Imagine being the only one who can finally put a criminal behind bars. The best evidence in a decades-old murder case could come from the work done in a lab, and a DNA analyst could finally bring a violent criminal to justice while giving a family closure. At the end of a long day doing meticulous and sometimes grueling work, these can be the rewards of pursuing a career as a DNA analyst.
In recent years, DNA analysis has risen as a top field of interest for those who want to put their laboratory skills to work in the service of criminal justice. Forensic science technicians with DNA analysis skills have been able to bring criminals to justice or help kidnapped children locate their birth parents through DNA samples from direct-to-consumer testing companies such as 23andMe and AncestryDNA.
By comparing DNA results from spit tests with DNA samples collected from crime scenes or law enforcement, law enforcement has irrefutable evidence of innocence or guilt. While this practice is controversial, public support is high for using DNA genomes to solve crimes. Results from the Pew Research Center in 2020 showed that 48 percent of Americans surveyed agreed that DNA testing companies should share customers’ genetic data with law enforcement to solve crimes.
While some lawmakers propose including a consent option for consumers to share their DNA data with law enforcement, the practice of analyzing spit sample data against crime scene evidence has proven to be effective. In 2020, the Pew Charitable Trusts reported that since May 2018, public databases such as GEDmatch have helped law enforcement identify 83 crime suspects and 11 homicide victims and solve at least 70 violent crimes in the United States by the end of 2019.
DNA analysts are responsible for the analysis of DNA evidence collected from a crime scene. A typical day in this profession includes time spent in a laboratory developing DNA profiles. DNA analysts could use evidence from those profiles to exonerate or implicate someone in a crime. Once evidence is analyzed, the DNA specialist will create detailed and accurate reports and will often be required to spend time in the courtroom testifying the evidence.
While the work may not be the most glamorous, front-page position, this can be a gratifying career for those with the right temperament and skills.
The employment outlook for those in the field of forensic science and DNA analysis is quite good. According to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2020), opportunities in the field of forensic science technology should grow at a rate of 14 percent between 2019 and 2029. Currently, there are about 17,200 jobs in the field, which is predicted to increase by about 2,400 jobs in that decade.
Pursuing a career in DNA analysis is a wise investment of time and money in a career. The demand for DNA specialists is likely to keep growing since forensic DNA evidence can be quite precise and definitive and has been pivotal in establishing the innocence or guilt of criminal suspects. The majority of DNA analysts work directly with police departments at the local, state, and federal levels and private companies that offer those law enforcement agencies services.
Here are the industries with the highest employment of forensic science technicians (BLS May 2020):
DNA analyst salaries can vary quite a bit based on several different factors. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2020) reported that the median salary for forensic science techs, including DNA analysts, was $60,590. In the same year, the average annual salary was $63,170 for the 16,520 techs employed nationally (BLS May 2020).
Here are the average annual salary percentiles for forensic science technicians in the U.S. (BLS May 2020):
Factors that could affect salaries available to DNA analysts include location, the type of work that one is doing, and the department for which one works. The number of years on the job and types of degrees and advanced certificates held could be other factors.
The DNA analyst job is highly technical and requires specific education and training that cannot be learned on the job. While not every DNA analyst will take the same path in pursuit of a career, the following are the most common steps:
A high school graduate dedicated to this career path may be able to find entry-level work after just four years of undergraduate education. Many undergraduate programs offer internships with local law enforcement agencies that allow students to gain experience and make professional connections while still completing their degrees.
Some of the traits that those who are in the DNA analysis field need to have include:
Even though DNA analysts work in a lab setting, they still need to make sure that they can work well in a team environment. Most of the time, those working in the lab will have a regular workday schedule, but the role may also require late hours or travel to a crime scene or complete an analysis to make a deadline. In some cases, the DNA analyst job position may require a presentation of findings in a courtroom setting.
These skills will help DNA analysts to accomplish their daily tasks best and tend to their responsibilities, such as:
Unlike some professions, there is no legal certification or licensure requirement for DNA analysts. However, those that want to advance in their career may find it helpful to pursue professional certification after gaining some experience.
Having laboratory certification is recommended to prove knowledge of procedures and policies for prospective employers. The American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) offers board certification for medical laboratory technicians and several other related positions. The ASCP offers details on exam eligibility pathways and exam content on its website.
One option for DNA analysts is to become an American Board of Criminalistics (ABC) Diplomate. To become a fellow of the ABC, DNA analysts can submit to a specialty test in molecular biology that is specific to criminalistics. Applicants must have at least two years of experience to be eligible for this designation.
As of April 2021, the ABC is field testing a Forensic DNA Certification exam for those wanting to prove their professional qualifications as a DNA analyst.
Since forensic science varies widely in its disciplines and DNA can be analyzed through several scientific collection methods, many forensic science organizations provide professional support and certification. The Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board keeps a list of accredited conformity assessment bodies, known as CABs. While it may not be necessary for licensure at the state level, DNA analysts can earn certification through these organizations:
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).