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How To Become a Forensic Scientist

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There’s undeniable intrigue in careers related to forensic science. Trained to see evidence invisible to the naked eye, these laboratory crime-fighters use the rigorous powers of observation, inference, and research-based analyses to reconstruct (often violent) events and put criminals behind bars.

Forensic scientists and forensic science technicians receive ample on-the-job training, and before seeking employment, a majority pursue college degrees in forensics, biology, molecular biology, chemistry, biochemistry, and other hard sciences, choosing specialized coursework in pathology, DNA, criminology, firearms, genetics, fingerprints, toxicology, trace evidence, and other relevant fields.

O*NET (2022)—a reputable data organization sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor—details some of the common job responsibilities for these professionals. Forensic science technicians gather evidence (e.g., bodily fluids, clothing fibers, weapons, soils, plastics, etc); photograph or document findings (i.e., create “certificates of analyses”); analyze evidence using scientific procedures (e.g., scanning electron microscopy, mass spectrometry, liquid chromatography, genetic fingerprinting); visit morgues to examine victims of crime; stay abreast of methodological and technological developments in the field; compare evidence with digital records; liaise with experts in law, medicine, ballistics, metallurgy, handwriting, electronics, and other fields; create presentations for conferences; and testify as expert witnesses in court.

They may work for the federal government—the highest-paying employer according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2021)—although local governments are actually the top-employing organizations in this field. Finally, prior to seeking jobs in the upper echelons of the discipline, many forensic science professionals choose to become nationally certified through agencies accredited by the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB).

Read on for a more granular look at the salary prospects and steps to becoming a forensic scientist, including typical education, program accreditation, and professional certification options.

Forensic Scientist Career Outlook

There’s excellent news for the future of this profession. The BLS (2021) projects that openings for forensic science technicians will swell 16 percent between 2020 and 2030, which is double the growth rate anticipated for all occupations during that time period (8 percent). Furthermore, this expected addition of 2,700 jobs does not include the increase in opportunities in related careers such as crime scene investigators (CSI), medicolegal death experts, insurance investigators, biological technicians, chemical technicians, laboratory technologists, fire inspectors, and more.

The good news is that there’s no shortage of opportunities for qualified forensic science technicians who have the right training under their belts. Indeed (April 2022) had 499 job postings for these professionals in the United States, including openings at the Government of the District of Columbia, NMS Labs, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, Department of State Police, United States Drug Testing Laboratories, Inc., and the City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. In sum, this is expected to be a high-growth career in the years to come.

Forensic Scientist Salary – How Much Do Forensic Scientists Make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2021), forensic science technicians enjoy good wages around the country. Among the 17,020 forensic science technicians around the US, the BLS found an average annual salary (annual mean wage) of $66,850, much more than the mean yearly salary for all occupations in the U.S. at $58,260 (BLS May 2021). As wages tend to vary by region, experience, education, and other factors, the BLS provides a salary range breakdown for forensic science technicians.

In more detailed terms, here are the salary percentiles in this occupation in the US:

United States
Number of Forensic Science Technicians Employed 17,020
Annual mean wage $66,850
10th Percentile $37,670
25th Percentile $47,750
50th Percentile (Median) $61,930
75th Percentile $80,670
90th Percentile $103,430

The salary data on Payscale (2022)—an aggregator of self-reported wages in common occupations—found slightly different ranges among its 235 forensic scientist respondents:

  • 10th percentile: $40,000
  • 50th percentile (median): $56,429
  • 90th percentile: $95,000

As mentioned above, salary prospects tend to differ according to region. The highest paying states for forensic science technicians are the following (May 2021):

  • Illinois: $90,330 (annual mean salary)
  • California: $90,300
  • Massachusetts: $84,740
  • New York: $81,370
  • Oregon: $81,340

However, these are not necessarily the highest employing states for these forensics professionals, a factor roughly correlating with state population size (May 2021):

  • California: 2,670 forensic science technicians employed
  • Florida: 1,760
  • Texas: 1,690
  • Arizona: 910
  • New York: 760

Finally, good news for Californians: four of the top-five highest-paying metropolitan areas are located in the Golden State (May 2020):

  • San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA: $106,600 annual mean salary
  • Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA: $96,980
  • San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA: $96,410
  • Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, CA: $96,170
  • Boston-Cambridge-Nashua, MA-NH: $90,710

For more information, please visit the forensic scientist salary page.

