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Forensic Scientist Education, Career Outlook & Salary

Forensic science occupies the intersection of the law and laboratory analyses. These crime-fighting professionals carefully collect, process, and document pieces of evidence that are often invisible to the naked eye. Forensic scientists are responsible for solving some of the world’s most egregious abuses of people, institutions, and the environment.

So what is it that forensic scientists actually do? Forensic science work occurs in two environments: collecting evidence from crime scenes and analyzing evidence in laboratories.

At a crime scene, according to the American Academy of Forensic Scientists (AAFS), forensic scientists analyze a variety of evidence types (e.g., soils, bodily fluids, fibers, plants, explosives, etc.); utilize sophisticated chemical and biological technologies (e.g., mass spectrometry, liquid chromatography, etc.); document findings in photographs, drawings, and reports; liaise with various specialists; reconstruct crime scenes; and testify in court as expert witnesses when necessary.

In a laboratory, forensic scientist researchers are making breakthroughs in evidence collection. For example, Dr. Christopher Ehrhardt at the Virginia Commonwealth University and his research team have developed a cutting-edge technique that preserves the integrity of physical evidence while revealing more information about it, such as the age and sex, by encasing a cell in a drop of water. Forensic scientists can use this information to generate a DNA profile to rule out or confirm criminal suspects accurately.

There is a slew of forensic science subfields recognized by the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB)—including bloodstain analysis, document examination, medicolegal death investigation, and more—covered in the “Specialities” section below. They may work in the public or private sector, but the vast majority are employed by the local and state governments, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2021).

Read on to discover the career outlook for forensic scientists and learn about various specializations and professional certification options.

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Forensic Scientist Career Outlook

The field of forensic science is trendy, driven in part by television shows, sensationalist media, and the near-universal desire to have an exciting and meaningful career. Luckily for those interested, the BLS predicts an explosion in job opportunities in this field.

In fact, the BLS projects that between 2020 and 2030, there will be a 16 percent increase in open positions for forensic science technicians. This figure is much more robust than the 8 percent growth rate predicted for all occupations during the same period (BLS 2021).

The expected addition of 2,700 forensic science technicians nationwide is only part of the story. These professionals also make more money on average than other occupations. By illustration, the BLS (May 2020) reported that forensic science techs make an average annual salary of $64,890, which is 14 percent higher than the mean yearly wage for all occupations at $56,310 (BLS May 2020).

Here is a more granular look at the expected salary percentiles for forensic science technicians, one of many career possibilities in forensic science (BLS May 2020):

  • 10th percentile: $36,360
  • 25th percentile: $46,460
  • 50th percentile: $60,590 (median)
  • 75th percentile: $79,330
  • 90th percentile: $100,910

Three related occupations open to forensic scientists include biological technology, laboratory technology, medical science, and fire investigation. Here is a breakdown of the expected salary within those careers and the current employment figures.

Biological technicians – 80,640 employed nationwide, $49,490 mean annual salary (BLS May 2020):

  • 10th percentile: $30,440
  • 25th percentile: $36,280
  • 50th percentile: $46,340 (median)
  • 75th percentile: $60,130
  • 90th percentile: $74,600

Clinical laboratory technicians and technologists – 326,220 employed nationwide, $55,990 mean annual salary (BLS May 2020):

  • 10th percentile: $31,450
  • 25th percentile: $39,680
  • 50th percentile: $54,180 (median)
  • 75th percentile: $69,650
  • 90th percentile: $83,700

Medical scientists – 126,110 employed nationwide, $101,800 mean annual salary (BLS May 2020):

  • 10th percentile: $50,240
  • 25th percentile: $63,400
  • 50th percentile: $91,510 (median)
  • 75th percentile: $126,270
  • 90th percentile: $164,650

Fire inspectors and investigators – 14,010 employed nationwide, $67,680 mean annual salary (BLS May 2020):

  • 10th percentile: $39,860
  • 25th percentile: $50,230
  • 50th percentile: $64,610 (median)
  • 75th percentile: $81,800
  • 90th percentile: $100,780

Not surprisingly, employment figures and wages also vary by region, experience, education, specialty, and other factors. PayScale (2021)—an aggregator of self-reported salaries—shows differences in annual salary figures as correlated to years of work experience.

PayScale also shows the highest and lowest-paying locations for forensic scientists as measured against the self-reported national average salary of $58,417 (PayScale 2021):

  • Chicago, IL: 37 percent higher than the national average
  • New York, NY: 18 percent higher
  • Philadelphia, PA: 4 percent higher
  • Atlanta, GA: 16 percent lower than the national average
  • Houston, TX: 6 percent lower
  • Los Angeles, CA: 4 percent lower

 

Forensic Scientist Salary by Region

 

As mentioned above, the state or municipality where a forensic scientist works significantly impacts one’s salary. Here are the top-paying states for forensic science technicians listed with the annual mean salaries (BLS May 2020):

  • California: $88,090
  • Illinois: $85,690
  • Massachusetts: $77,200
  • Oregon: $76,970
  • Alaska: $74,100

Luckily for aspiring forensic science technicians in the Golden State, three of the top-five highest-paying metropolitan areas were in California (BLS 2020):

  • San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA: $106,360 annual mean salary
  • Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, CA: $95,760
  • Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA: $94,060
  • Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV: $89,750
  • Toledo, OH: $89,710

According to the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center, it’s crucial to note that four of the five top-paying states—California, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Alaska—were also among the top ten most expensive states (MERIC 2021) Cost of Living Index. According to MERIC, the top five most expensive states are Hawaii, Washington DC, New York, California, and Massachusetts, whereas the most affordable states are Mississippi, Kansas, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Arkansas.

