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 prior to 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 —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; analyze evidence using scientific procedures; 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.

Forensic scientists may work for the federal government—the highest-paying employer according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2017)—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. First, the BLS (2017) projects that openings for forensic science technicians will swell 17 percent between 2016 and 2026, more than twice the growth-rate anticipated for all occupations during that time period (7 percent). Furthermore, this expected addition of 2,600 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. Second, the BLS (2017) reports that forensic science technicians make an average annual salary of $61,220, a 20 percent increase above the mean yearly salary for all occupations in the U.S. at $50,620 (BLS 2017).

Education and Professional Licensure Requirements for Forensic Scientists

The forensic scientist occupation can encompass a number of different professions, but this section will mainly consider the career of a forensic science technician. In order to give themselves the best chance of employment, new forensic science technicians should earn a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. According to Career One Stop, which sources its data from the US Department of Labor, 32 percent of forensic science techncians have a bachelor’s degree while an additional 16 percent have a master’s or doctoral degree.

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

In addition to legal certification, many forensic scientists decide to pursue certification in their chosen specialty in order 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 as 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 is a wealth of 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 oneself 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 (2-4 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. For instance, Miami Dade College (MDC) provides an associate of science (AS) in forensic science degree featuring coursework in human behavior in criminal justice, basic fingerprinting, and crime scene technology, among others.

    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.

    For those seeking a degree specifically in forensics, the University of Tampa (UT) provides a FEPAC-recognized bachelor of science (BS) in forensic science program. Similar to many BS programs in forensics, UT provides a rigorous mix of laboratory experience and classes such as forensic chemistry, molecular biology, genetics, law enforcement, and criminal investigation.

    For hard sciences majors who are interested in forensics, there are also FEPAC-accredited certificate programs which can be taken in conjunction with bachelor’s degrees. For example, the University of North Texas (UNT) provides an interdisciplinary bachelor of science (BS) in biology, biochemistry, or chemistry with an accredited certificate in forensics. In addition to the specialty courses for the major, UNT’s 19-credit hour forensics certificate covers biomedical forensics, courtroom testimony, ethics, evidence identification, and professional practice.

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

  • Step 3: Garner experience in a police department, crime laboratory, or other relevant setting (1-3 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 4: 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), including those related to fields as diverse as forensic anthropology and forensic engineering.

    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 $250 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.

  • Step 5 (Optional): Enroll in a graduate program in forensic science (2-4 years). For mid-career forensic scientists seeking to upgrade their knowledge and credentials, pursuing a master’s or doctoral program is an enticing option.

    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. 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.

    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 trace materials, drug identification & toxicology; and pattern evidence. Of the 166 graduates since 1998, 38 percent are employed with the Illinois State Police, and 35 percent work in forensic science labs.

    Finally, there is an abundance of graduate certificate options as well, including online programs. 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. 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.

    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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