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Forensic Biologist – Education, Career & Salary

For professionals with a passion for criminal justice and natural science, forensic biology can prove an ideal career path. Forensic biologists are tasked with collecting evidence from a crime scene and analyzing it for clues to collect details. From this objective process, forensic biologists piece together theories about who or what is at fault in a crime. By examining bodily fluids, bones, hair, insects, plants, and animals at a crime scene, a forensic biologist prepares detailed analysis of their findings which can be used in legal cases to determine the cause of a crime.

While this is a great career for those who enjoy outdoor and laboratory tasks, it is safe to say that forensic biologists should be prepared for the messy work of collecting clean samples of unpleasant materials. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), forensic science technicians—a closely related career to forensic biologists—can specialize in crime scene investigations or laboratory analysis (BLS 2020).

In the field, forensic biologists collect biological samples from outdoor areas, from clothing fibers, or from surfaces such as weapons at a crime scene. In a laboratory, forensic biologists evaluate the collected evidence using microscopes and DNA analysis techniques. Creative skills such as sketching a reconstructed crime scene and photographing evidence may be other useful skills for a forensic biologist.

Those with senior-level experience in the field of forensic biology are called upon to provide expert testimony in criminal cases based. Beyond murder cases, forensic biologists can also assess the scope of damage of a natural disaster such as an oil spill. For these tasks, having clear written and communication skills are absolutely essential to ensure the process of collecting and analyzing evidence follows the ethics of criminal justice.

While it may seem that the work of a forensic biologist is repetitive, it is anything but boring. Laura Alzubi, a forensic scientist with a background in molecular biology, works for the City of Phoenix and says, “I deal with interesting cases every single day […] I’ve identified an individual’s fingerprints on items such as straw wrappers and ashtrays as well as weapons such as knives and guns […] and a lot of people don’t realize how little we need to actually make that determination.”

Read on to learn more about the rewarding opportunities available in forensic biology careers.

Career Outlook for Forensic Biology

When considering any career pathway, one important factor is to research projected career growth. While the BLS doesn’t report occupational data for forensic biologists, the closely-related career of forensic science technicians is growing much faster than the national average. With 16,700 forensic science technicians currently employed, it is estimated that between 2018 and 2028, 2,400 new positions will be created. This represents 14 percent growth in that decade timeframe (BLS 2019).

It should come as no surprise that the states with the highest numbers of employed forensic science technicians are those with large metropolitan areas. Data from the BLS Occupational Employment Statistics May 2019 report shows these states as the top five largest employers of forensic science technicians:

  • California: 2,150 employed
  • Florida: 1,680
  • Texas: 1,480
  • New York: 860
  • Arizona: 700

What’s more, of the 16,700 current employed, the BLS shows the top-employing industries for forensic science technicians for May 2019:

  • Local government (excluding schools and hospitals): 9,790 employed nationwide
  • State government (excluding schools and hospitals): 4,690
  • Medical and diagnostic laboratories: 630
  • Architectural engineering and related services: 380
  • Colleges, universities, and professional schools: 230

Forensic Biologist Salary

As is the case with all occupations, salaries depend on a variety of factors such as levels of education, years of experience, and cost of living in a particular region. As previously mentioned, the BLS doesn’t keep career-specific data for forensic biologists, but it does have plenty of salary data for forensic science technicians, a closely-related occupation. The average annual salary for a forensic science technician is $59,150 (BLS 2019) and a breakdown of the salary percentage estimates are as follows:

  • 10th percentile: $35,620
  • 25th percentile: $45,180
  • 50th percentile: $59,150 (median)
  • 75th percentile: $77,200
  • 90th percentile: $97,350

It’s worth mentioning that PayScale.com (2020), an aggregator of self-reported salary data, shows career-specific data for forensic biologists and lists the average annual salary at $50,168. However, this data was compiled from 21 individuals in 2019, and 12 of the respondents reported being early in their careers with one to four years of experience which may explain why this annual salary is lower than the BLS.

Job seekers looking for work in different cities across the country may find a cost of living calculator useful when considering salaries. Sources such MERIC (the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center) help job seekers compare the cost of living between cities and states.

How to Become a Forensic Biologist

Step one: Graduate from high school or earn a GED (four years). High school students aspiring to pursue careers as forensic biologists are advised to take as many natural science and mathematics courses as possible, as well as courses in public speaking and criminal justice, if available. Students are advised to keep their GPAs high in order to gain admission into a reputable and accredited four-year college or university.

