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Becoming a Forensic Entomologist – Education, Career & Salary

Insects play a crucial, yet often overlooked role in forensics. Just as food crops cannot pollinate without honey bees, murder mysteries would go unsolved without bow flies, maggots, and flesh-eating beetles.

Forensic entomologists are experts in the fields of criminal justice and science who, using their knowledge of how insects aid in bodily decomposition, can determine the time and source of death.

Representing a unique niche of forensic science, entomologists are often likened to forensic biologists. So how do these careers differ? While a forensic biologist examines all types of physical evidence at a crime scene such as bodily fluids, bones, hair, plants, insects, and animals, a forensic entomologist focuses her or his investigation on the presence or absence of insects to draw conclusions about the cause or time of death.

For centuries, forensic entomologists have been using insect evidence to bring criminals to justice and exonerate innocent people. Notably, in the 1800s, the idea of insect succession (the order in which insects participate in decomposition) was tested and proven in a famous case involving a French couple who found the remains of a child when they remodeled their home. The couple was spared criminal prosecution when Dr. Bergeret d’Arbois autopsied the remains and used insect life cycle knowledge to prove the couple’s innocence and charge the previous tenants with murder.

Today, the same principles are used in forensic entomology to solve cold cases such as the one investigated by Dr. Eric Benbow, an entomology professor and forensic entomologist at Michigan State University. In 2019, using his knowledge of aquatic insect succession, Dr. Benbow ruled out the possibility that a body had been submerged in a lake for 21 days as originally suspected.

So what does it take to become a forensic entomologist? Like other forensic science careers, gaining education and experience through school and work is necessary, as well as pursuing certification. For those who aren’t bothered by bugs and crave a multidisciplinary career in criminal justice and science, becoming a forensic entomologist positions a professional for a rewarding career in this fascinating subfield of forensic science.

Read on to learn more about how to become a forensic entomologist.

Career Outlook for Forensic Entomologists

The career outlook is bright for forensic entomologists. Although the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t report specific data for forensic entomologists, a closely-related field of forensic science technicians is growing at a rate of 14 percent which is nearly triple the national average for all occupations (BLS 2020). Between 2019 and 2029, the BLS projects that 2,400 fresh positions will be needed, adding to the 17,200 currently employed forensic science technicians.

As of 2020, the number of forensic entomology positions was slim, but forensic scientists who have their sights set on solving crime with science and insects are advised to network and keep their eyes open for jobs.

Becoming a member of a professional society such as the Entomological Society of America or Entomology Today could lead to valuable networking opportunities or first glances at forensic entomologist jobs as they arrive on the scene.

Forensic Entomologist Salary – Related Careers

 

Forensic Entomologist Average Salary & Percentiles

 

The BLS lists the average annual salary of forensic science technicians—a position related to forensic chemists—as $59,150 (BLS 2020). Self-reported salary data from PayScale.com (2020) shows the average annual salary of forensic chemists to be $52,341.

The BLS reports the following annual salary data for forensic science technician salaries in the 10th, 50th, and 90th percentiles:

  • 10th percentile: $35,620
  • 50th percentile (median): $59,150
  • 90th percentile: $97,350

 

Forensic Entomologist Salary By Years of Experience & Sector

 

Salary data from PayScale.com (2020) reports average annual salary data, based on years of experience, for professionals working in forensic chemist positions as:

  • Entry-level (less than one year of experience): $47,882
  • Early-career (one to four years of experience): $50,394
  • Mid-career (five to nine years of experience): $60,000
  • Experienced: (10 to 19 years of experience): $60,984

Here is a list of average annual salaries for the top-paying industries for forensic science technicians (BLS May 2019):

  • Federal executive branch (OES designation): $111,180
  • Scientific research and development services: $79,970
  • Local government, excluding education and hospitals: $64,700
  • Management, scientific, and technical consulting services: $63,350
  • Offices of physicians: $62,730

 

Forensic Entomologist Salary By Region

 

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):

State Employment Salary
California 2,150 $87,200
Illinois 410 $82,130
Massachusetts 80 $76,950
Alaska 50 $72,380
Virginia 440 $69,260

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):

City/Metropolitan area Employment Salary
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA 970 Data unavailable
New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA 670 $67,880
Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ 490 $63,160
Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX 470 $77,160
Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL 460 $64,210
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA 450 $85,140
Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA 410 $49,690
Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 390 $58,880
Chicago-Naperville-Elgin 330 $77,350
Nashville-Davidson-Murfreesboro-Franklin, TN 330 $53,200

How to Become a Forensic Entomologist

Here is a step-by-step guide to becoming a forensic entomologist: a career that typically requires seven to nine years education and experience.

 

Step One: Graduate from High School (Four Years)

 

High school students who enjoy the arts and sciences and are not squeamish around insects are advised to keep their grades high to gain admission into a reputable bachelor’s degree program. Students should take courses in math, science, communications, and public speaking.

To stand out on college applications, high school students are encouraged to pursue internships in laboratory-based or criminal justice settings. Extracurricular activities involving teamwork and problem-solving are also recommended.

