careers-dna-analyst-990x358-v2

Search For Schools

DNA Analyst Job Description, Education Requirements & Salary

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.

Career Outlook for Forensic DNA Analysts

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):

  • Local Government: 9,970 forensic science technicians employed
  • State Government: 4,630
  • Architectural, Engineering, and Related Services: 550
  • Medical and Diagnostic Laboratories: 510
  • Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools: 230

Salary Range for Forensic DNA Analysts

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):

  • 10th percentile: $36,630
  • 25th percentile: $46,460
  • 50th percentile: $60,590
  • 75th percentile: $79,330
  • 90th percentile: $100,910

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.

How to Become a DNA Analyst

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:

  • Step 1: Earn a high school diploma (four years) – A high school diploma is required for any DNA analyst. Students should focus mainly on natural science courses such as biology and chemistry to gain admission into an accredited undergraduate program.
  • Step 2: Pursue a relevant bachelor’s degree (four years) – Because DNA analysis is so dependent on meticulous lab work, DNA analysts must have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, with natural science degrees preferred. Prospective DNA analysts should consider a degree in biology, chemistry, or a Forensic Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC) accredited forensic science program. Eastern Kentucky University offers a FEPAC-accredited bachelor’s degree in forensic science. This program was established in 1974, making it one of the oldest of its kind. This program teaches students to perform analyses using scientific methods, write reports for legal documentation, and prepare testimonies for courtroom cases.
  • Step 3: Seek entry-level employment (timeline varies) – After earning a bachelor’s degree, graduates may be able to find entry-level jobs in a lab, an opportunity that provides more hands-on experience and builds on classroom training.
  • Step 4: Consider advanced education (two to four years) – Some DNA analysts may choose to pursue an advanced degree, such as a master’s degree in forensic DNA and serology or even a PhD, depending on the type of long-term careers an individual has. West Virginia University was the first institution in the United States to offer bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in forensic science. Advanced degrees from this FEPAC-accredited institution teach advanced techniques and concepts in a multidisciplinary curriculum that combines science with criminalistics and communication. Graduates are expected to pursue and publish research on cutting-edge issues and frequently present at forensic science conferences.
  • Step 5: Obtain professional certification – Professional certification, such as earning a diplomate or a fellow status from the American Board of Criminalistics is another way that experienced DNA analysts can grow their career opportunities.

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.

DNA Analyst Job Requirements, Tasks, and Responsibilities

Some of the traits that those who are in the DNA analysis field need to have include:

  • Attention to detail
  • Ability to solve problems
  • Analytical thinking
  • Good speaking and writing skills

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:

  • Working with DNA collected from a crime scene to identify unique DNA profiles
  • Comparing collected DNA to existing samples
  • Testifying to findings in court
  • Writing reports on findings
  • Maintaining a chain of custody for DNA evidence
  • Communicating with law enforcement as to findings

DNA Analyst Certification and Licensure

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:

  • American Board of Criminalistics (ABC)
  • American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators (ABMDI)
  • American Board of Forensic Toxicology (ABFT)
  • Board of Forensic Document Examiners (BFDE)
  • American Board of Forensic Document Examiners (ABFDE)
  • International Board of Forensic Engineering Sciences (IBFES)
  • American Board of Forensic Odontology (ABFO)
  • American Board of Forensic Anthropology (ABFA)
  • International Association of Computer Investigative Specialists (IACIS)
  • Certified Fire Investigator Board, International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI)
Writer

Rachel Drummond

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).