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 2020)—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.
There’s excellent news for the future of this profession. First, the BLS (2020) projects that openings for forensic science technicians will swell 14 percent between 2019 and 2029, more than twice the growth rate anticipated for all occupations during that time period (4 percent). Furthermore, this expected addition of 2,400 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 (May 2019) reports that forensic science technicians make an average annual salary of $63,170, a 16 percent increase above the mean yearly salary for all occupations in the U.S. at $53,490 (BLS 2019).
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 (2020), which sources its data from the US Department of Labor, 53 percent of forensic science technicians have some college or an associate’s degree. While four percent of forensic science technicians have a bachelor’s degree while an additional one percent have a master’s or doctoral degree, having a degree increases an applicant’s chances of earning higher salaries and advancement opportunities.
In most cases, there are no legal requirements for certification or licensure for forensic scientists. 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 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.
There is a wealth of paths to a promising career in forensic science. Here is one possible path to joining this high-growth field:
For example, theNational 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.
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. TheForensic 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, theUniversity 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, theUniversity 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 theFEPAC website or the forensic science education page.
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, theAmerican 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.
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 and toxicology; and pattern evidence. Of the 25 program graduates from 2013 to 2018, 21 graduates are employed with forensic science laboratories in the United States while the other four graduates are pursuing doctoral degrees and working 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.
Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. Rachel writes about meditation, yoga, coaching, and more on her blog (Instagram: @racheldrummondyoga).