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Studying towards a career in forensic science may seem overwhelming at first. After all, there are many different types of career and just as many programs to consider. There are a number of forensic science programs in Washington that offer degrees in forensic science, as well as law enforcement training, and online certifications available.
There are different paths to take towards this exciting career, but each involves commitment to academics as well as hands-on training. The earlier you start down the path, the more likely you will be able to find employment down the line. Some forensic scientists even start their pursuit of the career as early as high school.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), top forensic scientists in Washington can make more than $80,000 per year (BLS, 2012). While those who are just starting out should not expect those types of salaries, it is certainly worth aspiring to.
In this article, you will learn the most popular pathways for becoming a forensic scientist as well a little bit about some of the available forensic science programs in beautiful Washington state.
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Becoming a forensic scientist in Washington requires hard work and perseverance. Like any career path, it also means taking the proper steps – from high school courses to professional certifications – in order to set yourself up for success. Unlike some more structured careers, such as medical doctors or nurses, there is no one path that leads to success as a forensic scientist. However, there are some common elements that are true for most of the people that go on to be employed in the field.
For those that are lucky enough to know what career they want to pursue in high school, it is possible to begin the forensic scientist pathway at that point. High school students should be sure to study and excel in hard science classes, such as chemistry, biology, and physics. It is also a good idea to pursue advanced level math classes, including calculus, and to study hard for college entrance exams. Although some forensic scientists do not have advanced degrees, with increasing competition in the field, a college education is quickly becoming a prerequisite. Currently, 46% of working forensic scientists have at least a bachelor’s degree while an additional 25% have at least some college.
Upon graduating high school, students should look to enroll in an undergraduate program at a local community college or university. Many colleges and universities do not offer degrees specifically geared toward forensic sciences, but a degree in chemistry or biology can be helpful in eventually obtaining employment. Indeed, the Washington State Patrol requires even entry level forensic scientists to have at minimum a bachelor’s degree in forensic or natural science.
There are also a few forensic focused programs in Washington specifically. Keep reading to learn more about those. Many forensic scientists also spend time completing internships with local agencies, such as the Washington State Patrol Forensic Laboratory Services, which offers services to Washington law enforcement as well as hands-on experience for forensic science students.
For those aspiring forensic scientists who want to pursue academia or research, graduate studies are also a good option. Students may choose to enroll in a master’s or doctoral program immediately following their undergraduate studies, or choose to work in the field for a few years before returning to school.
When a new forensic scientist is ready to leave the nest of education for the exciting world of full-time work in a crime lab, it is important to be prepared and to have the credentials that hiring managers want to see. One way forensic scientists do this is by specialization and certification. There is no legal requirement that forensic scientists be certified in the U.S., but many professional organizations do offer certification so that applicants can prove their expertise.
Some of the certifying organizations in the Pacific Northwest as well nationally include:
Specialization is also important for aspiring forensic scientists to consider. Although the term forensic science technician is used by the BLS to describe all manner of forensic scientists, the truth is that most usually work in a much more discrete profession, such as odontology, toxicology, questioned documents, or crime scene analysis. For a full list of the forensic specializations as certified by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, visit their student page.
Becoming a crime scene investigator (CSI) in Washington includes many milestones that are similar along the pathway to becoming a forensic scientist. However, the paths do diverge along the way to a career as a crime scene investigator who collects and analyzes evidence found at crime scenes.
After graduating from high school with a solid background in basic sciences, students who wish to pursue crime scene investigation should either look for undergraduate forensic science programs in Washington in something like criminology or criminal justice, or should join the law enforcement track.
Those who choose to enter law enforcement must complete basic training. In Washington state, this consists of a 720-hour curriculum that includes training in such diverse subjects as firearms, communication skills, and cultural awareness. Upon completing basic training, newly minted officers may be able to pursue crime scene investigation in conjunction with other law enforcement personnel and forensic scientists. For more information on the law enforcement training in Washington, visit the website for the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission.
Those prospective crime scene investigators who choose to go on to college will need to network with other professionals and ideally complete at least one internship during their time in school in order to gain employment as a CSI upon graduation.
The BLS classifies both forensic scientists and crime scene investigators as “forensic science technicians,” therefore the demand for both occupations is lumped together. In the entirety of the U.S., demand for forensic scientists is expected to grow by 6%, or 13,200 jobs through the year 2022 (BLS, 2012). In Washington, that growth rate is expected to be slightly slower, with a projected 4% growth over that same period, which amounts to 290 total jobs.
The median annual salary for a forensic science technician in the U.S. is $55,400. The expected salaries for forensic science technicians in Washington are:
Because forensic science is directly linked to crime, more jobs tend to be available in areas where more crime occurs, which is naturally more populated regions. Therefore, the highest job concentrations in Washington are likely to be in Seattle, which has a population of more than 600,000 and Spokane, which is home to more than 200,000.
Students wishing to pursue a forensic science degree in Washington have a few options, ranging from comprehensive 4-year forensic science degree programs to shorter CSI certifications.
The main accrediting body for forensic science programs is the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC). In order to obtain FEPAC accreditation, programs must subject themselves to a self-study in addition to a site visit in order to verify their facilities, faculty, and curricula.
Schools may also receive general accreditation for all programs from an accrediting body such as the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU). These agencies are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and such accreditation is important in establishing the value of a degree from that institution.
School data provided by IPEDS (2013), and includes all certificates and degrees awarded for the following programs: Arson Investigation, Computer Forensics, Forensic Accounting, Forensic Chemistry, Forensic Psychology, Forensic Science and Technology, and Law Enforcement Investigation