Step two: Enroll in an undergraduate program (four years). Students seeking admission to an undergraduate degree program should look for colleges or universities that hold at least regional accreditation from an entity recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) such as the Higher Learning Commission (HLC)..

To find forensic biology programs of the highest-quality, students should seek out programs accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC), the leading accreditation organization for forensic science degree programs.

An example of a FEPAC-accredited forensic biology program is the bachelor’s of forensic science degree with a concentration in forensic biology offered by the Virginia Commonwealth University. This four-year program combines a firm scientific background with hands-on experience. If enrollment in a FEPAC-accredited program is not an option, aspiring forensic biologists are advised to major in biology and pursue a minor in criminal justice studies and pursue internship opportunities in a crime laboratory.

Step three: Earn a forensic science certificate (optional, six to 12 months). An undergraduate certificate program is designed for students who have earned a BA or BS in chemistry, biology, or natural science. Florida International University (FIU) offers a FEPAC-accredited undergraduate certificate for students majoring in chemistry or biological sciences from FIU who want to pursue a career in a forensic science laboratory.

A non-accredited certificate is available for FIU BA students or community members who hold a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, biological sciences, or a natural science from another institution. Prerequisite courses in calculus, statistics, biology, and chemistry must be completed or verified prior to pursuing certificate coursework.

Step four: Gain professional experience (timeline varies). Graduates with a forensic biology or biology degree and certificate are advised to gain experience through paid work or internship opportunities during or after their undergraduate studies. While it is uncommon, some crime scene investigation positions require police academy training, details for which can be investigated at a local city level.

Step five: Attend a graduate program in forensic biology (optional, two years). Forensic biologists wanting to further their careers or specialize in tracks such as DNA analysis are advised to pursue a master’s degree in forensic biology.

An example of a graduate-level forensic biology program is the master’s of science in forensic sciences program at Oklahoma State University. This FEPAC-accredited 39-credit program features a concentration in forensic biology and DNA. Students seeking admission to this program are encouraged to have a degree or college-equivalent coursework in biology, genetics, or molecular biology as a foundation for this death scene investigation-focused degree program. Forensic biologists with master’s degrees can benefit from opportunities for advancement in crime laboratories.

Step six: earn a doctoral degree in forensic science (optional, two to seven years). While doctoral programs in forensic biology are rare, it is more common to find forensic science doctoral programs and specialize with a concentration in biology.

West Virginia University has FEPAC-accredited undergraduate and graduate programs and offers a PhD program in forensic science. PhDs from this program are prepared for work in academia, government, or private industry as forensic science laboratory specialists. Doctoral students in this program must take five additional courses in addition to the master’s of science coursework and complete a doctoral dissertation.

Forensic Biologist Tasks and Responsibilities

As previously mentioned, forensic biologists split their time between crime scenes and laboratories according to the BLS. Below are two lists of work environments and the typical tasks and responsibilities performed.

Crime Scene Tasks and Responsibilities

  • Assess a crime scene for safety and make a plan for how to collect evidence
  • Collect physical evidence including bodily fluids, hair, fingerprints, leaves, soil samples, and weapons
  • Follow best practices for preserving and labeling evidence
  • Reconstruct crime scenes through sketch drawings and photographs

Laboratory Tasks and Responsibilities

  • Run analysis tests on collected evidence following laboratory procedures
  • Consult with other disciplinary experts in the field such as toxicologists (scientists who study poisons) or odontologists (forensic scientists who study teeth remains)
  • Analyze evidence and make possible connections between suspects or causes of crime
  • Write up conclusions from laboratory results including DNA as evidence to be used in an official report or evidence in a criminal trial

Forensic Biology Professional Certification

As with most professions, certification requirements for forensic biologists vary by state and laboratory specialty. Most laboratories require technicians to earn laboratory-specific certification to ensure they are knowledgeable in laboratory procedures.

There are numerous forensic science organizations that provide certification. The Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB) recognizes ten certifying forensic science organizations, four of which are relevant to forensic biology:

  • American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS)
  • American Board of Criminalistics (ABC)
  • American Board of Forensic Toxicology (ABFT)
  • American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators (ABMDI)

For example, the American Board of Criminalistics (ABC) offers the Forensic Science Assessment Test (FSAT). This general knowledge exam comprises 220 multiple-choice questions which must be completed in three hours. The FSAT is recognized by academic and professional laboratories and students can opt to take this exam to demonstrate their levels of scientific knowledge to prospective employers or academic departments.

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: @oregon_yogini).