CSI is more than the title of a top-rated, long-running television show with spinoffs galore; it also happens to be a very viable and very popular career field.
Many of those interested in crime scene investigation start down the path because of things read in books or seen on television or in the movies. Of course, the actual career of a crime scene investigator is not precisely the same as those portrayed on television. However, it is still a very exciting career that calls to many and is worth exploring for those drawn to it.
A CSI agent, a title that’s interchangeable with a crime scene investigator, has many responsibilities at a crime scene. They will walk through the crime scene, look for evidence, and collect it using a precise methodology that protects it from contamination. A CSI agent may also be tasked with taking photos of the scene and making sketches for later recreation and presentation in court. Some of the types of evidence that a CSI agent is likely to collect at crime scenes include fingerprints, bodily fluids, and weapons. When a CSI agent collects the evidence, they also catalog it before transferring it to a lab. Crime scene investigators also have to present their findings to others on their team, attorneys, and trials in many cases. The work schedule of an investigator can vary. Crime never sleeps, so it is common to have to work in the evenings and on holidays.
While the responsibilities of a crime scene investigator are similar to police detectives, aspiring CSI agents wonder: what does the job demand look like for crime scene investigators in the coming years? And how much do CSI agents make?
Read on to learn more about the career and salary outlook for CSI investigators.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2021) does not distinguish crime scene investigators from forensic science technicians for their data collection purposes. That being said, the BLS estimates that both occupations will be in demand between 2019 and 2029, experiencing higher rates of growth than the current national average for all occupations (4 percent).
Police and detective careers are projected to grow at 5 percent nationally, adding 40,600 new positions in the coming decade, adding to the existing 813,500 jobs. By comparison, forensic science technicians will grow 14 percent—more than twice the growth rate—representing the creation of 2,400 new jobs in the same period. While not all of these jobs will be specific to crime scene investigation, some certainly will.
Because of the popularity of the field, those who enter it will likely find stiff competition for jobs. Those who have more education, such as a bachelor’s degree in forensic science or a similar field such as criminal justice, or those who have experience working with law enforcement in another capacity, may have an advantage when looking for and finding CSI agent positions.
How many crime scene investigators are currently employed? The International Crime Scene Investigators Association (ICSIA) states that there are over 18,000 police agencies in the country, but few hire full-time civilian CSIs. Most, but not all, full-time CSIs begin their careers as sworn-in police officers and work their way towards specialized work in crime scene investigation.
In June 2021, PayScale reported the aggregated salary profiles of 249 crime scene investigators. By comparison, the BLS shows 105,980 detectives and criminal investigators were employed in May 2020.
These numbers are approximations but can be an excellent place to start when thinking about the demand for this position. Other, smaller agencies may have a need for specialists, and often officers take care of many of the duties a specialist would in different locales. This means that the competition could be fierce for these jobs, so aspiring CSIs are advised to seek out education and training opportunities to increase their job prospects.
How much do CSI agents make? The answer depends on the educational pathway and professional experience. Regardless of how they begin their careers, crime scene investigators have to consider the salary and the potential to make a good living over multiple years in a job.
To factor for the cross-over in responsibilities and titles, occupational data for police and detectives and forensic science technicians are used to determine salary data accurately. According to the BLS, in 2020, police and detectives earned median annual salaries of $67,290 per year (BLS May 2020), while forensic science technicians earned median salaries of $60,590 (BLS May 2020).
As with most positions, salaries vary widely based on experience as well as location. The BLS data indicates that the lowest-paid 10 percent of detectives and criminal investigators earned $46,020 while the highest 10 percent earned $146,000 (BLS May 2020). Salary percentiles for forensic science technicians were comparable: the lowest 10 percent earned less than $36,630 per year while the highest-paid 10 percent earned more than $100,910 (BLS May 2020).
As mentioned above, PayScale.com is an aggregator of self-reported salary data and reports position-specific salary data for CSIs. As of May 2021, among the 249 CSIs who reported their salaries to this site, the annual median wage for crime scene investigators was $48,401 (PayScale June 2021). The lower 10 percent earned $35,000, and the upper 10 percent earned $79,000.
From the available data, it would appear that a CSI makes somewhat more on average than a forensic science technician. This could be because there are fewer full-time CSI agent positions, and forensic science technicians are employed in higher numbers. Of course, this comparison also does not negate the fact that CSIs working in more urban areas or who have more experience are likely to make more than their more rural or less experienced counterparts.
To illustrate this point, here are the annual mean wages for the five top-paying metropolitan areas for detectives and criminal investigators, three of which are in California (BLS May 2020):
By comparison, the five top-paying metropolitan areas for forensic science technicians are spread across the country (BLS May 2020):
Cost of living influences salary data, and aspiring CSI agents are encouraged to use tools such as the cost of living data series provided by the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC 2021) when considering job offers. For example, eight of 10 metropolitan areas listed above are in MERIC’s list of 20 most expensive states to live in. Taking a job in a city in Florida and Texas could be more cost-effective given that living expenses such as food, housing, and utilities are statistically cheaper in these states.
As discussed above, there is no one-size-fits-all path to pursuing a career as a crime scene investigator. In particular, those interested in the job will need to decide whether they wish to seek a law enforcement officer position or try to be hired as a civilian CSI. Below are some of the most common steps followed towards the CSI career.
Overall, the timeline to getting started in this career depends heavily on whether one chooses the law enforcement or bachelor’s degree route. Because a police academy typically takes less than a year to complete, this could be the more direct route. However, earning a bachelor’s degree may give new CSI agents an advantage in the future to pursue other avenues of work.
Perhaps the most essential skill for a crime scene investigator is staying calm and composed at a crime scene. Those who pursue work in crime scene investigation have to maintain objectivity and focus at disturbing crime scenes, so having the ability to maintain professionalism in the face of chaos or violence is important. Attention to detail, as well as problem-solving skills, are vital tools to have as well. Excellent communications skills – written and verbal – are important for writing reports, speaking with others on the team, and testifying in court.
While every crime and every crime scene will be different, the reality is that the rigorous processes put into place by investigators, including CSI agents, ensure every crime is investigated thoroughly and accurately. On a regular basis, crime scene investigators:
The tasks that CSIs will find themselves doing depends on their level of experience. New CSIs will likely spend more time physically collecting and tagging the mountains of evidence found at a crime scene or even working in the evidence storage room to ensure things are organized. With time, CSI agents will spend more time recreating crime scenes, working with detectives, and supervising evidence collection.
Law enforcement officers are subject to location-specific education and training requirements.
Again, certification is not strictly required to earn a job in the CSI field. However, it can lend credibility to a CSI’s proficiency and increase promotion opportunities. Some notable organizations offer crime scene investigation certifications that may be useful in advancing in the CSI career, including:
Again, certification is not strictly required to earn a job or a promotion in the crime scene investigation field; however, it can lend credibility to a CSIs expertise and may be worth pursuing after gaining some experience in the field.
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).