Crime scene technicians, also known as crime scene investigators, forensic science technicians, or crime scene analysts, have inspired many popular television programs such as CSI and Dexter. They have popularized terms such as biometrics, blood spatter analysis, toxicology, and ballistics, and have inspired many people to enter this competitive field. Crime scene technicians serve an invaluable function to society in helping to solve often grisly crimes.
Some say that the rapidly advancing technology behind crime scene investigation (CSI) has made the field a victim of its own success; even the briefest contact with an innocent individual’s DNA—the genetic fingerprint found in blood, saliva, hair, skin cells, and more—can contaminate a crime scene and confuse investigators.
That said, the incredible innovations in the field have been largely positive, helping law enforcement secure the evidence they need to put criminals behind bars through specimen collection, laboratory analysis, and careful documentation.
So what exactly do CSIs do? And what are some of the groundbreaking techniques that allow these professionals to help build legal cases?
According to the International Crime Scene Investigators Association (ICSIA), CSIs have a range of responsibilities such as collecting evidence (e.g., fingerprints, footwear impressions, biological samples, fibers, trace chemicals, firearms, etc.); meticulously documenting (e.g., photographing, sketching) and processing evidence; attending autopsies and investigating causes of death; liaising with law enforcement, criminal investigators, laboratory workers, pathologists, lawyers, and other medical and legal professionals; and keeping abreast of the latest techniques in the field.
While some CSIs work in law enforcement and specialize in the sensitive work of evidence collection and analysis, others are civilians. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) adds that forensic science technicians, already noted as a career closely related to crime scene investigation, are detail-oriented, communicative, and flexible with scheduling as the need for delicate evidence retrieval and analyses can occur at any time. Much of the training may occur on the job, although some cross-disciplinary CSIs who perform laboratory work may hold advanced training (e.g., bachelor’s degrees) in biology, chemistry, or other natural sciences.
In addition to obvious tactics such as DNA, fingerprint, and ballistics analysis, CSIs may also use techniques and technologies such as luminol, a fine powder that temporarily glows blue when it comes into contact with hemoglobin, one of the main components of blood. Although luminol is prone to false positives in the presence of certain compounds (e.g. urine, horseradish) and may alter DNA samples, it still can be a useful way to detect blood that’s been rigorously washed out of materials, even years later.
While this occupation is not for the faint of heart, it does allow people to work beyond the confines of a cubicle and employ rigorous problem-solving skills in a real-world context.
Read on to learn more about becoming a CSI, including typical job responsibilities, salary ranges, education, and professional certification.
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For crime scene technicians, it pays to have a strong stomach and a sense of adventure. These trained professionals apply scientific principles and the latest technologies in their quest for justice. According to the May 2021 Occupational Outlook Handbook from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, several other abilities lend themselves to becoming a crime scene technician:
These skills and personality traits are also recommended among closely related professions such as forensic investigators, crime scene investigators, criminalists, criminalistic officers, and evidence technicians. There is substantial overlap in the job responsibilities as well, which are detailed below.
The BLS (2022) reports that crime scene technicians typically have extensive on-the-job training before they are assigned to work cases independently or testify in court. They normally work under the purview of more experienced crime scene technicians, investigators, and law enforcement professionals to learn the laboratory specialties and reporting methods. They may be required to complete proficiency exams or seek approval from an accrediting body for certain subfields of crime scene investigations.
The responsibilities of a crime scene technician can include:
A majority of forensic science technicians work in state and local government in police departments, laboratories, morgues, and coroner offices. They can anticipate working in an office, a lab, in the field, or all three. They may even be expected to travel throughout their jurisdiction to reach crime scenes.
Crime scene technicians who specialize in fieldwork can be expected to work varying schedules, including nights and overtime, depending on when crimes occur. Those who specialize in lab analyses normally work a standard workweek.
Although there are varied paths to becoming a crime scene investigator, they typically involve a mix of rigorous coursework and empirical (i.e., on-the-job) training either through a law enforcement agency or various internships at companies, laboratories, and other forensic facilities.
Here is one common path to joining this exciting career on the rise:
Step 1: Graduate from high school (four years). Both police-trained and civilian CSI candidates typically possess a high school diploma. Aspiring CSIs at this stage may find it useful to explore various volunteer programs in criminal investigations across the country.
For example, Point Park University in Pittsburgh offers a CSI summer camp to secondary school students involving valuable laboratory and criminal justice training.
CSI Arizona hosts a forensic science competition for interested high school and middle school students and CSI training in crime scene analysis, gathering evidence, and presenting findings. Interested young adults are encouraged to check with their local police departments, civic organizations, and colleges to see available opportunities.
