Forensic biology can prove an ideal career path for professionals with a passion for criminal justice and natural science. 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 a 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 2021), forensic science technicians—a closely related career to forensic biologists—can specialize in crime scene investigations or laboratory analysis.
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. Beyond murder cases, forensic biologists can also assess the scope of damage of a natural disaster such as an oil spill. For these tasks, clear written and communication skills are essential to ensure the process of collecting and analyzing evidence follows the ethics of criminal justice.
Read on to learn more about the rewarding opportunities available in forensic biology careers.
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. It is estimated that between 2020 and 2030, 2,700 new positions will be created. This represents 16 percent growth in that decade (BLS 2021).
It should be 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 2021 report shows these states as the top five largest employers of forensic science technicians:
What’s more; the BLS shows the top-employing industries for forensic science technicians for May 2021:
As is the case with all occupations, salaries depend on various 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. Among the 17,020 forensic science technicians working around the US, the BLS (May 2021) found an average annual salary (annual mean wage) of $66,850. A breakdown of the salary percentage estimates is as follows:
It’s worth mentioning that PayScale.com (2022), an aggregator of self-reported salary data, also shows salary data for science technicians and lists the average annual salary at $49,014. However, this data was compiled from 61 individuals in August 2022, which may explain why this annual salary is lower than the BLS.
It’s worth mentioning that Salary.com (2022), shows career-specific data for forensic biologists. It states that the average forensic biologist salary in the United States was $52,789 as of August 2022, but the salary range typically falls between $47,811 and $59,591.
Job seekers looking for work in different cities across the country may find a cost of living calculator useful when considering salaries. Sources such as MERIC 2022 (the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center) help job seekers compare the cost of living between cities and states.
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 public speaking and criminal justice courses, if available. Students are advised to keep their GPAs high 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 with 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 that 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 30-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 that specialize in 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.
As previously mentioned, forensic biologists split their time between crime scenes and laboratories. Below are two lists of work environments and the typical tasks and responsibilities performed.
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.
Numerous forensic science organizations provide certification. The Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB) recognizes ten certifying forensic science organizations, four of which are relevant to forensic biology:
For example, the American Board of Criminalistics (ABC) offers the Forensic Science Assessment Test (FSAT). This general knowledge exam comprises 200 multiple-choice questions which must be completed in three hours. The FSAT is recognized by academic and professional laboratories, and students can take this exam to demonstrate their scientific knowledge to prospective employers or academic departments.
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).