For scientists seeking a job that combines laboratory science and criminal investigation, becoming a forensic chemist maybe an ideal career.
Forensic chemistry involves the use of scientific methods to investigate physical evidence. Forensic chemists analyze evidence collected from crime scenes and give conclusive 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 have knowledge from multiple disciplines, including biology, genetics, physics, toxicology, and materials science. A background in criminology is also useful as well as skills in public speaking and technical writing.
While some forensic chemists do their work in law enforcement crime laboratories rather than at actual crime scenes, they are also expected to present their findings at legal proceedings. These professionals are tasked with explaining technical scientific analyses in a simplified and objective way so that the judge, jury, and attorneys can understand their conclusive evidence and use the information to make determinations in criminal cases. The analyzed evidence is presented by forensic chemists in an objective matter and 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, as forensic science technicians for example, occupy positions in local, state, or federal government laboratories. In fact, 59 percent of forensic science techs work in local government (BLS 2019). Since the results can be used to determine the cause of a crime or the person at fault of causing a crime, forensic scientists must be critical thinkers and objective communicators.
Read on to learn more about the career outlook, salary, and job descriptions of forensic chemists.
Aspiring forensic chemists and the populations they serve will be happy to know that the career outlook for the profession is positive. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t list specific occupational statistics for forensic chemists, the related role of forensic science technicians is growing at a rate much faster than the national average for all occupations. In fact, between 2018 and 2028, the BLS (2019) projected a 14 percent increase in job openings nationally, adding 2,400 fresh positions.
The American Chemical Society (ACS) explains that the expansion of future employment trends in forensic science can also be attributed to increased use of DNA analysis (ACS 2019). 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 a number of 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 average annual salary of forensic science technicians—a position related to forensic chemists—as $58,230 (BLS 2019). Self-reported salary data from PayScale.com (2020) shows the average annual salary of forensic chemists to be $54,470.
The BLS reports the following annual salary data for forensic science technician salaries in the 10th, 50th, and 90th percentiles:
Salary data from PayScale.com (2020) reports average annual salary data, based on years of experience, for professionals working in forensic chemist positions as:
Here is a list of average annual salaries for the top-paying industries for forensic science technicians (BLS 2019):
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 2019):
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 2019):
|Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim||960||Data unavailable|
|New York-Newark-Jersey City||640||$66,420|
|Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach||440||$63,670|
|Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land||380||$78,640|
Here is a step-by-step guide to becoming a forensic chemist.
Step One: Graduate from High School (Four Years)
In order 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. 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 voluntary 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.
A list of accredited forensic chemistry programs is maintained by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC). 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 quality of educational programs offered.
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 with an emphasis on analytical techniques. The goal is to prepare highly-competent forensic chemists for future careers in the latest DNA analysis techniques.
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 examiners offices as part of their graduation requirements. Internships are often unpaid but can offer college credit and valuable on-the-job experience as well as help future forensic chemists determine areas of specialization.
Step Five: Earn a Master’s Degree in Forensic Science (Two Years)
The Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Alabama at Birmingham is one of only 16 programs accredited by FEPAC and offers a two-year master of science in forensic science program. 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 89 percent job placement rate for students graduating between the years of 2014 to 2017, alumni of this program have gone on to pursue 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 as well as from local law enforcement and DNA profiling laboratories. Faculty in this program are known for their research emphases in the forensic aspects of drug chemistry and DNA identification.
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 their classmates to land positions in forensic chemistry 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 in support of 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 that there is a wide range of certifications available for forensic science technicians and that certification requirements vary for each forensic position.
The American Board of Criminalists (ABC), for example, offers two levels of certification for forensic science professionals. ABC requires applicants to pass six examinations in philosophical and technical aspects of criminalists, including drug analysis, crime scene reconstruction, firearms and toolmarks, molecular biology and DNA, fire debris and explosives, photography, trace evidence, and safety. Certification is valid for five years and recertification can be accomplished through continued training, casework, publishing in forensic science, or retesting through ABC.
The American Board of Forensic Toxicology (ABFT) also offers several levels of certifications that could be of use to forensic chemists.