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Crime Scene Investigation vs. Forensic Science

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Those who wish to work on the proverbial front lines of criminal justice, handling and analyzing physical evidence related to criminal actions, might pursue either a degree in crime scene investigation or forensic science. And, to be sure, a university or college-level degree in one of these fields can be an excellent first step.

While their responsibilities distinguish these jobs, forensic scientist and CSI careers are predicted to be in demand in the coming years. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that between 2019 and 2029, both professions will grow faster than the national rate for all occupations (4 percent).

Police and detective careers are estimated to grow by 5 percent, adding 40,600 new positions between 2019 and 2029 (BLS 2021). By comparison, forensic science technician jobs will increase by 14 percent, creating 2,400 fresh forensic scientist CSI openings in the same decade (BLS 2021).

Most entry-level positions for police and detectives have a criminal justice focus and require completion of police academy training or a two-year degree or four-year degree for certain positions. On the other hand, entry-level positions in forensic science require a bachelor’s degree in natural science and some coursework in criminal justice.

But before picking one over the other, it is crucial to fully understand the similarities, differences, and overlap between these two careers. In light of this, below, you will find a brief overview of degrees in crime scene investigation and forensic science, as well as a side-by-side comparison of requirements, work environment, and other details for each profession.

Similarities, Differences, and Overlap

To begin, it is imperative to understand the similarities between these two fields of study. Both of these degrees will allow graduates to work in the field of criminal justice, and both are focused specifically on the aftermath of a crime. Indeed, the ultimate objective of crime scene investigators and of forensic scientists is aligned: to help enact justice by gathering and analyzing evidence, then presenting that evidence in court (either as an expert witness or via attorneys) in order to uncover the truth.

Outside of this overarching goal, however, the two fields of study begin to diverge. While the education of a crime scene investigator may include some courses in science, an aspiring forensic scientist should expect to take a heavy load of science courses, including biology, chemistry, and physics, to prepare for the forensic analysis process. Furthermore, because forensic scientists largely operate in a lab setting, a significant portion of their education will take place in a lab. In contrast, because crime scene investigators spend most of their time in the field, a CSI degree has a greater focus on investigative procedures and criminal investigation with much less lab time.

A crime scene investigator is often one of the first professionals at the scene of a crime (after first responders), tasked with examining the location and gathering evidence relevant to the investigation, including photographs and physical evidence. This evidence is sent to a laboratory where a forensic scientist will analyze what has been provided using various scientific methods. Each of these professionals plays an integral role in the flow of an investigation in the criminal justice system.

Finally, it’s important to note that a crime scene investigator and a criminal investigator (or detective) are not the same. Indeed, the former gathers and analyzes information found at the scene of the crime, but once all necessary information is collected and analyzed from this specific location, his or her work concludes (unless they are called to tesify in court). Criminal investigators or detectives, on the other hand, are responsible for carrying the full criminal investigation through to completion.

Featured CSI & Forensic Science Programs

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

Side-by-Side Comparison: Crime Scene Investigation vs. Forensic Science

Below you will find a side-by-side comparison of crime scene investigation and forensic science. Those interested in pursuing a degree in either field should use this as a convenient reference when deciding on a course of study.

Crime Scene Investigator Forensic Scientist
How do the fields and professions define and differentiate themselves? Crime scene investigation, like forensic science, focuses on utilizing scientific and social analysis techniques to assist law enforcement in uncovering all information about a crime. Crime scene investigators work at the scene of a crime, gathering any relevant evidence for later analysis. Unlike crime scene investigators, forensic scientists do not visit the crime scene. Instead, they work in a lab environment, examining and analyzing evidence provided by investigators to help law enforcement agencies in the pursuit of justice.
What bodies of knowledge will students focus on in pursuit of their degree? Students in crime scene investigation programs will spend a majority of their education learning about collection techniques, evidence handling and storage, crime scene procedure, and criminal justice overall. These students will also likely take courses on law and legal philosophy, as well as lab-based science, although not nearly to the extent that those in a forensic science program do. A student pursuing a degree in forensic science will inevitably be immersed in all varieties of lab-based science, including biology, chemistry, toxicology, pharmacology, and physics. Furthermore, these students will focus on other subjects related to criminal analysis, including chemistry and pathology with a focus on forensics.
What specific courses will students likely cover in this program? Although the curriculum will vary depending on the institution, courses that a student of crime scene investigation will likely take include the following:

