How to Become a Forensic Toxicologist – Education & Certification

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Before Covid-19, the United States was already in the thick of a different public health crisis: polysubstance overdose. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identify this as exposure to more than one drug, with or without the person’s knowledge. This usually results in death by drug overdose from a combination of illegally manufactured fentanyl, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, and prescription opioids.

Tragically, overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids increased 1,040 percent from 2013 to 2019 (CDC 2021). To prevent the opioid crisis from growing worse requires accurate autopsy reports, forensic toxicologists are in high demand.

Forensic toxicologists work in government or law enforcement laboratories to identify chemicals and compounds that may have contributed to overdose deaths or committed crimes. Daily responsibilities in forensic toxicology include identifying illicit substances and determining if the victims died of a self-induced overdose or foul play. Other tasks are performing administrative drug testing or identifying hazardous chemicals in indoor or outdoor environments.

Forensic toxicologists work primarily in labs with small biological samples obtained from deceased persons. They may work closely with forensic pathologists, law enforcement, or prosecutors to determine the impact of their findings on legal proceedings. However, toxicologists who primarily conduct drug tests may have different contacts and little to no contact with the legal system.

Becoming a forensic toxicologist requires a strong background in natural science and the scientific method, obsessive attention to detail, compassion for victims and their loved ones, and a desire to add objective evidence to inform law enforcement and public health agencies.

To learn more about becoming a forensic toxicologist, read on to discover education pathways and career outlooks for this interdisciplinary job that serves the public through the scientific method.

Outlook for the Forensic Toxicologist Career

The forensic toxicology career is a specialized field and as such, there is not a lot of available data specific only to this job. However, it is possible to look at the data for related positions to get an accurate career outlook for this profession.

For instance, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2021) predicts that jobs for forensic science technicians (a related field) will grow by 16 percent between 2020 and 2030. Job-seekers should keep in mind the overlap between the forensic toxicologist positions and clinical laboratory technologists and technicians, an occupation expected to grow 11 percent over the same period (BLS 2021). Both jobs are growing faster than the national average for all occupations (8 percent). An estimated 2,700 new forensic science positions will be needed in the coming decade compared to 36,500 new clinical laboratory technologists.

Forensic Toxicologist Salary

With a bachelor’s degree, forensic toxicologists can earn salaries above the national average for all occupations which is $56,310 (BLS May 2020). In 2021, the BLS shows forensic science technicians earn median salaries of $60,590. This amount varies based on factors such as education and experience with the lowest 10 percent earning less than $36,630 and the highest 10 percent earning more than $100,910 (BLS May 2020).

How much a forensic toxicologist earns depends on factors such as the type of industry and cost of living in a particular area. Here are the top-paying industries for forensic science technicians (BLS May 2020):

  • Federal Executive Branch: $120,790
  • General Medical and Surgical Hospitals: $75,720
  • Architectural, Engineering, and Related Services: $66,040
  • Local Government: $65,840
  • State Government: $64,770

Cost of living is another factor that influences salaries. The BLS shows the top-paying states for forensic science technicians are as follows (BLS May 2020):

  • California: $88,090
  • Illinois: $85,690
  • Massachusetts: $79,200
  • Oregon: $76,970
  • Alaska: $74,100

When researching jobs, it’s important to know how much it costs to live in a place when negotiating salary. To help with this, the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC) publishes a quarterly cost of living index. As of January 2022, four of the top-paying states are on MERIC’s top ten most expensive states to live, which is an important factor to consider when considering whether or not to take a job.

To pinpoint forensic toxicology salaries more accurately, PayScale (2022), which collects self-reported data, reports the average base salary for forensic toxicologists is $77,303. The bottom 10 percent of forensic toxicologists earn $46,000 and the top 10 percent earn $101,000 per year based on 23 reported salaries.

While a larger sample of salary data is not available for forensic toxicologists, it is clear that growth is highly probable in the forensic science field from 2020 to 2030.

Forensic Toxicologist Specialties

According to the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), the three sub-disciplines of forensic toxicology include:

  • Death Investigation (or Postmortem) Forensic Toxicology
  • Human Performance Toxicology
  • Forensic Drug Testing

Each of these specializations will require different career paths, but overall the pursuit of any of these involves similar steps as listed below.

Some forensic toxicologists, particularly those with advanced degrees, may pursue another specialty before entering the forensic toxicology profession. These toxicologists may begin their careers in other chemistry or biological laboratories, including medicinal chemistry, pharmacology, or clinical chemistry. These experiences can be valuable in learning the importance of correct methodology and proper lab procedures.