 

Step Two: Apply to an Accredited Bachelor’s Degree Program

 

Most colleges and universities offer bachelor’s of science degrees in biology and chemistry and the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) keeps a list of forensic science educational programs. While specific forensic entomology programs are rare, there are six universities that feature forensic entomology programs and degrees.

A list of accredited general forensic science 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.” The benefit of choosing a forensic science program accredited by FEPAC is that these institutions have met rigorous accreditation standards for undergraduate and graduate study. Programmatic accreditation gives prospective students and employers confidence in the quality of an educational program.

 

Step Three: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree from an Accredited Forensic or Natural Science Program (Four to Five Years)

 

The Department of Entomology and Nematology at the University of California Davis (UC Davis) offers a four-year bachelor’s degree in entomology with options to specialize in medical entomology and toxicology. Students in this program learn fundamental biological concepts and encouraged to pursue research internships in laboratories. Double-majoring is possible through applying to the College of Biological Sciences, College of Engineering, or College of Letters and Sciences.

 

Step Four: Apply to an Accredited Master’s Degree Program

 

While most forensic science technician positions require a bachelor’s degree, those who are sure they want to specialize in forensic entomology are advised to earn a master’s degree.

FEPAC accredits more than fifty forensic science programs, many of which are master’s programs. Schools with regional accreditation are also recommended for prospective graduate students.

 

Step Five: Earn a Master’s Degree in Forensic Science (Two Years)

 

The University of Nebraska offers an online master’s of science in entomology. This two-year program prepares its graduates for careers related to forensic science including forensic and medical entomology; natural history; middle and high-school teaching; plant resistance research and development; and insect pest management.

For more than 100 years, the University of Nebraska has offered distance education courses and excels at making online learning interactive. Students are given multiple opportunities to interact with world-class faculty and researchers as well as their classmates who bring unique global perspectives to the online learning environment.

 

Step Six: Apply for Forensic Entomologist Positions (Timeline Varies)

 

Before graduating, bachelor’s and master’s degree holders are advised to begin networking and job searching. Through talking with professors, classmates, and joining networking groups, forensic entomologists can use their connections to learn about job opportunities in forensic science or entomology.

The Entomological Society of America has an online career center that allows job seekers to upload their resumes and search for jobs. The organization also offers professional development through annual in-person and virtual meetings as well as career development webinars. As well, the North American Forensic Entomology Association (NAFEA) supports professionals in the field of entomology and criminal justice through research, memberships, and annual conferences.

 

Step Seven: Apply for Certification (Timeline Varies)

 

The American Board of Forensic Entomology (ABFE) offers two types of certification for forensic entomologists who have a bachelor’s degree and are pursuing a PhD, or have already earned a master’s degree in entomology, biology, zoology, or ecology as well as professional experience.

Having a member or diplomate certification strengthens the professional credentials of a forensic entomologist. Detailed certification information for forensic entomology is included below.

A Day in the Life of a Forensic Entomologist: Job Responsibilities

To be a forensic entomologist means being ready to work with dirt, insects, and dead bodies. While determining the cause of death is not without its emotional and physical challenges, at the end of the day, forensic entomologists do this work in service of the loved ones of the deceased and the safety and justice of their communities. The work of forensic entomologists is split between crime scenes, laboratories, offices, and courtroom settings.

Daily job responsibilities include:

  • Working with police officers and laboratory scientists
  • Collecting physical evidence from a crime scene
  • Documenting evidence clearly
  • Examining human remains at crime scenes
  • Taking photographs of crime victims
  • Collaborating with other forensic sciences specialists (e.g., thopse in DNA and toxicology)
  • Determining the time of death using insect colonization (i.e., the order and time intervals that insects emerge during decomposition)
  • Collecting and examining insects for trace evidence analysis

Forensic Entomologist Certification

As previously mentioned, the American Board of Forensic Entomology (ABFE) offers two types of board certification for forensic entomologists: Member and Diplomate.

Member certification is available to forensic entomologists who meet the following criteria:

  • Persons of good moral character
  • Permanent residents of the United States or Canada
  • Have earned a thesis-based master’s or doctoral degree from an accredited institution in entomology, biology, ecology, or zoology (specific coursework in statistics and entomology is required)
  • Three years of professional experience involving medico-legal forensic entomology casework
  • One peer-reviewed publication in the field of forensic entomology
  • Have completed three professional research-based presentations or general education courses in forensic entomology
  • Submit three case reports working in forensic entomology completed in the five years prior to application

Board-certified Members can apply to be promoted to Diplomate status if they meet the following criteria:

  • Completed all requirements for Member status
  • Been a Member for five years
  • Earned a PhD in entomology, biology, zoology, or ecology
  • Have published two additional articles in peer-reviewed publications
  • Have completed three additional forensic entomology presentations at meetings, workshops, or symposiums
  • Provide two additional case reports documenting forensic entomology investigation work
  • Earn the votes of at least two-thirds majority for D-ABFE membership

Applicants who meet these requirements are eligible to pay a fee and take comprehensive, write, and practical examinations to test principles of medico-legal forensic entomology. Applicants must pass with a score of 80 percent or higher on each exam.

Applicants who score under 80 percent must wait one year to re-take the exams. Once earned, certification is good for five years and can be renewed with the submission of five or more medico-legal case reports related to forensic entomology.

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).