Many people grow up wanting to fight crime. But while not all of us can become superheroes or even police officers, there are many ways people can assist in identifying, prosecuting, and convicting criminals in the field of forensic science. Because a signature is legally binding and easily forged, forensic document examiners examine writing samples to determine fraudulence or innocence.
By evaluating letter and word spacing, spelling, and grammar patterns in handwritten samples, forensic document examiners or FDEs can provide critical evidence and testimony to prove innocence or support prosecution in fraudulent crimes.
When a company or a government agency needs to prove who signed a document, a handwriting analyst or forensic document examiner is called in to confirm the validity of a signature. According to handwriting expert Teresa DeBerry, author of the “Handwriting Forensics Blog,” professionals in handwriting forensics use tools such as basic measuring instruments, microscopes, and magnification tools to confirm that a person’s handwriting is, in fact, their own.
If you are interested in detailed and meticulous work and prefer examining handwriting over blood spatters, forensic document examination may be the right field for you. These highly-trained specialists use scientific methods to determine the origin and integrity of all types of documentation. Read on to learn more about how forensic document examiners use handwriting analysis to solve crimes.
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 a person’s psychological state or personality through the 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 independent consultants. A forensic document examiner must be trained to appear as an expert witness in court and present 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. From 2019 to 2029, the career is expected to grow at the rate of 14 percent, which is somewhat slower than the average for all occupations in the country (BLS 2021).
An 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 the coming years. Advancing technology will also mean that even those forensic science technicians employed will need to be diligent with staying on top of new trends and training to remain competitive in the field.
To learn more about the current occupational outlook, here are some resources for handwriting analysts:
Because forensic document examination and analysis are essential 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. Some forensic document examiners are also certified fraud examiners.
Finally, an experienced forensic document examiner may also choose to strike out independently 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 several 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.
To read more from about a day in the life of a handwriting analyst, to search for open positions, and learn about specialized federal law enforcement units here are some resources:
According to the BLS, the median annual salary for a forensic science technician is $60,590 (BLS 2021). While the lowest paid 10 percent earn $36,630 or less and the top 10 percent earn $100,910 or more, it is important to recognize that these figures include all forensic technicians, not only handwriting analysts and forensic document examiners.
Self-reported data from Indeed.com (June 2021) is similar to the BLS figures, showing the average annual salary for forensic investigators was $68,010, based on 45 self-reported salaries.
As with any profession, the salary that one can expect to earn as a forensic document examiner will depend mainly on that individual’s experience and training and 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.
To learn more about salary data for handwriting analysts by region, here are some websites that list federal and self-reported salary data:
Handwriting analysts and forensic document examiners are necessary for 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 demand and resources for these types of consultants.
Further, for those examiners looking to work alongside forensic accountants, the larger companies that 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 need forensic document examiners as well.
Suppose salary is a primary deciding factor in finding a job. In that case, interested applicants should remember that geographic areas with higher living costs will offer higher median salaries, although that may not correlate to a higher standard of living.
For example, the top-paying state for forensic science technicians is California, which employs 2,270 forensic science technicians and pays an annual average annual salary of $88,090 (BLS May 2020).
To estimate living expenses such as housing, groceries, and utilities in a particular state, the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC) offers a cost of living data series. California is the top-paying state for forensic science tech. California is also the fourth most expensive state to live in according to MERIC. There are other areas where a lower average salary for forensic science technicians also comes with more affordable living costs.
To research cost-of-living and employment levels in a particular area, here are some sites offering data and interviews from forensic document examiners:
Unlike some careers, no one set path leads to work as a handwriting analyst of forensic document examination. As of 2021, there is no terminal degree for forensic document examination, although a few forensic science programs with a specialization in forensic document analysis exist. Applicants to entry-level forensic document examination positions have at minimum a bachelor’s degree that includes coursework in laboratory and fieldwork settings.
Because forensic document examination does require the scientific process and a high degree of attention to detail, an undergraduate degree in some type of natural science or criminal justice can be helpful.
Buffalo State SUNY (State University of New York) offers an undergraduate forensic science degree program awarding a bachelor of science in chemistry. This 120-126 credit hour program is accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC) and trains graduates for entry-level jobs in federal, state, and local law enforcement and corporate laboratories. Tuition for this program costs $3,535 per semester for full-time in-state students and $8,490 per semester for out-of-state students.
Some colleges and universities offer certificate programs specifically in forensic document examination, which may be worth exploring for those who are unable to find hands-on training or simply want to add to their resume.
The University of Baltimore offers a 12-credit forensic document examination certificate program. This program is ideal for bachelor’s degree holders who hold a degree in a discipline not related to forensic science or working in crime scene investigation and need continuing education credits to advance or qualify for certain positions.
Students in this program learn how to use state-of-the-art equipment to examine documents and present their findings in legal settings. Tuition for this program is $326 per credit for in-state residents and $1,032 per credit for out-of-state residents.
Many FDEs choose to pursue graduate-level education online in criminal justice or forensics. Graduates from these programs pursue a specialization in specific areas of forensic science and are offered on-campus or online to meet the needs of working professionals.
Oklahoma State University offers a masters of science in forensic sciences with a forensic documentation examination specialty. This entirely online program is 39-credits and requires job-related experience in forensic science to be eligible for admission. This program is offered in a non-thesis track, meaning students must complete apprenticeship or journeyman programs instead of a research-based terminal project.
Tuition reciprocity agreements are provided with several neighboring states meaning students who live in certain states can qualify for in-state tuition even if they aren’t residents of Oklahoma. Tuition for in-state residents is $230.45 per credit hour and $876.40 per credit for out-of-state residents.
After earning a degree or 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).
Here are two certification organizations that offer certification related to forensic document examiners.
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).