Although largely lab-based, there is still some variety to the setting where a forensic toxicologist might work. For example, law enforcement or government laboratories are common, but toxicologists may also be employed in the private sector in locations such as industrial labs, hospitals, or universities.

Indeed, as with many advanced professions, forensic toxicologists may also choose to go on and pursue experience in academia, either concurrent with their laboratory work or as a second career. Forensic toxicologist professors can teach at many levels throughout higher education and are also encouraged to pursue their research and publication, which can be a great way to advance the forensic toxicologist career beyond the test tube.

Education & Licensing Requirements for a Forensic Toxicologist

At a minimum, forensic toxicologists should expect to earn a bachelor’s degree in a science, such as chemistry, biology, or biochemistry. While a specific degree in forensic toxicology is not required, applicable coursework should include:

  • Toxicology
  • Pharmacology
  • Chemistry

There is also no legal requirement for certification in this field. However, those that earn an advanced degree can apply for certification through the American Board of Forensic Toxicology (ABFT), as outlined below.

Steps to Become a Forensic Toxicologist

Following are some of the most common steps that forensic toxicologists follow to begin and advance in their careers:

Step 1: Graduate high school – A high school diploma or GED are prerequisites to applying for an undergraduate degree program. High school students who want to pursue this particular career should be sure to excel in lab sciences like chemistry and biology.

Step 2: Pursue an undergraduate degree (two to four years) – While it is possible to find work as a laboratory assistant with a two-year associate’s degree, those who want to do the toxicology work themselves should be prepared to complete a bachelor’s degree.

As mentioned above, a forensic toxicology major is not required (indeed, there are few of these programs available). Still, students should be sure to become very familiar with laboratory procedures and advanced chemistry, at minimum.

Undergraduates should also seek out any hands-on work experience, such as internships, to begin building a resume and making professional connections with local labs.

Arizona State University offers an online forensic science degree that combines classroom learning with hands-on crime investigation experience. This 120-credit program includes 40 classes which are 7.5 weeks in length. Classes include the history of genocide, fundamentals of genetics, general organic chemistry, and principles of forensic science.

With multiple start dates throughout the year, students can apply and if accepted, enroll in the program at their convenience. Graduates from this program go on to become forensic scientists in law enforcement, private industry, and public research facilities.

  • Location: Phoenix, AZ
  • Duration: Four years
  • Tuition: $628 per credit
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC)

Step 3: Seek entry-level experience (timeline varies) – Recent graduates can seek work in a toxicology lab with a completed undergraduate degree. According to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS), hands-on experience is the most essential way to further one’s career as a forensic toxicologist. Classroom training provides a foundation for the career, but this challenging profession has many intricacies that can only truly be learned in a working laboratory.

Step 4: Consider an advanced degree or certificate (one to two years) – After developing some necessary skills in a toxicology lab, some toxicologists go on to seek advanced training in the form of a graduate certificate or master of science (MS) degree.

The University of Florida offers an online MS in forensic toxicology program focused on advanced principles including drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics. This program is designed for those currently employed or wanting to change careers and work in crime laboratories and medical examiner’s offices.

Courses include forensic toxicology and principles of mammalian pharmacology. A segment of forensic toxicologists also go on to complete PhDs (which can take three years or more), typically to work in academia.

  • Location: Gainesville, FL
  • Duration: Two years
  • Tuition: $552.60 per credit
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)

Step 5: Apply for professional certification (timeline varies) – The American Board of Forensic Toxicology (ABFT) offers four different certification options for those in the career. These certifications require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and at least three years of full-time professional experience in a forensic toxicology lab, including at least one year immediately before applying for certification. The certifications include:

  • Diplomate Forensic Toxicology
  • Diplomate Forensic Alcohol Toxicology
  • Diplomate Forensic Drug Toxicology
  • Fellow Forensic Toxicology

To become an ABFT fellow, students must have completed a doctoral-level program, formal coursework, and documented training.

It should be noted that there is no federal or state requirement for forensic toxicology certification. Instead, earning one of these certifications can help open up new career opportunities and help toxicologists demand higher salaries.

Forensic Toxicology Resources

To learn more about certifications, accredited degree programs, current job openings, and professional development opportunities, here is a list of resources for current and aspiring forensic toxicologists.

  • American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS)
  • American Board of Forensic Toxicology (ABFT)
  • National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST)
  • Society of Forensic Toxicologists (SFT)
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Rachel Drummond

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).