For scientists interested in criminal justice, becoming a forensic chemist is a great career choice.
Forensic chemistry involves using scientific methods to investigate physical evidence. For example, forensic chemists fight crimes with science by analyzing evidence collected from crime scenes and giving testimonies based on laboratory test results. The analyses of the collected evidence help law enforcement determine the cause of a crime or who is at fault. Examples of analyzed evidence include DNA samples from substances such as hair and blood and rubble collected from a crime scene, such as soil, paint chips, and broken glass.
In addition to chemistry, forensic chemists must know multiple disciplines, including biology, genetics, physics, toxicology, and materials science. A background in criminology is also helpful, as well as skills in public speaking and technical writing.
While some forensic chemists work in law enforcement crime laboratories rather than at actual crime scenes, they are also expected to present their findings in legal proceedings. These professionals are tasked with explaining technical-scientific analyses in a simplified and objective way. As a result, the judge, jury, and attorneys can understand their conclusive evidence and use the information to determine criminal cases. Forensic chemists present analyzed evidence in an objective matter. While they serve as scientific and legal experts, they do not deliver verdicts in criminal cases.
Most forensic chemist positions require a bachelor’s degree, and leadership positions require a master’s or doctoral degree. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that most professionals working in related careers, such as forensic science technicians, occupy positions in local, state, or federal government laboratories. The BLS (Sept. 2023) shows that 60 percent of forensic science techs work in local government.
Since the results can determine the cause of a crime or the person at fault for causing a crime, forensic scientists must be critical thinkers and objective communicators.
Read on to learn more about forensic chemists’ career outlook, salary, and job descriptions.
Aspiring forensic chemists can pursue this career knowing that this profession is growing. While the US Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t list specific occupational statistics for forensic chemists, the related role of forensic science technicians is growing more than twice the national average at 11 percent (BLS 2023). In fact, between 2022 and 2032, the BLS predicts 2,300 new positions will be added to the current 18,500 employed forensic science techs.
Forensic chemists who know how to utilize forensic DNA technology will be in demand in the coming years. According to Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News , forensic chemists can bring justice to unsolved murders with a high degree of accuracy using DNA sequencing technology. The use of emerging DNA technology in law enforcement, which is emerging as a standard in government forensic laboratories, is expected to contribute to the continued growth of this career.
Salary data is determined by several factors, including a candidate’s years of experience, educational background, and multidisciplinary training. Below is a breakdown of salary data for forensic chemists by average, percentiles, years of experience, top-paying sectors, top-paying states, and cities in the United States.
The BLS lists the median annual salary of forensic science technicians—a position related to forensic chemists—as $61,930 (BLS Sept. 2023). However, self-reported salary data from PayScale.com (2023) shows the average annual salary of forensic science technicians to be $50,565 based on 51 reported salaries.
The BLS (May 2022) also reports the following annual salary data for forensic science technician salary percentiles:
Salary data from PayScale.com (2023) reports average annual salary data, based on years of experience, for professionals working in forensic science technician positions as:
Here is a list of average annual salaries for the top-paying industries for forensic science technicians (BLS May 2022):
Below is a list of the states paying the highest salaries for forensic science technicians, the number of employed professionals in each state, and the average annual salary (BLS May 2022):
Below is a list of the cities and metropolitan areas with the highest number of forensic science technicians, the number of employed professionals, and the average annual salary (BLS May 2022):
|Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim||1,030||$102,450|
|Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land||680||$65,650|
|New York-Newark-Jersey City||490||$84,670|
|Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach||440||$81,940|
In 2022, the American Chemical Society (ACS) published the results of its annual salary survey, which represents self-reported salary data from 5,109 ACS members. This data provides region-specific salary data for chemists in the United States. Interestingly, the responses from 2022 show that chemists with bachelor’s degrees earned more than chemists with master’s and doctoral degrees.
Here is a step-by-step guide to becoming a forensic chemist.
Step One: Graduate from High School (Four Years)
To get accepted into a reputable college or university, high school students are encouraged to take as many courses as possible in mathematics, science, and public speaking. In addition, students who want to stand out to college admissions committees should consider participating in extracurricular activities such as science fair projects focused on forensic science and volunteer activities to gain teamwork experience.
Step Two: Apply to an Accredited Bachelor’s Degree Program
The American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) keeps a list of forensic science educational programs. Forensic chemists typically choose to major in natural sciences or specialized forensic science bachelor’s degree programs.
The Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC) maintains a list of accredited forensic chemistry programs. The mission of FEPAC is to “maintain and enhance the quality of forensic science education through formal evaluation and recognition of college-level academic programs.”
Forensic chemistry programs accredited by FEPAC have met rigorous accreditation standards for undergraduate and graduate study, which gives prospective students and employers confidence in the educational programs’ quality.
The Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Mississippi offers a FEPAC-accredited degree program in forensic chemistry. Students in this program apply scientific principles to physical evidence from crime scenes and learn to explain and defend their results.
This 120-credit program includes courses such as criminal justice; pharmacology; organic chemistry; analytical and physical chemistry; instrumental analysis; statistics; forensic methods course; biochemistry and forensic DNA; advanced instrumentation; toxicology; and genetics.
Step Three: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree from an Accredited Forensic or Natural Science Program (Four to Five Years)
The Department of Chemistry at Buffalo State University – SUNY is nationally accredited by FEPAC and offers a four-year bachelor’s degree in forensic chemistry. Students in this program gain a solid theoretical and practical education emphasizing analytical techniques. The goal is to prepare highly-competent forensic chemists for future careers in the latest DNA analysis techniques.
