (less than the population of some cities in the U.S.), crime can still occur there. In fact, the Billings Gazette includes a list of the state’s most wanted individuals who are sought by the United States Marshals Service Montana Violent Offender Task Force. From Billings to Bozeman, job opportunities could be available within law enforcement agencies or for other types of governmental organizations. One of the more prominent places to look for employment could be with the Montana Department of Justice State Crime Lab.
This lab is set up to have many different sections including in breath alcohol, drug chemistry, latent prints and impressions and serology/DNA. Accredited by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board since 2011, the lab is located in Missoula and is overseen by a director who has a PhD. In fact, a 2014 article for NBC Montana shows that the lab has a backlog of work — since it serves more than a hundred law enforcement agencies in the state. Other places to look for employment in Montana could include the:
Individuals can also offer their services as a consultant. However, every nine out of 10 forensic science technicians is employed by a state or local governmental agency, according to the BLS. Employment is typically found with coroner offices, crime laboratories, morgues, and police departments. The AAFS additionally reports that forensic scientists may find work with international organizations, private labs, as well as hospitals and universities.
There are several different undergraduate programs offered in the forensic sciences in Montana, but, unfortunately, none that are accredited through the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC), the accrediting branch of the AAFS. This accreditation may not be necessary to seeking employment, however, but could be preferred by some hiring agencies. Some forensic science options in Montana include:
Other alternatives for students in Montana include pursuing a bachelor’s degree in the natural sciences, such as biology or chemistry, and then completing a master’s degree in forensic science. Students looking for on-campus options at the graduate level may need to seek programs in nearby states or consider online graduate training.
Online education can be another way for students in Montana to seek CSI and forensic science studies. At the undergraduate level, many of the programs are available in criminal justice with a CSI focus while at the upper level, online degrees can be specifically found in forensic science. The AAFS also has a listing of undergraduate, graduate degrees and certificates programs that are available online.
Students may also discover more online educational opportunities by joining a specific forensic science organization, such as the AAFS. Continuing education is often an important part of learning and sometimes these resources are available online.
While FEPAC is the accrediting agency for forensic science programs, it does not accredit any programs within Montana. However, that does not mean that other programs are without value. Indeed, sometimes the accreditation process through FEPAC can take significant time, so another way that students can be assured they are enrolling in a quality program is to see whether it is regionally accredited. In Montana and several nearby states, regional accreditation is given through the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU). This accrediting organization is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and oversees accreditation at 162 institutions.
As mentioned previously, students may want to seek certification in their field. From fingerprint identification to crime scene reconstruction and bloodstain pattern analysis, a vast number of certifications are available. In some cases, these may prove helpful in obtaining a job or advancing in a career. Other options are to join an organization that can provide you with networking and advocacy opportunities. In addition to the AAFS, this can include statewide organizations such as the Montana Violent Crime Investigators Association or the Montana Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. Other entities to look into include the:
With some 12,900 people employed as forensic science technicians in the U.S., as of May 2012, joining one of these organizations can be helpful in many ways. Not only do they allow you to to meet new people, they can provide access to presentations and conferences, information on jobs and even updates on new advances in the field.