Step 2: Enroll in a law enforcement academy or pursue a college degree in CSI (two to four years). At this phase, there are two typical paths for aspiring CSIs. First, they can choose to enroll in a law enforcement academy and receive specialized CSI training in the field. Prerequisites for joining police forces typically include being an American citizen; being at least 18 years old; possessing a driver’s license; and having no felony (or serious misdemeanor) convictions on one’s record.
Alternatively, aspiring CSIs can choose to enroll in a two- to four-year college program in criminal justice, forensics, biology, chemistry, natural sciences, or a related field.
Some law enforcement training programs may even be offered in conjunction with a local college, such as the one at Michigan’s Macomb Community College. This two-year associate of applied science (AAS) program in law enforcement includes training in criminal law, investigations, computer-related crimes, laboratory techniques, terrorism, loss prevention, evidence gathering, juvenile issues, and more.
Also, Macomb prepares its students to sit for state certification exams for new police officers, and the credits are transferable to bachelor’s programs at many colleges and universities across the state.
Made up of 63 credits, the program includes courses such as criminal justice; current issues in policing; introductory psychology; the police function; analysis of terrorism; delinquency prevention & control; crime scene investigation (CSI); evidence & criminal procedures; principles of loss prevention; and crime causation, among others.
Notably, the college also offers a 30-credit certificate in law enforcement.
Another notable program is at the University of Baltimore which provides a one-year certificate in CSI. Designed for both working CSIs seeking academic credentials and beginners to the field alike, this program comprises four courses: two in crime scene investigation (introductory and advanced), as well as training in forensic photography and moot court & trial advocacy for forensics. The program comprises 12 credits.
Graduates will be able to protect and secure crime scenes, fully document a crime scene using photography and text, record and collect evidence, and present and defend the findings of an investigation within a legal framework, either in courts or in a deposition.
Palm Beach State College of Lake Worth, FL offers an associate of science (AS) degree and a certificate in crime scene technology. Students will learn about properly collecting and preserving physical evidence, photographing crime scenes, and reconstructing crime scenes and vehicle accidents. Graduates can find employment as crime scene technologists, evidence technicians, medical examiners, investigators, medical investigators, insurance investigators, or forensic paralegals.
The associate’s degree consists of 64 credits, while the certificate comprises 28 credits. The curriculum includes courses such as introduction to criminology; criminal psychology; police administration; injury and death investigation; advanced crime scene technology; crime scene photography; fingerprint classification; courtroom presentation of scientific evidence; and biological evidence.
Nashville State Community College
Nashville State Community College has a two-year associate of applied science (AAS) degree in law enforcement with two distinct concentrations: police administration and crime scene investigation. Students will develop the knowledge and skills for seeking employment in the criminal justice field, including private security, crime scene investigation, and law enforcement. The program will provide them with the training and education needed for entry-level personnel and advancement opportunities.
Made up of 61 credits, the program’s core courses include an introduction to criminal justice; an introduction to the legal process; criminal investigation; an introduction to law enforcement; and an introduction to corrections. The police administration concentration includes courses such as criminal evidence & procedure; physical defensive tactics; police firearms; and drug identification & effects, among others. Courses in the crime scene investigation concentration include investigative photography; latent fingerprint development; evidence photography; bloodstain evidence; and basic fingerprint & ID.
Finally, for ambitious students seeking a four-year degree, Liberty University has a convenient online bachelor of science (BS) program in criminal justice focusing on CSI. Through this online program, students will study both analytical and scientific aspects of forensics. Additionally, they will analyze past criminal cases and learn how to collect, identify, record, preserve, analyze, and process all forms of evidence. They will also learn about capturing the crime scene through digital photography.
The program comprises 120 credits, including instruction in criminal justice research & writing; criminal justice report writing; juvenile justice; corrections; judicial process; criminology; criminal justice ethics; criminal law; criminal investigations; and terrorism.
Graduates will be ready to take up roles such as crime scene investigators, crime scene technicians, criminalists, forensic analysts, and forensic project coordinators.
Some students may even explore internships to hone their CSI skills at this stage. Some of the most rigorous (and competitive) options offering world-class forensic training include the Central Intelligence Agency Internship Program; the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center Internship Programs; and the United States Secret Service Internships.
For more information on college CSI programs, check out the online forensics programs and CSI colleges pages.
Step 3: Obtain professional certification and join associations (timeline varies). Once an aspiring CSI has some formal academic and on-the-job training, they may consider pursuing a professional certification that can enhance their employment prospects. Please note that qualifications for becoming a CSI will also vary by state and law enforcement entity.
Overall, in most states, there is no legal licensing or educational requirement to work as a crime scene investigator. The one notable exception to this fact is the state of Indiana. Indiana Law Enforcement Agency (ILEA) has certified its CSIs, requiring a minimum standard of training and experience and passing an exam.
