CSI investigators at crime scene

How to Become a Crime Scene Investigator (CSI)

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For people seeking careers that are simultaneously challenging, meaningful, and exciting, it is tough to beat becoming a crime scene technician.

These professionals, also known as forensic science technicians or crime scene analysts, have inspired a number of 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 (BLS 2019). 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 which 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.

Featured CSI & Forensic Science Programs

Arizona State University - Forensic Science (PSM)
Purdue University Global - BSCJ in Crime Scene Investigation
Stevenson University - Master of Forensic Science (Biology & Chemistry Tracks)
Stevenson University - Master's in Forensic Investigation
Stevenson University - Master's in Crime Scene Investigation

Skills & Personality Traits of the Successful Crime Scene Technician

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 2020 Occupational Outlook Handbook from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are several other abilities that lend themselves to becoming a crime scene technician:

  • Communication skills: Technicians are often called upon to write reports jointly with law enforcement or other specialists. They may even be called upon to testify in court and must be familiar with the protocols of documentation.
  • Composure: Due to the sometimes shocking nature of crime scenes, it’s crucial that these professionals are able to maintain their presence of mind in order to do their jobs effectively. They should be comfortable working with a range of crimes such as homicides, sexual assaults, robberies, and other often graphic subjects.
  • Critical thinking and analytical skills: Crime scene technicians have to match physical evidence from crimes (e.g., DNA, fingerprints, etc.) to databases of suspects. This also requires a knowledge of scientific tests and methods.
  • Attention to detail: In order to help collect and analyze evidence, it is crucial to notice inconsistencies and subtle changes to crime settings.
  • Math and science abilities: The analysis of crime scenes can require some background in statistics or physical sciences.

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.

Role Requirements for Becoming a Crime Scene Technician

The BLS (2020) 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 of an accrediting body for certain subfields of crime scene investigations.

The responsibilities of a crime scene technician can include:

  • Detecting, collecting and cataloging evidence from crime scenes
  • Analyzing evidence using chemical, biological, or physical tests
  • Consulting with experts in related fields to reconstruct crime scenes
  • Maintaining lab equipment and portable evidence collection kits
  • Evaluating data and presenting findings in a manner that can hold up in court
  • Writing reports on features of crime scenes such as fingerprint detection, blood spatter analysis, and other features

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.

Steps to Becoming a Crime Scene Investigator (CSI)

Although there are varied paths to becoming a crime scene investigator, becoming one typically involves 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, as well as 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 what opportunities are available.

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 a US 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, first aid, and more. Also, Macomb prepares its students to sit for state certification exams for new police officers and the credits are transferrable to bachelor’s programs at many colleges and universities across the state.

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.

Palm Beach State College of Lake Worth, FL provides a 64-credit associate of science (AS) degree (or certificate) in crime scene technology with coursework in criminology, the administration of criminal justice, forensic science, latent fingerprint development, and general education. This program provides both law enforcement and civilian tracks.

Nashville State Community College has a two-year associate of applied science (AAS) degree in police science with two distinct concentrations: police administration and crime scene investigation. The CSI track has classes such as investigative photography, bloodstain evidence, and criminal investigation.

Finally, for ambitious students seeking a four-year degree, Liberty University has a convenient online bachelor of science (BS) program in criminal justice with a focus on CSI. With rigorous instruction in constitutional criminal procedure, juvenile justice, computer & cyber forensics, and other subjects, students are prepared to apply their newfound knowledge in on-campus intensives in Lynchburg, Virginia.

At this stage, some students may even explore internships to hone their CSI skills. 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 crime scene investigations 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, which can enhance his or her employment prospects. Please note that qualifications for becoming a CSI will also vary by state and law enforcement entity.

Overall, in the majority of 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, in addition to 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.

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) involving coursework in forensic pathology, fingerprint analysis, and advanced criminalistics. George Washington University offers a master of science (MS) in crime scene investigation to working investigators, leaders in law enforcement, and lawyers. Classes include medicolegal death investigation, the science of fingerprints, and the examination of questioned documents.

Overall, qualifications will vary based on region, employing organization, and other factors. Prospective CSIs are encouraged to contact their local law enforcement agencies and forensics laboratories to verify prerequisites to employment.

Different Paths to Becoming a Crime Scene Technician

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, in addition to classes in forensics if they’re available.

There are also more targeted programs in forensic science which range from the associate level through 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, as well as a physical and psychological evaluation.

It should be noted that some subspecialties are growing faster than others. The BLS (2019) projected that between 2018 and 2028, there will be a 14 percent growth in forensic science technicians, which is faster than the 5 percent projected growth for all occupations. That said, subfields such as digital computer forensics and DNA specialties are expected to become dominant, growing fields in forensic science 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:

  • Biometrics Information Systems
  • Bloodstain Pattern Identification
  • Crime Scene Investigation
  • Digital Evidence
  • Firearm and Toolmark Examination
  • Footwear and Tire Track Examination
  • Forensic Anthropology
  • Forensic Art
  • Forensic Laboratory Analysis
  • Forensic Odontology
  • Forensic Photography and Digital Imaging
  • Forensic Podiatry
  • General Forensic Disciplines
  • Latent Prints/Fingerprint Identification/AFIS
  • Questioned Documents
  • Tenprint Fingerprint

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, it is important to evaluate the pros and cons of this type of work environment. 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.

Career Outlook for Crime Scene Investigators

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 14 percent growth rate from 2018 to 2028 (BLS 2019). This growth could result in the addition of 2,400 jobs, bringing the total of all forensic science technicians in the country to 19,100. 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 16,520 forensic science technicians working in May 2019, the average annual salary was $63,170.

According to the most recent salary figures presented by the BLS (May 2019), forensic science technicians can expect the following salary ranges:

  • 10th percentile: $35,620
  • 25th percentile: $45,180
  • 50th percentile (median): $59,150
  • 75th percentile: $77,200
  • 90th percentile: $97,350
Writer

Farheen Gani

Farheen Gani is a freelance writer, marketer, and researcher. She writes about technology, education, and marketing. Her work has appeared on websites such as Tech in Asia and Foundr, as well as top SaaS blogs such as Zapier and InVision. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter (@FarheenGani).