  • Introduction to criminal justice
  • Introduction to forensics
  • Criminology
  • Judicial process
  • Corrections
  • Crime scene photography and management
  • Forensic fingerprint analysis
  • Trace evidence analysis
  • Violent crime scene analysis
  • Criminal law and investigations
  • Criminal justice ethics
The following is a sample list of classes that would likely be found in any undergraduate or graduate forensic science program:

  • Biology (including cell biology, microbiology, and molecular biology)
  • Chemistry (including biochemistry, physical chemistry, organic and inorganic chemistry, and quantitative chemistry)
  • Physics
  • Calculus
  • Pharmacology
  • Genetics
  • Statistics
  • Instrumental and forensic analysis
  • Crime and society
  • Forensic anthropology and pathology
What specializations, in any, are formally available as part of the program? Crime scene investigation may be a standalone program, or may be housed within the degree of criminal justice, and considered a specialization or concentration area itself. In such cases there would be typically be no further specialization available. In some programs, forensic science is often a specialization of the greater criminal justice degree. However, where forensic science is a standalone program, it will likely have a great emphasis on laboratory science, and students may have the opportunity to specialize in such fields as toxicology, DNA analysis, or even death investigation. In some programs, a student may also specialize in computer forensics and cybercrime, which may be a useful degree to obtain employment in a number of emerging occupations in the future.
What established occupations will students be prepared for after receiving a degree? Upon obtaining a degree in crime scene investigation (or a technician certificate), students will be prepared to work as crime scene investigators or technicians. A degree in forensic science allows the holder to obtain employment as a forensic scientist, generally in a laboratory setting.
What type of work environment can the professional expect? Crime scene investigators (and technicians) will work directly at the scene of the crime, analyzing the situation and gathering evidence relevant to investigation. Because crime occurs at all hours of the day, investigators may remain on-call as determined by their employer. When not at a crime scene, these individuals may perform other tasks at a police station or other law enforcement agency. Forensic scientists and technicians generally work in a lab setting, where they analyze the evidence provided by the crime scene investigation team. These scientists often have a routine schedule, unlike crime scene investigators. In some cases, forensic scientists or technicians may work in morgues or a coroner’s office, as well.
Are there additional educational opportunities available after pursuing an undergraduate degree in this field? Upon obtaining an undergraduate degree in crime scene investigation, a student may go on to pursue a master of science (MS) degree in the same field, or a graduate certificate, which can aid in obtaining employment that with a greater amount of responsibility and associated pay. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in forensic science, a student may continue on to obtain a graduate certificate, master’s degree or PhD in the same field. Those who pursue PhD programs will be better able to pursue future careers in teaching or research.

Also, a student with an undergraduate degree in biology or another natural science may be well qualified to pursue a graduate degree in forensic science.

Do technician degrees and jobs exist in this field? Crime scene investigation technicians are also responsible for gathering evidence at the scene of a crime, although they work directly under the supervision of a crime scene investigator.

The education requirements are generally lower for technicians than they are for investigators; indeed, a crime scene technician need only obtain a certificate in the field (instead of an undergraduate degree) before seeking employment.

A crime scene technician will likely have a limited working knowledge of forensics, although he or she will be well versed in collection techniques, criminal procedure and law, and evidence handling and storage.

Forensic science technicians (also referred to as forensic lab technicians) are no different than forensic scientists; indeed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics categorizes all work performed by a forensic scientist as that of a forensic science technician.
Name three schools that offer online degrees in this field. The following is a list of schools that offer online degree programs in crime scene investigation:

The following is a list of schools that offer online degree programs in forensic science:

Bottom line: specifics of each. A degree in crime scene investigation is an excellent choice for an individual who wishes to work in the field of criminal justice, especially at the scene of a crime.

A student in this field can expect to take courses focusing on criminal procedure and evidence management, as well as some courses in lab-based science.

A graduate may find employment as a crime scene investigator, who works directly with law enforcement to help uncover all relevant information about a crime in the pursuit of justice.

Anyone wishing to work in the field of criminal justice by analyzing crime scene evidence provided by investigators should consider a degree in forensic science.

Students of forensic science should expect to take courses in biology, chemistry, physics, pathology, and anthropology, many of which include labs.

Forensic scientists (or forensic science technicians) generally work in a laboratory setting, handling and examining evidence and providing their findings to criminal detectives for further action, or testifying in a court of law.


Rachel Drummond

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).