Many people grow up wanting to fight crime. But while not all of us can become superheroes or even police officers, there are a range of ways that people can assist in identifying, prosecuting, and convicting criminals in the field of forensic science.
If you are interested in forensic science, detailed and meticulous work, and do not mind the minutiae of close analysis, handwriting analysis and forensic document examination may be the right field for you. These highly trained specialists use scientific methods to determine the origin and veracity of all types of documentation. Read on to learn more about this interesting career.
Handwriting analysis and forensic document examination is the process of using scientific methods to determine the origins of documentation, both written and electronically produced. The term “handwriting analysis” is not to be confused with “graphology,” which is the process of determining the psychological state of a writer through use of his or her handwriting. Handwriting analysis and forensic document examination may also be known as “questioned document examination” (QDE), simply “document examination,” “handwriting examination,” or “diplomatics.” It is important to note that there is overlap between forensic document examiners and handwriting analysts, though some experts choose to specialize in either one discipline or the other. In most cases, QDE involves comparing an unknown writing sample with a sample from a known writer and determining whether the two samples belong to the same person.
Forensic document examiners work closely with the criminal justice system, often employed by government agencies or as independent consultants. A forensic document examiner must be trained in how to appear as an expert witness in court as well as presenting his or her expert opinion in other venues such as depositions and reports.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks career information for forensic science technicians. The title can include many types of forensic scientists, including forensic document examiners. For the span of 2012 to 2022, the career is expected to grow at the rate of 6%, which is somewhat slower than the average for all careers in the country. (BLS, 2012). According to the BLS, increased interest in forensic sciences due to the influence of popular media means that competition for jobs in the forensic sciences will be stiff in coming years. Advancing technology will also mean that even those forensic science technicians who are employed will need to be diligent with staying on top of new trends and training to remain competitive in the field.
Because forensic document examination and analysis is key to criminal investigations, the top employers for forensic document examiners are law enforcement and criminal investigation agencies. An FDE might be employed by a local police force or sheriff’s department, but can also work alongside private investigators and criminal attorneys, as well as prosecutors.
Forensic document examination is often used in cases of financial fraud and other white collar crimes. This means that FDEs can often find employment working with forensic accountants and other fraud investigators. In fact, some forensic document examiners are also certified fraud examiners.
Finally, an experienced forensic document examiner may also choose to strike out on her own as an independent consultant. This is one way to diversify one’s workload since this type of consulting means that the examiner is free to consult for a number of different cases and agencies. FDEs may find the schedule and work more satisfying as a consultant once they have been properly trained and earned the requisite experience.
The median salary for a forensic science technician as of May 2012 is $52,840 annually while the lowest paid 10% earn $34,750 and the top 10% earn more than $85,210. It is important to recognize that these figures include all forensic technicians, not only handwriting analysts and forensic document examiners.
According to Indeed.com, as of November 2014 the average annual salary for forensic investigators was $50,000.
As with any profession, the salary that one can expect to earn as a forensic document examiner will depend largely on that individual’s experience and training as well as the employer and location of the job. Keep reading for more details on desirable training, certifications, and geographies for forensic document examiners and handwriting analysts.
Handwriting analysts and forensic document examiners are necessary in many levels of law enforcement and therefore should be able to find work in virtually any geography. However, the fact remains that those law enforcement agencies in larger, more densely populated areas will likely have more need and resources for these types of consultants. Further, for those examiners looking to work alongside forensic accountants, the larger companies who employ forensic accountants generally have offices in all major cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami. It is worth noting that foreign agencies outside of the U.S. may have a need for forensic document examiners as well.
When salary is a main concern, interested applicants should remember that geographic areas with higher costs of living will offer higher median salaries, although that may not correlate to a higher standard of living. For example, a forensic technician in California can expect to earn a median annual salary of $73,500, which is significantly higher than the national median rate of $54,400. At the same time, forensic science technicians in Louisiana earn a median annual salary of $43,200, which is comparatively low.
Unlike some careers, there is no one set path that leads to work as a handwriting analyst of forensic document examination. As of 2014 there exists no terminal degree for forensic document examination, although the majority of applicants have at minimum a bachelor’s degree. Because forensic document examination does require the scientific process as well as well as a high degree of attention to detail, an undergraduate degree in some type of science or criminal justice can be helpful. Additionally, many FDEs choose to pursue graduate level education in criminal justice or forensics.
The truth is that most forensic document examination learning is done on the job, with thorough training from experienced FDEs. For example, FDEs that work for the FBI must complete a mandatory two year training which includes “classroom lectures, practical problems, oral boards, testing, and moot courts.” This kind of training is optimal for forensic document examination as it is not a skill which is well suited to distance learning or online education.
There are some colleges and universities that offer certificate programs specifically in forensic document examination, which may be worth exploring for those that are unable to find hands on training or who simply want to add to their resume.
After some experience in the field, forensic document examiners may choose to pursue optional certification. FDEs may seek certification from the Board of Forensic Document Examiners (BFDE) or the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners (ABFDE). See the resources at the end of this section for more information.