Forensic toxicologists work in laboratories, often those operated by government agencies or law enforcement, to identify chemicals and compounds that could have contributed to crimes or have other administrative or legal consequences. This can include identifying illicit substances in bodies that may have been the victims of foul play, performing administrative drug testing, or identifying hazardous chemicals in the environment.
Forensic toxicologists work primarily in labs with small biological samples, most often obtained from people who have passed away (except in the case of drug testing). 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 will have different contacts and little to no contact with the legal system.
Becoming a forensic toxicologist requires a strong background in science and the scientific method, as well as obsessive attention to detail and desire to solve mysteries utilizing science. There are a few paths that interested students can follow in order to learn forensic toxicology and be hired to a toxicology lab position.
The forensic toxicology career is quite specialized and as such, there is not a lot of available data that is specific only to this job. However, it is possible to look at the data for related positions and get a good idea as to the outlook for this profession.
For instance, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2019) predicts that the forensic science technician profession, which includes forensic toxicologists, will grow by 14 percent between 2018 and 2028. There is also overlap between the forensic toxicologist position and medical and clinical laboratory technologists and technicians, a profession that is expected to grow 11 percent over the same period.
As far as salary, limited data is available from Payscale.com, which collects self-reported data from forensic toxicologists. Payscale (2020) reports that the median pay for forensic toxicologists is $72,208 with the bottom 10 percent earning $50,088 and the top 10 percent earning $80,000 per year. The Payscale data was collected from 45 forensic toxicologists.
While highly reliable data is not available for this particular specialty, it is clear that there will likely be growth in the forensic toxicology field over the next ten years. For a better idea of the types of jobs currently available, interested students can peruse the job listings for the Society of Forensic Toxicologists.
According to the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), the four disciplines of forensic toxicology include:
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 choose to 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. Law enforcement or government laboratories are quite common, but toxicologists may also be employed in the private sector in settings 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 own 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 a hard 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 are able to 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:
The certifications include:
To become an ABFT fellow, students must have completed a doctoral-level program as well as formal coursework and/or documented training.
It should be noted that there is no federal or state requirement for forensic toxicology certification. Rather, earning one of these certifications can help open up new career opportunities and may help toxicologists demand higher salaries.
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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).