Crime scene investigation is composed of many different parts. Toxicology, psychology, ballistics, financial, and cyber divisions can all come into play within the context of a single crime. All of these diverse elements work in the service of one individual: the forensic investigator, also known as the lead detective.
The role of a forensic investigator is a complex leadership position. Often working for a local, state, or federal law enforcement agency, he or she shares many responsibilities and competencies with detectives: conducting interviews, securing crime scenes, analyzing public and private records, and writing detailed investigative reports. By taking on the lead role, a forensic investigator is also responsible for managing diverse and often siloed forensic teams while orchestrating the overall strategic direction of an investigation. Further still, a lead detective may have to coordinate with his or her counterparts at other federal, state, and local agencies to ensure that both smooth communication and chain-of-evidence integrity is maintained.
Forensic investigators may specialize in a particular discipline of criminal justice, such as cybercrime or financial crime, which may dictate where they work. A financial crime expert may work in the investigations arm of the Internal Revenue Service, and a cybercrime expert may work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Cyber Division, for example.
However, as criminal elements grow increasingly sophisticated and investigations become more interdisciplinary, even local law enforcement agencies are looking for dedicated talent in previously niche areas of specialization. Lead detectives are now expected to be familiar with the varied languages of multiple investigative departments.
Lead detectives need to be detail-oriented, strategically-minded multitaskers who can manage multiple teams working in a fast-paced environment that contains little room for error as the stakes can sometimes involve human lives. The work environment varies and can be physically demanding as working hours can be long and arduous.
Considering all of the work in the pursuit of justice, a spotless sense of ethics—with background checks to verify that sense—is mandatory. While the stress and requirements of this job can be significant, so is the reward: the satisfaction of making the world a safer and fairer place to live.
According to Bloomberg, crime rates have been falling in the United States in recent years. However, the need for competent forensic investigators is not likely to fade any time soon. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2020) does not distinguish between police officers and detectives, but the general estimation for this group of professionals is a 5 percent job growth between 2019 and 2029.
Salary rates are similarly tricky to unpack. The BLS (May 2019) does have salary and employment data for detectives, but not for those in a lead detective position. Of the 105,620 detectives on record as of 2019, the average salary was $86,030 a year.
Lead detectives, however, are likely to possess higher levels of education and more experience than the average detective, and thus are more likely to earn an above-average salary. Returning to the BLS data, detectives in the 10th percentile earned $44,860 a year, while those in the 90th percentile earned $139,180.
A significant factor to consider when looking at salary and employment data is geographic location. Since forensic investigators typically work for federal, state, and local law enforcement, the largest number of detectives is in the states with the largest populations: Texas, California, Florida, and New York.
However, the top-paying states are uncorrelated with population size: Alaska, Hawaii, California, and New Jersey all pay detectives an average of over $100,000 a year. Large metropolitan areas like New York and Los Angeles, and geographically well-positioned places for the profession—such as Washington DC, home to all federal agencies—have high employment numbers and high average salaries to match.
People do not become forensic investigators to make a lot of money, but they can expect to make more than a living wage for their efforts. Since public sector agencies make up the bulk of employers, lead detectives can also look forward to a robust benefits package. The road to this career, however, can be arduous, and persistence and dedication are necessary.
Read on to get a step-by-step guide on becoming a forensic investigator.
Step 1: Complete a bachelor’s degree (four years).
After graduating from high school, aspiring lead detectives typically earn a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field. Criminal justice and forensic investigation are majors that can prepare a graduate for a wide variety of positions. Students who intend to specialize later in their career—for example, in biological sciences, cybercrime, financial crime, or digital forensics—may choose to orient their undergraduate education in that direction.
Outside of the standard curriculum, many students choose to get an internship while completing their degree. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) all offer opportunities for students to get a head start with some real-world experience.
Step 2: Gain real-world experience (one to five years).
No one’s putting a rookie in charge of much more than picking up donuts and coffee. To earn the role of lead detective, young detectives will need to gain a lot of experience first. For those with a degree in criminal justice, the next step could be working up through the ranks of a municipal or state police department towards the role of detective. Those who work at any public sector agency will often be put through rigorous hands-on training.
Those who completed a specialized degree can find roles in the private sector. Jobs in finance and IT, for example, can provide critical experience in actual investigations. Law enforcement agencies, especially at the federal level, take such hands-on knowledge into account when hiring from outside for positions in their cybercrime or financial crime departments, for example.
No matter which path one chooses, this step of gaining experience is critical in the pursuit of becoming a lead detective.
Step 3: Earn a master’s degree (optional, two years).
Investigative work is a thinking person’s game, and with an increase in both the quantity and complexity of criminal evidence, advanced education is a definite plus. Aspiring lead detectives can pursue master’s degrees in generalist tracks like criminal justice or forensic science, or they can either add a new specialization or bolster an existing one.
Furthermore, graduate-level degrees in relevant fields can include leadership and organizational training in preparation for someone to manage an investigative team later in their career. Many master’s programs can be completed online so that they do not inhibit an aspiring forensic investigator from continuing with his or her work and gaining further hands-on expertise.
Step 4: Continue professional development (ongoing).
For leaders in any field, the cycle of gaining experience and further education never ends. As technology and investigative practices evolve and become more sophisticated, it is crucial that detectives stay on top of new trends in the field.
One way to keep abreast of developments is to join a professional society, such as the Federal Criminal Investigators Association (FCIA) or the International Crime Scene Investigators Association (ICSIA). These types of organizations not only provide academic and technical resources but also foster a network of like-minded professionals dedicated to becoming experts.
Another avenue for aspiring lead detectives to explore is gaining official certification. Programs like the National Detective/Investigator Test (NDIT) help identify candidates for lead detective and forensic investigator positions at federal, state, and local agencies.
Those who specialize in a particular area of investigation can look into professional journals in their sub-disciplines, such as the Journal of Digital Forensics, Security, and Law or the International Journal of Information Security and Cybercrime (IJISC).
For those ready to get started on their journey to becoming a forensic investigator, below are a few bachelor- and master-level programs:
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).