Even in states where certification is not required, many CSIs do choose to pursue certifications through various agencies for professional advancement. For example, the International Association for Identification (IAI) provides four main certifications in CSI: crime scene investigator, crime scene analyst, senior crime scene analyst, and crime scene reconstructionist. These are offered to individuals with between 48 and 144 hours of formal instruction in the field (depending on the certification level). Candidates must be employed full-time in “crime scene-related activities,” and the process involves an application and passing an examination.
The International Crime Scene Investigators Association (ICSIA) provides a CSI certification to professionals with at least two years of experience and 50 hours of crime scene processing coursework. Candidates must pass a 100-question exam and submit examples of crime scene photography as proof of experience.
Finally, there are various professional associations for specialized CSIs such as the American Academy of Forensic Sciences; the American Board of Forensic Toxicology; the Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners; the Microscopy Society of America; and the Midwestern Association of Forensic Scientists.
Step 4, Optional: Pursue a graduate education in CSI (one to two years). Obtaining a graduate degree in CSI can further enhance a candidate’s chances of employment and may even qualify a person for leadership positions, increased responsibilities, or higher pay.
For example, National University (NU) offers a graduate certificate program in forensic crime scene investigation (FCSI). This 31.5-credit program involves seven courses. Some of the courses in the curriculum include forensic pathology; crime scene investigation; advanced criminalistics; digital evidence; law and criminal procedure; and fingerprint analysis.
Students looking to pursue a master’s degree can apply some or all the academic credits awarded in this certificate program toward the master’s in forensic science program, after meeting the GPA and other requirements of that degree program.
George Washington University offers a hybrid master of science (MS) in crime scene investigation to working investigators, leaders in law enforcement, and lawyers. Graduates of this program become proficient in crime scene investigation techniques, including fingerprinting, photography, forensic pathology, and digital imaging. They also learn how to investigate crimes from legal and medical perspectives.
The program comprises 36-credits, including coursework in the fundamentals of forensic science; photography in the forensic sciences; the science of fingerprints; digital image processing; criminal law for forensic scientists; crime scene investigation; forensic pathology; and medicolegal death investigation.
Overall, qualifications will vary based on region, employer, and other factors. Prospective CSIs are encouraged to contact their local law enforcement agencies and forensics laboratories to verify prerequisites for employment.
There are several different paths to becoming a crime scene technician. It is typical to have at least an associate degree in forensic sciences, criminal justice, crime scene technology, or a related discipline. Depending on the employing organization, it may be advisable to have a bachelor’s degree in a field such as chemistry or biology. Successful candidates normally complete courses in mathematics and science, as well as forensics classes if available.
There are also more targeted forensic science programs ranging from the associate level to a PhD, in addition to several licenses and certifications. Since credentials will vary by jurisdiction, it’s important to check the qualifications of your local law enforcement agency or employing organization. As part of their candidacy for law enforcement agencies, crime scene technicians will typically need to complete a successful background check and a physical and psychological evaluation.
It should be noted that some subspecialties are growing faster than others. The BLS (2022) projected that between 2021 and 2031, there will be a 11 percent growth in forensic science technicians, which is more than double the 5 percent projected growth for all occupations. That said, subfields such as digital computer forensics and DNA specialties are expected to become growing forensic science fields in years to come.
The International Association for Identification (IAI), the largest and oldest forensic identification association, recognizes the following forensic disciplines which can inform one’s abilities as a crime scene technician:
More information about each of these exciting subfields is available on the IAI website.
While becoming a crime scene or forensic technician can be an exciting career move, evaluating the pros and cons of this type of work environment is important. As with any professional decision, be sure to consult the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the latest information on the availability of work in various states and municipalities.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2022) indicates that forensic science technicians may be CSIs. Based on the data available for that profession, the outlook for the CSI career is good, with BLS data showing a 11 percent growth rate nationally from 2021 to 2031. This growth could result in the addition of 2,000 jobs, bringing the total of all forensic science technicians in the country to 19,600. The absolute growth for CSIs specifically will be smaller, since they are only one segment, but there should indeed be career opportunities for new CSIs entering the field.
Of course, the BLS also does not track salary data specifically for CSIs, but it reports that among 17,020 forensic science technicians working in May 2021, the average annual salary was $66,850.
According to the most recent salary figures presented by the BLS (May 2021), forensic science technicians can expect the following salary ranges:
Jocelyn Blore is the chief content officer of Sechel Ventures and the co-author of the Women Breaking Barriers series. She graduated summa cum laude from UC Berkeley and traveled the world for five years. She also worked as an addiction specialist for two years in San Francisco. She’s interested in how culture shapes individuals and systems within societies—one of the many themes she writes about in her blog, Blore’s Razor (Instagram: @bloresrazor). She has served as managing editor for several healthcare websites since 2015.