Criminalists use scientific and investigative methods to deduce how a particular crime took place. Today’s criminalists utilize modern tools like 3D imaging and DNA sequencing to help law enforcement, building upon methods used hundreds of years ago. According to the Fingerprint Sourcebook by the U.S. Department of Justice, around 221 B.C., the Chinese used fingerprints and handprints to identify documents using clay imprints which was the first known instance of fingerprinting.
Most of the investigative methods in use today were refined in the 1800s and 1900s. The first microscope was developed in the 1800s, as was the first use of photography to identify criminals and documentation of evidence. Later in the 1900s, law enforcement used a bullet comparison to catch a murderer, and the first use of toxicology occurred 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 share their findings with law enforcement and the judicial system. It can be a satisfying career since criminalistics involves working with different people and situations and using various tools and acquired knowledge to gather evidence to solve crimes.
Criminalist careers are in high demand. Granted, the popularity of shows like CSI, Law & Order, and Bones brought forensic science into the mainstream. Still, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2022) has also noted an uptick in demand. From 2021 to 2031, forensic science technicians, who share a similar occupational title to criminalists, are projected to grow by 11 percent, a rate that is faster than the average for all occupations at 5 percent.
Read on to learn more about becoming a criminalist, including career outlook, education, responsibilities, salary, and certification.
As stated above, the career outlook is positive for criminalists in the coming decade. Because the job responsibilities for each position vary, aspiring criminalists can expect job openings in the coming years based on their criminalist area of specialization.
Between 2021 and 2031, the BLS shows this occupation will add an estimated 2,000 new forensic science technician positions, adding to the 17,600 currently employed (BLS 2022). Those with solid backgrounds in natural sciences with work experience in laboratories are qualified for most forensic science technician positions.
While an understanding of modern law enforcement methods is essential in becoming a successful criminalist, competence in scientific fields, an aptitude for scientific inquiry, and following reliable research methods are also crucial. Aspiring criminalists should consider whether their interests lie in analyzing specific crimes, exploring crime’s role in society, or the psychological components of committing crimes.
Career options for prospective criminalists can vary by state, with different standards, needs, and academic or professional requirements. For example, the State of California requires that 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 created four career levels for this profession, starting with an entry-level criminalist who performs routine lab work and assists higher-level criminalists.
The second level follows this: a senior criminalist position, which candidates can be eligible for after two years working 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 supervisors or managers to lower-level criminalists or provide training and methodology development to the field.
The third 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 fourth and final level is a criminalist manager, which requires spending 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 related to criminalistics—typically need an accredited bachelor’s degree in forensic science or natural science with a forensic focus. However, graduate or doctoral degrees in science or law enforcement may be helpful for higher-level or specialized forensic positions.
Numerous on-campus and online forensic science degrees are offered by reputable and accredited institutions across the United States. Forensic science programs are accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC), whose mission is to “maintain and enhance the quality of forensic science education through a formal evaluation and recognition of college-level academic programs.”
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, including eight semesters of general chemistry and three semesters of quantitative analysis. Additionally, candidates seeking forensic biology or DNA positions must have taken an additional two semesters of molecular biology, biochemistry, or genetics.
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 other 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 expert witnesses.
Some municipalities have different job titles according to job responsibilities. San Diego County distinguishes criminalists from forensic evidence technicians. The latter primarily report crime science for documentation and evidence collection, while criminalists are based in labs and mainly 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 collecting 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 play a leadership role in the lab. Levels 3 and 4 include a supervisory role in a lab, where they ensure 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 and 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 are assets since part of the position involves 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 positions to a criminalist are forensic science technicians, who complete general evidence gathering and analysis duties. The average pay for a forensic science technician in the U.S. is $66,850 with the following percentiles (BLS May 2021):
United States: 17,020 employed forensic science technicians
Illinois leads the country in terms of wages for this position, with an annual mean salary of $90,330. Here are the top-paying states for forensic science technicians (BLS May 2021):
California offers some of the highest annual municipal salaries for this position, with seven of the ten top-paying areas in the Golden State. Here are the top-paying metropolitan areas for forensic science technicians (BLS May 2021):
Although not required for all positions, having criminalist certification is an excellent way to show commitment to the field and prove a baseline of professional competencies. Depending on the state or municipality where one works, certification may be a minimum requirement to work legally or meet qualifications for employment in a particular position.
The American Board of Criminalistics (ABC) offers six certifications for forensic scientists, one of which is the Comprehensive Criminalist Examination. To be eligible to take this exam, applicants must have a minimum of two years of experience in criminalistics and be authorized to perform casework in specialty areas.
The 200 exam questions cover many forensic-related disciplines and 20 pilot questions. Some questions are more general, while others are more specific to forensic disciplines. Test-takers have three hours to answer as many questions as possible, and the ABC offers a study guide to help prepare for the exam.
Membership in professional organizations can help criminalists expand their professional networks to gain connections and access job opportunities. There are many collegiate, state, and national associations that can provide job information, additional certification opportunities, scholarships, and networking events and conferences:
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).