Education and Professional Licensure Requirements for Forensic Scientists

The forensic scientist occupation can encompass several different professions, but this section will mainly consider the career of a forensic science technician. To give themselves the best chance of employment, new forensic science technicians should earn a minimum of a bachelor’s degree.

There are no legal requirements for certification or licensure for forensic scientists in most cases. However, Indiana has developed a Crime Scene Certification Committee explicitly for the certification of crime scene investigators and there is a chance that other states will follow suit with licensure requirements.

In addition to legal certification, many forensic scientists decide to pursue certification in their chosen specialty to improve employment opportunities. The Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB) accredits certifications in specialties such as forensic toxicology, criminalistics, and document examination. Each such certification has discrete requirements, so those interested in pursuing this type of certification should find out what the prerequisites are.

Steps to Becoming a Forensic Scientist

There are many paths to a promising career in forensic science. Here is one possible path to joining this high-growth field:

 

Step 1: Graduate from high school

 
In order to set themselves up for success, aspiring forensic scientists are advised to graduate from high school, ideally with high marks in classes such as biology, chemistry, physiology, statistics, and mathematics. Additionally, some students choose to volunteer or intern in relevant agencies such as police departments, fire departments, medical laboratories, hospitals, or other organizations.

For example, the National Student Leadership Conference (NSLC) provides a weeklong summer internship to secondary students in forensic science with hands-on training through forensic simulations, supervised laboratory work, and lectures from experienced professionals. Interested students are encouraged to reach out to local and national institutions to see which opportunities are available.
 

Step 2: Enroll in a forensic science program – associate degree (two years)

 
For prospective entry-level forensic science technicians, there are some associate degree programs available. Admissions requirements for two-year programs in this field generally call for a high school diploma; a competitive GPA; a personal statement; and TOEFL test scores (for non-native speakers of English). In addition to general education, these programs may have classes in criminal law, fire & arson investigation, and the physical sciences.

Miami Dade College

Miami Dade College (MDC) offers an associate in science degree in crime scene technology preparing students for employment in the criminalistics field with a specialty in forensic science or crime scene investigation. The forensic science associate degree prepares students for employment as forensic identification specialists.

Made up of 60 credits, the program includes courses such as human behavior in criminal justice; criminal investigation; introduction to criminal justice; forensic science; crime scene technology; basic fingerprinting; biotechnology methods and applications; and general chemistry & qualitative analysis.

Graduates of the program will be able to pursue entry-level positions in local, state, and federal agencies in forensic sciences, medical investigations, crime scene investigations, insurance investigations, and laboratory technologies.

  • Location: Westview, FL; Kendall, FL
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
  • Expected Time to Completion: 24 months
  • Estimated Tuition: $7,093.20

 

Step 3: (Optional) Enroll in a bachelor’s degree program (four years)

 
For prospective forensic scientists, however, it may be advisable to complete a bachelor’s degree program in biology, chemistry, biochemistry, forensics, or a related field. Not only can a four-year degree enhance employment prospects and earning potential, but it can also open doors to careers in related fields, particularly laboratory work.

Typical applications to scientific bachelor’s programs may include the completion of specific coursework (e.g., high school level chemistry, biology, and mathematics); a competitive GPA; national test scores (SAT or ACT); a personal statement; letter(s) of recommendation; and TOEFL test scores (again, for non-native speakers of English).

In addition to general education, bachelor’s programs for forensic scientists have courses such as criminalistics, forensic biology, organic chemistry, and more. The Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC)—the primary accrediting body for forensic science programs in the country—evaluates the quality of curricula, educational objectives, student support services, faculty credentials, admissions processes, and other relevant factors in schools across the country.

