The explosive popularity of early 2000s crime TV shows like Law & Order and CSI marked the beginning of today’s cultural fascination with the field of forensics. Since then, a wave of documentary series and podcasts like Making a Murderer and Serial, in which experts dive deep into the forensics of crimes, have continued to feed our society’s endless fascination with the science of solving the darkest mysteries.
As a result, there has been heightened interest from prospective students in becoming forensic science technicians. These specialists, which we often see portrayed in our favorite courtroom dramas, help detectives gain the crucial evidence needed to administer justice and bring much-needed peace to the families of crime victims.
The constant innovations being made in science and technology that increase forensic teams’ abilities to solve crimes—even cases that have long gone cold—also make it an exciting area of work. It’s no wonder why so many students are interested in a career in this fascinating and altruistic field.
To the untrained eye, it seems there are as many position titles in forensic science as there are TV shows. To clarify the position titles, it’s helpful to think about forensic science as two distinct fields wrapped into one: criminal justice and forensics. Both fields share titles of technicians and investigators and typically crime scene or forensic investigators have more experience and education compared to technicians.
As the name suggests, a crime scene technician or investigator is a professional who collects crime scene evidence in a clean way that doesn’t compromise its validity. A forensic science technician is responsible for testing collected evidence once it reaches the laboratory. Forensic science technicians may be responsible only for testing, but may also be called to be an expert witness in a courtroom. These roles are typically reserved for forensic investigators, but in the case of limited government funding, a technician may step into this role.
While the media presents a tantalizing portrait of life as a forensic science technician, there are some aspects to consider before diving headfirst into this line of work. Discover how to pursue a career as a forensic science technician below.
The profession dates back long before “true crime” became a popular genre within entertainment media. Today’s most fundamental practices within forensic science, such as fingerprinting and firearm examination (i.e., the ability to connect a specific bullet found at a crime scene to the specific gun it was fired from) actually date back to the 1800s. These methods are still widely revered and frequently used as evidence in courtrooms to this day.
Forensic science technicians have a regular presence at crime scenes, aiding in the process of criminal investigations under a crime scene leader or field supervisor. The role involves helping to collect, document, and analyze evidence and submitting it to the crime laboratory. Technicians are also known to assist supervisors with planning the process of organizing and properly storing evidence while adhering to government policies and laws.
Here are some of the main tasks that forensic science technicians are expected to perform in their day-to-day work lives:
Not surprisingly, a propensity for math and science is necessary, as technicians need a strong comprehension of statistics as well as natural sciences in order to analyze evidence.
A forensic science technician should also have a strong sense of curiosity and be naturally detail-oriented. Due to the nature of the job, technicians should be prepared to handle the implications of working around crime scenes, the emotional burden of which should not be underestimated. These skills can be developed with time. These professionals are also expected to spend hours on end both at the crime scenes and in the lab ensuring that all relevant evidence is carefully collected and properly analyzed.
In addition to strong technical skills, proficient technicians should also have written and verbal communication skills, as they are expected to create detailed written reports conveying scientific information in layman’s terms to police, lawyers, and juries. This is why soft skills like public speaking are arguably as important as the hard science and math skills needed to succeed in this profession.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2019), forensic science technicians make a median of $59,150 per year or about $30 per hour. The lower end of the range (10th percentile) starts at about $35,620 per year, or $17.13 per hour, while salaries on the higher end (90th percentile) reach more than $97,000 per year, or about $47 hourly. Most salaries fall within the $45,000 to $77,000 range.
Since crime rates are usually higher in large cities, the demand for forensic science technicians is higher in urban areas than in more rural ones.
Between 2019 to 2029, the availability of forensic science technician jobs is expected to grow faster than the 4 percent national average for all jobs; in fact, opportunities nationwide are expected to swell 14 percent, generating 2,400 new positions in the U.S.
The BLS also reports that while you can be hired with just a bachelor’s degree in the natural sciences (e.g., chemistry, physics, biology, etc.), many applicants have earned a master’s degree in forensic science to differentiate themselves from other candidates and earn higher starting salaries.
Internships also can help set aspiring forensic science technicians apart from the crowd by providing experience working at real crime scenes, which is a huge asset to potential employers—especially for applicants pursuing jobs as technicians without master’s-level credentials.
Here are the steps to take if you are interested in pursuing a career in this field:
Step 1: Earn a bachelor’s degree in a natural or forensic science (four years).
An undergraduate degree is required to become a forensic science tech. The major can be in biology, chemistry, criminal justice, physics, or even law.
Alternatively, aspiring techs can choose an undergraduate degree program specifically in forensic science. Some universities, like Texas A&M University, Pennsylvania State University, the University of California at Irvine, and Columbia College offer bachelor’s programs specific to forensic science. Check out this site’s forensics programs state pages to search for a specific program.
Also, the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC) provides a list of schools with accredited degree programs in forensic science so that you can find a program in your desired location.
The benefit of pursuing a bachelor’s degree in forensic science (as opposed to natural science) is that students are often able to focus their undergraduate degree on a specific area of forensics, such as DNA, trace evidence, or ballistics. Specializing can make you a more desirable candidate with higher earning potential.
Step 2: Secure an internship (one year or more, optional).
At some point, many aspiring techs opt to secure an internship to gain real-world experience. Usually, this step is pursued during or after earning a bachelor’s degree.
Internships can be highly competitive, so you may want to consider contacting local police departments and agencies independently to see if you can negotiate your own internship.
Step 3: Earn a master’s degree in forensic science (two years, optional).
Some examples of relevant master’s degrees include a master of science in forensic science, master of science in criminalistics, master of science in forensic biology and master of science in biomedical forensic science.
Step 4: Apply for certifications (timeline varies, optional).
As a final note, there is a wide variety of certifications available to forensics professionals. These include the following:
Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. Rachel writes about meditation, yoga, coaching, and more on her blog (Instagram: @racheldrummondyoga).