This 120 to 126-credit program includes courses such as forensic anthropology; molecular biology; scientific criminal evidence analysis; chemistry and criminalistics; organic chemistry; analytical chemistry; biochemistry; professional practices in forensic science; analytical toxicology; and forensic geoscience, among others.
Ohio University offers a FEPAC-accredited bachelor of science program in forensic chemistry preparing students to work in crime laboratories or other law enforcement agencies, such as OSHA, EPA, and FDA, or for graduate-level work in forensic science, analytical chemistry, or forensic chemistry.
Some of the topics students will delve into include analytical chemistry; organic chemistry; introduction to toxicology; basic biochemistry; microscopy and imaging; fundamentals of inorganic chemistry; chromatography and spectroscopy; and physical chemistry, among others.
Recent graduates have taken up roles such as attorneys, applications lab technicians, criminalists, associate chemists, document examiners, drug analysts, forensic scientists, environmental engineers, serologists/drug analysts, and physicians.
Step Four: Apply to an Accredited Master’s Degree Program
Students who want to stand out on their graduate school applications should consider internship opportunities offered during bachelor’s degree programs. Some educational programs require internships with local police and medical examiner offices as part of their graduation requirements. Internships are often unpaid but can offer college credit and valuable on-the-job experience, helping future forensic chemists determine areas of specialization.
The Department of Forensic Sciences at George Washington University offers a FEPAC-accredited master of forensic science with a concentration in forensic chemistry. This program has a well-established reputation for excellence, and its proximity to national security in Washington, D.C. offers excellent internships and employment opportunities.
This MFS program in forensic chemistry helps students in gaining the skills and knowledge needed for understanding and interpreting material composition, uncovering drug compositions, and identifying chemical components at the molecular level. The program comprises 37 credits and includes courses such as ethics, professional responsibility, and quality assurance; the fundamentals of forensic science; criminal law for forensic scientists; trace evidence analysis; forensic chemistry; forensic drug analysis; and statistics for forensic scientists.
Step Five: Earn a Master’s Degree in Forensic Science or a Related Field (Two Years)
The Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Alabama at Birmingham is one of only 17 master’s programs accredited by FEPAC and offers a two-year master of science program in forensic science. This two-year program prepares its graduates for careers in multiple forensic sciences through conventional analytical laboratory work and applying scientific methodologies to legal proceedings.
With an 88 percent job placement rate for students graduating in 2021, alumni of this program have pursued work in forensic science laboratories operated by the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). This program features teaching faculty from related academic disciplines and local law enforcement and DNA profiling laboratories. Faculty in this program are known for their research emphases in drug chemistry and DNA identification forensic aspects.
This 40-credit program includes courses such as forensic toxicology; elements of forensic science; conventional criminalistics; forensic drug analysis; molecular biology in forensic science; law evidence and procedure; biostatistics; advanced drug chemistry & toxicology; advanced biological methods in forensic science; and molecular genetics.
Pennsylvania State University’s Eberly College of Science offers an MPS in forensic science providing students with a foundation in general criminalistics along with specialized training and education in either forensic chemistry or forensic biology. Graduates from the program are well-positioned for fieldwork or research-based careers.
The emphasis on forensic chemistry program consists of 41 credits, including courses such as criminalistics; a scientific approach to crime scene investigation; chromatography and electrochemistry; drug chemistry and toxicology; forensic chemistry; and laboratory in crime scene investigation.
Step Six: Apply for Forensic Chemist Positions (Timeline Varies)
Graduates from undergraduate or graduate programs should hone their professional networking connections made from internships, interactions with teaching faculty, and classmates to land forensic chemistry positions after graduation. Organizations such as the American Chemical Society (ASC) provide continuing education courses and career opportunities, and graduates are encouraged to join a professional society for these valuable networking resources.
The primary responsibility of a forensic chemist is to collect and analyze evidence supporting criminal investigation efforts. Forensic chemists also analyze the evidence in laboratory settings and sometimes collect evidence at actual crime scenes. Testifying in legal proceedings is required in some forensic chemist positions.
Below are some examples of the tasks and responsibilities of forensic chemists in three employment settings: crime scenes, laboratories, and courtrooms. Examples of forensic chemist laboratory tasks include:
Examples of forensic chemist crime scene tasks include:
Examples of forensic chemist courtroom tasks include:
The BLS reports a wide range of certifications available for forensic science technicians. Certification requirements vary for each forensic position and have special eligibility, continuing education, and renewal requirements.
The American Board of Criminalists (ABC) offers several types of certification for forensic science professionals. Applicants who meet the eligibility requirements, which include a bachelor’s degree in natural science from an accredited institution and at least two years of professional experience, can apply to take these certification exams:
The American Board of Forensic Toxicology (ABFT) also offers several levels of certifications that could be of use to forensic chemists. To be eligible, an applicant must prove their engagement in forensic toxicology. Certificates are valid for five years; credential holders can renew by providing proof of annual continuing education and paying a $100 annual fee.
Jocelyn Blore is the chief content officer of Sechel Ventures and the co-author of the Women Breaking Barriers series. She graduated summa cum laude from UC Berkeley and traveled the world for five years. She also worked as an addiction specialist for two years in San Francisco. She’s interested in how culture shapes individuals and systems within societies—one of the many themes she writes about in her blog, Blore’s Razor (Instagram: @bloresrazor). She has served as managing editor for several healthcare websites since 2015.