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.
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 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. They are expected to create detailed 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 2020), forensic science technicians make a median of $60,590 per year or about $29.13 per hour. The lower end of the range starts at about $36,630 per year, or $17.61 per hour, while salaries on the higher end reach more than $100,910 per year or about $48.51 hourly.
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 2020 to 2030, the availability of forensic science technician jobs is expected to grow faster than the 8 percent national average for all jobs; in fact, opportunities nationwide are expected to swell 16 percent, generating 2,700 new positions across the country (BLS 2021).
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 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 John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 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.
The Pennsylvania State University’ Eberly College of Science offers an on-campus bachelor of science degree in forensic science providing students with a strong scientific foundation and general criminalistics education allowing them to individualize their experience towards a specific degree and career goals. Students will have the option to choose from two emphases: chemistry and biology.
Students in this program will utilize state-of-the-art instrumentation for analyzing materials as part of their laboratory exercises. They will learn about collecting evidence at the crime scene, analyzing it in the laboratory, and presenting it in courts of law. The program is ideal for students who are interested in utilizing their scientific knowledge for helping solve complex problems concerning criminal, homeland security, and civil issues.
Made up of 124 to 126 credits, the program includes courses such as chemical principles; experimental chemistry; organic chemistry; introduction to forensic science; essential practices of forensic science; a scientific approach to crime scene investigation; and introduction to biostatistics.
Graduates of this program will be ready to pursue opportunities as scientists in state, private, and federal forensic laboratories or with homeland security agencies, insurance companies, or the judicial community. They may also choose to pursue advanced degrees in forensic science, psychology, medicine, pathology, anthropology, entomology, odontology, law, toxicology, or in the general sciences.
Columbia College offers a bachelor of science in a forensic science program that brings together the disciplines of chemistry, biology, criminal justice, and law, preparing students for a rewarding career in this fast-growing and exciting field. The faculty of the program includes well-respected experts who help students in building necessary skills and real-world experience to work in crime laboratories in the field.
Students in this 120-credit program can choose to specialize in either biology or chemistry. The curriculum includes courses such as principles of biology; statistics for the behavioral and natural sciences; organic chemistry; introduction to forensic science; professional issues in forensic science; laws of criminal evidence; and expert and scientific evidence.
Graduates will have the required knowledge and skills needed for gathering and analyzing forensic samples and evidence to find out minor details about a crime and how it occurred. They will be ready to take roles such as forensic chemists, forensic toxicologists, crime scene technicians, forensic anthropologists, and medicolegal death investigators.
John Jay College of Criminal Justice offers a bachelor of science program in forensic science providing professional and academic training to students who wish to work in forensic science laboratories, or who plan to pursue careers as teachers, medical professionals, or research scientists. Students in this program can choose to specialize in one of the three available tracks: molecular biology, toxicology, or criminalistics.
Consisting of 120 credits, the curriculum explores coursework in modern biology; general chemistry; organic chemistry; biochemistry; an introduction to criminalistics for forensic science majors; toxicology of environmental and industrial agents; and genetics.
Graduates will be able to gather and interpret scientific data, acquire broad fundamental theories, principles, and concepts in biological and physical sciences, draw scientific conclusions from experimental and evidence data, and acquire practical research and hands-on laboratory skills for solving complex cases.
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).
A forensic science master’s degree is for those students who already have a strong forensic science or natural sciences background through an undergraduate degree program. These master’s degrees provide students with the opportunity to focus their careers on a specific forensic science area, while also helping them in advancing their careers.
Some examples of relevant master’s degrees include a master of science in forensic science, a master of science in criminalistics, a master of science in forensic biology, and a master of science in biomedical forensic science.
The University of Florida (online)
University of Florida’s master’s degree in forensic science offers four specialized concentrations:
These programs can be completed entirely online allowing working professionals to work within their busy schedules at their own pace.
The MS in forensic science, in particular, is made up of 18 credits of required courses and 14 credits of electives. This concentration may be ideal for those who are currently working in or are seeking employment in crime laboratories, police departments, prosecution attorneys’ offices, criminal defense firms, pharmaceutical companies, hospital & clinical chemistry labs, or high school science programs.
The curriculum of this program includes courses such as biological evidence and serology; principles of forensic science; forensic toxicology; applied statistics for data analysis; principles of nucleotide activity; and crime scene investigation, among others.
Upon successful completion, graduates will earn an MS in pharmacy with a major in pharmaceutical sciences and a concentration in forensic science issued by the Graduate School of the University of Florida.
Arcadia University offers a master of science in forensic science (MSFS) degree program in partnership with the Center for Forensic Science Research & Education (CFSRE) and in collaboration with NMS Labs. Combining classroom lectures with hands-on laboratory training, the program primarily focuses on the fields of chemistry, forensic biology, trace evidence analysis, and toxicology.
The program also offers a guaranteed internship opportunity at the Center for Forensic Science Research & Education. This comprehensive, highly desirable, and intensive twelve-week internship program provides students with valuable real-world experience and career preparation.
Admission requirements to the program include a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution with a grade point average of 3.0 or better, one official transcript from each college or university attended, three letters of recommendation, GRE or MCAT scores (waiver available), and TOEFL or IELTS test scores for international students. Applicants must have completed at least two semesters of general chemistry, organic chemistry, and general biology with laboratories.
The program consists of 66 to 72 credits including courses such as crime scene investigation and reconstruction; forensic pattern analysis; statistical analysis and biostatistics; forensic serology; forensic microscopy; forensic chemistry; forensic toxicology, and molecular biology.
Additionally, Arcadia University also has a Crime Scene House (CSH), a multi-use facility managed by the forensic science program. This facility provides realistic hands-on training to both graduate and undergraduate students studying criminal justice and forensic science.
The University of California’s master of science in forensic science program provides students with high-quality instruction and hands-on training in crime laboratory methodologies and forensic science techniques. Training students in modern forensics, this program incorporates research and coursework components to provide students with the most valuable training and education necessary for forensic science careers.
In addition to the core curriculum, the program includes two academic emphases: Forensic Criminalistics and Forensic DNA. Both these tracks include a different set of courses providing in-depth education within the specialty. The track on forensic criminalistics focuses on instrumental analysis and chemistry, while the forensic DNA track emphasizes DNA courses and molecular biology.
The program comprises 54 credits including coursework in forensic science fundamentals; homicide crime scene investigation; forensic case reports; molecular techniques; forensic DNA analysis; forensic statistics; and advanced spectroscopy.
The major admission requirements for the program include a bachelor’s degree (B.A. or B.S.) in a natural or physical science field from an accredited college or university, a minimum grade point average of 3.0, and TOEFL or IELTS scores demonstrating English language proficiency for international students.
Graduates of this program can take up roles such as DNA examiners, forensic anthropologists, laboratory managers, quality assurance managers, criminalist serologists, and forensic toxicologists.
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).