The University of Tampa

For those seeking a degree specifically in forensics, the University of Tampa (UT) provides a FEPAC-recognized bachelor of science (BS) program in forensic science. Students in this program receive training in forensic chemistry, crime scene investigation, forensic biology, forensic toxicology, fire debris analysis, and forensic firearms examinations. The curriculum of this program also includes internship opportunities with forensic laboratories.

Similar to many BS programs in forensics, UT provides a rigorous mix of laboratory experience and classes such as forensic chemistry; molecular biology; genetics; organic chemistry; forensic toxicology; introduction to criminal justice; biochemistry; and introduction to forensic research. The program comprises 86 credits.

  • Location: Tampa, FL
  • Accreditation: Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC); Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges
  • Expected Time to Completion: 48 months
  • Estimated Tuition: $621 per credit

Arizona State University

Arizona State University offers an online bachelor of science degree in forensic science teaching students about interpreting evidence and solving crimes using the latest technology. They will gain hands-on experience and learn professional forensic science techniques investigating crimes. At the end of the program, students will have to attend an in-person culminating experience on ASU’s West campus.

Comprising 120 credits, the program includes coursework in the fundamentals of genetics; modern concepts in biochemistry; general organic chemistry; principles of forensic science; fundamentals of forensic analysis; testimony and ethics in the forensic sciences; and analytical chemistry for life sciences.

On successful completion of the program, graduates can take up roles such as biological scientists, biological technicians, chemical technicians, crime scene investigators, medical scientists, and health sciences managers.

  • Location: Glendale, AZ
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
  • Expected Time to Completion: 48 months
  • Estimated Tuition: $628 per credit

For more on bachelor’s programs in this field, visit the FEPAC website or the forensic science education page.
 

Step 4: Garner experience in a police department, crime laboratory, or another relevant setting (one to three years)

 
At this stage, many graduates of forensic science programs choose to garner some professional experience in medical and diagnostic laboratories, police departments, local governments, federal agencies, hospitals, and other settings. Not only does this address the disjunction between didactic coursework and real-world applications, but it also can put these professionals in a position to seek national certification.
 

Step 5: Seek professional certification (timeline varies)

 
Although professional certification may not be required for employment, it can enhance a job candidate’s resume or salary prospects. There are several relevant certification boards accredited by the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB), which include:

  • American Board of Criminalistics (ABC)
  • American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators (ABMDI)
  • American Board of Forensic Toxicology (ABFT)
  • International Board of Forensic Engineering Sciences (IBFES)
  • Crime Scene Certification Board, International Association for Identification (IAI)
  • American Board of Forensic Anthropology (ABFA)

While requirements for these certifications vary, they typically involve possessing at least a bachelor’s degree in a field relevant to forensics; proof of job experience; letter(s) of recommendation; submitting an application fee; and successfully passing a test. For example, the American Board of Forensic Toxicology’s (ABFT) five-year “specialist” certification calls for official transcripts; a recent passport-style photograph; three professional references; proof of three years of experience; a $150 application fee; and passing a comprehensive exam. This certification is also offered at the “diplomatic” level to those with relevant doctoral degrees and at least three years of experience.

The International Association for Identification (IAI), by contrast, offers more targeted certifications which reflect specific competencies such as footwear identification; forensic art expertise; bloodstain pattern analysis; and ten-print fingerprint certification. Check with certifying boards for specific prerequisites.
 

Step 6: (Optional) Enroll in a graduate program in forensic science (two to four years)

 
For mid-career forensic scientists seeking to upgrade their knowledge and credentials, pursuing a master’s or a doctoral program is an enticing option.

Boston University

Boston University’s (BU) School of Medicine hosts a FEPAC-accredited master of science (MS) in biomedical forensic sciences, one of the premier graduate programs of its kind in the country. Thi program trains students in a variety of disciplines applicable to both evidence analysis and crime scene investigation.

To get accepted into the program, applicants must have a baccalaureate degree (preferably in natural science) from an accredited university, GRE scores, a personal statement, three letters of recommendation, a current A CV highlighting research, and TOEFL scores for students whose first language is not English.

