Rachel Drummond, MEd
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 by 1,040 percent from 2013 to 2019 (CDC 2021). Preventing the opioid crisis from growing worse requires accurate autopsy reports, thus 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.
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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 2023) predicts that jobs for forensic science technicians (a related field) will grow by 13 percent between 2022 and 2032. Job-seekers should consider the overlap between the forensic toxicologist positions and clinical laboratory technologists and technicians, an occupation expected to grow 5 percent over the same period (BLS 2023). Both jobs are growing faster than the national average for all occupations (3 percent). An estimated 2,300 new forensic science positions will be needed in the coming decade compared to 16,800 new clinical laboratory technologists.
With a bachelor’s degree, forensic toxicologists can earn salaries above the national average for all occupations, which is $61,900 (BLS May 2022). In 2022, the BLS shows forensic science technicians earn a median salary of $69,260. This amount varies based on factors such as education and experience, with the lowest 10 percent earning less than $39,710 and the highest 10 percent earning more than $104,330 (BLS May 2022).
How much a forensic toxicologist earns depends on factors such as the type of industry and the cost of living in a particular area. Here are the top-paying industries for forensic science technicians (BLS May 2022):
The 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 2022):
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 September 2023, four of the five 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 (2023), which collects self-reported data, reports the average base salary for forensic toxicologists is $75,463. The bottom 10 percent of forensic toxicologists earn $44,000, and the top 10 percent earn $106,000 per year based on 22 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 2022 to 2033.
According to the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), the three sub-disciplines of forensic toxicology include:
Each of these specializations will require different career paths, but 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 in 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 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.
At a minimum, forensic toxicologists should expect to earn a bachelor’s degree in science, such as chemistry, biology, or biochemistry. While a specific degree in forensic toxicology is not required, applicable coursework should include:
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.
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 any hands-on work experience, such as internships, to build a resume and make professional connections with local labs.
Arizona State University offers an online forensic science bachelor’s 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.
Liberty University offers an on-campus FEPAC-accredited bachelor of science program in forensic science, combining the disciplines of chemistry, criminal justice, and biology into one degree. Students will gain an understanding of the law as well as the DNA analytics and scientific procedures needed for making accurate convictions.
Students in this 120-credit program can transfer up to 75 percent of their total degree. The curriculum includes courses such as general biology; genetics; microbiology; clinical human anatomy; forensic DNA analysis; forensic entomology; trace evidence; criminal investigations; and analytical chemistry.
Graduates will be able to take up roles such as forensic toxicologists, evidence technicians, criminalists, criminal investigators, forensic entomologists, forensic quality assurance specialists, and microbiologists, among many such roles.
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 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; general toxicology; drug biotransformations & molecular mechanisms of toxicity; toxic substances; applied statistics for data analysis; literature survey of 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.
Oklahoma State University offers a hybrid master of science in forensic science with a concentration in forensic chemistry/toxicology ideal for students pursuing careers such as forensic chemists, forensic toxicologists, or instructors. Offering a strong background in forensic sciences and specialized courses in forensic toxicology and chemistry, this program requires a minimum of 30 credits for the thesis option and 32 for the non-thesis option and may be completed full-time or part-time. Courses in the first year may be taken online or on campus, while the second year includes laboratory and research courses that must be taken on campus.
The curriculum includes courses such as methods in forensic sciences; forensic pathology and medicine; forensic bioscience; forensic toxicology; drug toxicity; advanced forensic toxicology; and criminalistics and evidence analysis.
Stevenson University offers an online master of forensic science program. This program is ideal for working professionals who wish to learn the technology, instrumentation, and pertinent law used for collecting evidence for presentation in a court of law. Through Stevenson’s relationship with the U.S. Secret Service Lab, the Baltimore County Crime Lab, and the Maryland State Police Forensic Sciences Division, students will receive training from the top experts in the field.
Students in this program can select from two available concentration options based on their career aspirations and personal interests: Biology or Chemistry. Some of the courses in the curriculum include physical evidence at crime scenes; safety/quality control/quality assurance; serology & immunology; trace evidence; toxicology; crime scene investigation; and DNA analysis.
Graduates will be ready for positions such as forensic toxicologists, forensic DNA analysts, forensic chemists, forensic latent print examiners, and crime scene investigators.
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:
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.
Here is a list of resources for current and aspiring forensic toxicologists to learn more about certifications, accredited degree programs, current job openings, and professional development opportunities.
Rachel Drummond, MEd
Rachel Drummond has given her writing expertise to ForensicsColleges.com since 2019, where she provides a unique perspective on the intersection of education, mindfulness, and the forensic sciences. Her work encourages those in the field to consider the role of mental and physical well-being in their professional success.
Rachel is a writer, educator, and coach from Oregon. She has a master’s degree in education (MEd) and has over 15 years of experience teaching English, public speaking, and mindfulness to international audiences in the United States, Japan, and Spain. She writes about the mind-body benefits of contemplative movement practices like yoga on her blog, inviting people to prioritize their unique version of well-being and empowering everyone to live healthier and more balanced lives.