How to Become a Crime Scene Investigator (CSI)

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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. However, 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 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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Skills & Personality Traits of a 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 2023 Occupational Outlook Handbook from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, several other abilities 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 documentation protocols.
  • Composure: Due to the sometimes shocking nature of crime scenes, it’s crucial that these professionals can maintain their presence of mind to do their jobs effectively. They should be comfortable working with 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: To help collect and analyze evidence, noticing inconsistencies and subtle changes in crime settings is crucial.
  • Math and science abilities: Analyzing crime scenes requires some statistics or physical sciences background.

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, which are detailed below.

Role Requirements for Becoming a Crime Scene Technician

The BLS (2023) 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:

  • 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

Most 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 specializing 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, 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 nationwide.

For example, Point Park University in Pittsburgh offers a CSI summer camp to secondary school students involving valuable laboratory and criminal justice training. During the four-day immersion, high school students learn the ins and outs of forensic science, criminal justice, intelligence, and national security.

  • Location: Pittsburgh, PA
  • Duration: Four days
  • Accreditation: N/A
  • Tuition: $175 total

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 for opportunities.

  • Location: Phoenix, AZ
  • Duration: 1-2 days
  • Accreditation: N/A
  • Tuition: Unknown

Step 2: Enroll in a law enforcement academy or pursue a college degree in CSI (2-4 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 enroll in a two- to four-year college program in criminal justice, forensics, biology, chemistry, natural sciences, or a related field. Here are some criminal justice degree programs to consider.

Liberty University

For 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 forensics’ analytical and scientific aspects. 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.

  • Location: Lynchburg, VA
  • Duration: 3.5 years
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)

Macomb Community College

Some law enforcement training programs are offered in tandem with local colleges, such as Macomb Community College in Clinton Township, Michigan. This two-year associate of applied science (AAS) program in law enforcement includes police academy training and courses in criminal law, investigations, computer-related crimes, laboratory techniques, terrorism, loss prevention, evidence gathering, juvenile issues, and more.

This law enforcement prepares its students to sit for state certification exams for new police officers. The credits are transferable to bachelor’s programs at many colleges and universities nationwide.

  • Location: Clinton Township, MI
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC)

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.

  • Location: Nashville, TN
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)

Palm Beach State College

Palm Beach State College of Lake Worth, Florida, offers an associate of science (AS) degree 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 comprises 64 credits and 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.

  • Location: Lake Worth, FL
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)

University of Baltimore

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) and 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.

  • Location: Baltimore, MD
  • Duration: 12 months or less
  • Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)

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.

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 pursue certifications through various agencies for professional advancement. For example, the International Association for Identification (IAI) provides three main certifications in CSI: crime scene investigator, crime scene analyst, and senior crime scene analyst. 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,” which involves applying for 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: Pursue a graduate education in CSI (optional; 1-2 years)

Obtaining a graduate certificate or 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.

George Washington University

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.

  • Location: Washington, DC
  • Duration: Two year
  • Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)

National University

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 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.

  • Location: San Diego, CA
  • Duration: 12 to 24 months
  • Accreditation: WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC)

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.

Different Paths to Becoming a Crime Scene Technician

There are several different paths to becoming a crime scene technician. Having at least an associate degree in forensic sciences, criminal justice, crime scene technology, or a related discipline is typical. 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 and 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. Crime scene technicians must complete a successful background check and a physical and psychological evaluation as part of their candidacy for law enforcement agencies.

It should be noted that some subspecialties are growing faster than others. The BLS (2023) projected that between 2021 and 2031, there will be an 13 percent growth in forensic science technicians, more than double the 3 percent projected growth for all occupations. Subfields such as digital computer forensics and DNA specialties are expected to become growing forensic science fields in the coming years.

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 Tool Mark 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 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, 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 (CSIs)

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2023) 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 13 percent growth rate nationally from 2022 to 2032. This growth could result in the addition of 2,300 jobs, bringing the total of all forensic science technicians in the country to 20,800. 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 17,520 forensic science technicians working in May 2023, the average annual salary was $71,540.

According to the most recent salary figures presented by the BLS (May 2023), forensic science technicians can expect the following salary ranges:

  • 10th percentile: $41,410
  • 25th percentile: $50,480
  • 50th percentile (median): $64,940
  • 75th percentile: $84,720
  • 90th percentile: $107,490
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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.