Criminalists use scientific and investigative methods to deduce how a particular crime took place. Although today’s criminalists utilize modern tools like 3-D imaging and DNA sequencing to help law enforcement, they still build upon the same foundation of this profession that dates back to around 700 AD, when the Chinese used fingerprints to identify documents and clay sculptures, according to the New York State Police Crime Laboratory System.
While some advances occurred prior, most investigative methods in use today were refined in the 1800s and 1900s. The 1800s saw the development of the first microscope; the first use of photography for the identification of criminals and documentation of evidence; a bullet comparison used to catch a murderer; and the first use of toxicology in a jury trial, among many other achievements.
Today, criminalists have a variety of roles. Some visit crime scenes to gather evidence, while others work in labs or offices to analyze these discoveries and their findings are shared with law enforcement and the judicial system. It can be a satisfying career since criminalistics involves working with different people and situations and using different tools and acquired knowledge to solve puzzles.
It is also a career in high demand. Granted, the popularity of shows like CSI, Law & Order, and Bones brought forensic science into the mainstream, but the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has also noted an uptick in demand. Employment of forensic science technicians and private detectives and investigators are both projected to grow by 8 percent nationally from 2018 to 2028, which is slightly faster than the average for all occupations at 5 percent.
Though an understanding of modern law enforcement methods is essential to those interested in becoming criminalists, competence in scientific fields, aptitude with scientific inquiry, and reliable research methods are also crucial. Aspiring criminalists should consider whether their interests lie in the analysis of specific crimes or in exploring crime’s role in society and the psychological components of committing crimes. Those interested in the psychological and social circumstances that contribute to criminal behavior might be better suited to pursue a career in criminology, as criminalistics relates more specifically to the collection and analysis of data from a crime scene.
Career options for prospective criminalists can vary by state, which each have different standards, needs, and academic or professional requirements. For example, the State of California requires that all candidates for the lowest-level criminalist position possess at least a bachelor’s degree in a physical or biological science (e.g., biology or chemistry). College courses must include at least eight semester-hours of chemistry and three semester-hours of quantitative analysis.
California has also created four career levels for this profession, starting with an entry-level criminalist, who performs routine lab work and assists higher-level criminalists. This is followed by the senior criminalist position, which can be obtained after at least two years as a criminalist, four years in a physical or biological lab working as a chemist or biochemist and at least two years as a criminologist (or four years in a lab setting performing forensic research). Senior criminalists perform more complex analyses and may act as managers to lower level criminalists or provide training and methodology development to the field.
The next level is criminalist supervisor, which includes at least one year as a senior criminalist or at least five years working in a lab relating to biology, chemistry or forensics. Criminalist supervisors are responsible for at least four lower-level criminalists or lab technicians within a laboratory or field office. Finally, the criminalist manager must have spent at least one year as a criminalist supervisor, or at least five years in a lab relating to biology, chemistry, or forensics. Criminalist managers plan, organize, and direct criminalist programs and supervise more than one criminalist supervisor.
Forensic science technicians—one job field related to criminalistics—typically need at least an accredited bachelor’s degree in forensic science or a natural science, according to the BLS (2019). However, graduate or doctoral degrees in science or law enforcement may be useful for higher-level or specialized forensic positions.
Some municipalities may require more credentials or specific academic experience. For example, San Diego County requires criminalist candidates to have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college in chemistry, biology, or a relevant field, which includes eight semesters of general chemistry and three semesters of quantitative analysis. Additionally, candidates seeking positions in forensic biology or DNA must have taken an additional two semesters of molecular biology, biochemistry, or genetics.
Membership at professional organizations can assist in job searching. There are many collegiate, state, and national associations that can provide job information, additional certification opportunities, scholarships, and networking events and conferences:
No day as a criminalist is the same, which can be appealing to those who excel at working in different locations and types of tasks. On any given day, criminalists can take photographs at crime scenes; analyze different materials (e.g., paint, blood, firearms, toxins); collect and process prints from scenes and remains; safely transport and secure evidence; search through databases for fingerprints, DNA, serology, and other indicators/possible suspects; and even create casts for impression evidence. Outside of the work at crime scenes or in the laboratory, criminalists could also spend time training new criminalists or testifying in court as an expert witness.
Some municipalities have different job titles according to job responsibilities. San Diego County distinguishes criminalists from forensic evidence technicians. The latter primarily work in the field reporting crime science for documentation and evidence collection, while criminalists are based in labs and primarily analyze the evidence.
In the New York Police Department, criminalists take on more responsibility and independence with experience. For instance, Level 1-A criminalists receive intensive training on the most routine tasks, under close supervision, while Level 1-B begins training with the collection of evidence and lab analysis under direct supervision.
These levels progress to cover more research, familiarity with different materials and scientific tools, and less supervision. By Level 2, criminalists can provide training and guidance to less experienced employees and begin to play a leadership role in the lab. Levels 3 and 4 include a supervisory role in a lab, where they make sure all equipment is calibrated and all reports are written correctly.
Oklahoma has a similar structure with five levels, from fundamental skills under supervision to more advanced research and departmental leadership responsibilities, as well as management tasks like budgeting, grant seeking, and scheduling audits. Beyond subject knowledge, the state also requires items like a valid driver’s license, accurate vision, and the ability to distinguish between colors.
Customer service and people skills are also crucial in criminalistics. Effective verbal and written communication is often listed as assets, and sometimes requirements since part of the position involve interacting with scientific colleagues, law enforcement, people in the legal world, attorneys, and even the public.
Compensation can vary depending on location, expertise, demand, and experience. According to the BLS, the most comparable position to a criminalist is the forensic science technician, who completes general evidence gathering and analysis duties. The average pay for a forensic science technician in the U.S. is $61,220, according to the BLS (May 2019) with the following percentiles:
United States: 16,520 forensic science techs
According to the BLS data, California leads the country in terms of wages for this position, with an annual mean wage of $87,200, followed by Illinois ($82,130), Massachusetts ($76,950), Alaska ($72,380), and Virginia ($69,260).
California also saw some of the highest annual municipal salaries for this position with five of the ten top-paying areas, including San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward ($103,940 average annual salary), Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura ($91,790), Sacramento-Roseville-Arden-Arcade ($90,670), San Jose ($81,910), and San Diego-Carlsbad ($81,810). Also appearing on this list were Toledo, Ohio ($85,320), Washington, D.C. ($85,140), Boston, Massachusetts ($82,850), Chicago, Illinois ($77,350), and Houston, Texas ($77,160).
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).