In addition to supervised research and mock-court experiences, students must pass challenging coursework in criminal law & ethics; crime scene investigation; forensic biology; forensic chemistry; and trace evidence analysis, among others. The program consists of 38 credits.

Graduates of the program will be prepared to take up several career options in medical examiner offices, crime laboratories, scientific instrument companies, hospital or biotechnology laboratories, and law enforcement agencies.

  • Location: Boston, MA
  • Accreditation: Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC); New England Commission of Higher Education
  • Expected Time to Completion: 24 months
  • Estimated Tuition: $75,000

University of Illinois

Another standout option is the FEPAC-accredited University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) master of science (MS) in forensic science which provides interdisciplinary instruction in forensic analysis of biological evidence; forensic chemistry and trace evidence analysis; physical pattern evidence analysis; forensic drug analysis and toxicology; expert witness testimony and courtroom demeanor; and forensic science: survey and foundations. The program is made up of 38 credits.

Admission requirements to the program include a baccalaureate degree in biological, physical, or pharmaceutical sciences with a minimum GPA of 3.0, GRE test scores, three letters of recommendation, a personal statement, and TOEFL, IELTS, or PTE test scores for international applicants.

  • Location: Chicago, IL
  • Accreditation: Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC); Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Expected Time to Completion: 24 months
  • Estimated Tuition: Range 1 (in-state – $5,935 per semester; out-of-state – $12,369 per semester); Range 2 (in-state – $3,957 per semester; out-of-state – $8,246 per semester); Range 3 (in-state – $1,978 per semester; out-of-state – $4,123 per semester); Range 4 (in-state and out-of-state – $989 per semester)

Stevenson University

Stevenson University’s online master of forensic science is ideal for working professionals who wish to learn about the technology, pertinent law, and instrumentation used for collecting evidence for presentation in a court of law. Students in this program will receive training from the top experts in the field as Stevenson University has a strong relationship with the U.S. Secret Service Lab, the Baltimore County Crime Lab, and the Maryland State Police Forensic Sciences Division.

Applicants to the program must have a bachelor’s degree in a natural science field, official college transcripts from all previous academic work, a GPA of 3.0, and a personal statement. Students must have also completed prerequisites courses in general chemistry, organic chemistry, biology, statistics, and physics.

As part of the program, students will delve into topics such as physical evidence at crime scenes; serology & immunology; trace evidence; toxicology; crime scene investigation; and DNA analysis.

Graduates of the program will be well-equipped to work as forensic DNA analysts, forensic toxicologists, forensic latent print examiners, and crime scene investigators.

  • Location: Owings Mills, MD
  • Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • Expected Time to Completion: 24 months
  • Estimated Tuition: $695 per credit

Finally, graduate certificate options are abundant as well, including online programs.

The University of Florida

For example, the University of Florida (UF) offers four distinct 15-credit, online graduate certificates in forensic science: death investigation, toxicology, drug chemistry, and DNA & serology. All of these programs can be completed entirely online.

For the forensic DNA & serology track, students must complete five foundational courses which impart skills in DNA analysis, blood-spatter analysis, interpretations of biochemical evidence, and nucleic acid chemistry, among other abilities.

The graduate certificate in death investigation is offered in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh College of Medicine. The curriculum for this program includes courses such as forensic analysis of DNA; forensic anthropology; and introduction to forensic medicine.

The toxicology graduate certificate is offered by the Department of Physiological Sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine. It focuses on the principles of toxicology, drug biotransformation, and forensic toxicology.

Finally, the drug chemistry certificate is offered by the College of Pharmacy and is structured to provide graduates with a solid foundation in drug pharmacology, analytical techniques, expert testimony, forensic drug chemistry, drug synthesis, and QA/QC procedures.

  • Location: Gainesville, FL
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  • Expected Time to Completion: within 12 months
  • Estimated Tuition: $575 to $625 per credit

For more information on graduate education—both online and on-campus—please visit the forensic science online programs and forensic science education pages.

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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.