The BLS (2020) also reports on the top-employing states for forensic science technicians, a figure that corresponds roughly with state population size:

  • California: 2,270 forensic science technicians employed
  • Florida: 1,780
  • Texas: 1,580
  • New York: 910
  • Arizona: 680

 

Forensic Scientist Salary by Industry

 

As mentioned above, salaries for forensic science technicians also tend to vary substantially by the employer. Interestingly, the highest paying industry in this field was the federal government. In fact, three of the top five most lucrative employers for this profession were related to the government (BLS May 2020):

  • Federal Executive Branch (OES Designation): $120,790 annual mean salary
  • General Medical and Surgical Hospitals: $75,720
  • Architectural, Engineering, and Related Services: $66,040
  • Local Government, excluding schools and hospitals (OEWS Designation): $65,840
  • State Government, excluding schools and hospitals (OEWS Designation): $64,770

One of these industries were also the top employers of forensic science technicians nationwide, with state and local governments taking the lion’s share of the business (BLS May 2020):

  • Local Government, excluding schools and hospitals (OES Designation): 9,970
  • State Government, excluding schools and hospitals (OES Designation): 4,630
  • Architectural, Engineering, and Related Services: 550
  • Medical and Diagnostic Laboratories: 510
  • Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools: 230

 

Forensic Scientist Salary By Experience

 

As with most occupations, forensic scientists’ salaries also tended to vary by experience. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t track this type of data, PayScale (2021) gives a snapshot of its respondents’ median salaries in this profession listed by years of experience and number of respondents:

  • Entry-level: (less than one year): $49,233 (57 respondents)
  • Early-career: (one to four years) $55,153 (123 respondents)
  • Mid-career: (five to nine years): $65,198 (56 respondents)
  • Experienced: (10 to 19 years): $79,105 (48 respondents)
  • Late-career: (20 or more years): $81,773 (number of respondents unavailable)

 

Forensic Scientist Work Environment

 

Although television shows like CSI and NCIS give the impression that forensic scientists spend much of their time at crime scenes and doing investigative work, these are primarily scientific laboratory positions.

As mentioned above, a majority of forensic science technicians are employed by the government. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that local and state governments employ 59 percent of these professionals in police departments, morgues, crime labs, and coroner offices (BLS 2021).

Some choose to specialize in various types of forensic analyses and may work in biomedical research facilities, law offices, insurance firms, private investigation (PI) companies, hospitals, universities, ecological protection groups, private labs, and pharmaceutical industries. Other employment developments may be ushered in by disruptive technologies such as DNA analysis. Finally, while some forensic science professionals work regular business hours, others may be called on to work holidays, evenings, or weekends, depending on the needs of evidence analysis.

How To Become A Forensic Scientist

There’s a diversity of paths to becoming a forensic scientist. Some people choose to get investigative experience through law enforcement and may initially enroll in a police academy. Others pursue a college degree and gain knowledge on the job afterward.

One thing is for sure: a majority of forensic scientists have at least a bachelor’s degree. By illustration, the Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH 2021)—an online data publication sponsored by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)—reports that the typical entry-level education for a forensic science technician is a bachelor’s degree.

Here is one possible path to becoming a forensic scientist.

 

Step one: Graduate from high school (four years)

 

At this phase, aspiring forensic scientists are encouraged to excel in biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Additionally, some students may choose to volunteer through a local police department, fire department, or laboratory to garner some hands-on forensics experience in the field.

 

Step two: Enroll in a college program in forensic science or a related discipline (four years)

 

While there may be limited undergraduate options in forensic science, those seeking to become forensic scientists may also pursue bachelor’s degrees in chemistry, biology, and other natural sciences.

Typical admissions requirements to these programs include sending official high school transcripts, submitting test scores (SAT or ACT, in addition to the TOEFL test for non-native speakers of English); writing a personal statement; and paying an application fee.

Students are advised to seek out programs accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC), the country’s predominant program approval body for forensics programs.

Forensic science bachelor’s programs can include forensic chemistry, molecular biology, criminal investigation, biochemistry, ethics, and evidence identification. Be advised that most FEPAC-accredited programs are generally offered through hard sciences departments (e.g., chemistry, biology), and many are at the master’s level. However, there are bachelor of science (BS) options available. Additionally, please note that while there are some associate programs available, students are encouraged to pursue the four-year degree option following the BLS recommendations for typical entry-level education.

For more information on accredited forensic science programs—including detailed examinations of specialties such as computers, nursing, engineering, anthropology, and more—please read more about Forensic Science Degree Programs below.

 

Step three: Get experience in the field (timeline varies)

 

After completing an accredited forensic science program, these professionals generally get some expertise on the job. At this phase, many hone their skills in a specialty such as bloodstain patterns, crime scene reconstruction, and document examination, to name a few.

 

Step four: Seek professional certification in a specialty (timeline varies)

 

While professional certification may not be required for employment, some forensic science professionals choose to become certified to enhance their employment candidacy and earning prospects. There are 10 specialty boards accredited by the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB 2021).

Please see the “Specializations” section below for a detailed examination of the certification eligibility requirements for the various subfields of forensic science.

Forensic Science Degree Programs

Here are three forensic science degree programs offering bachelor’s degrees, undergraduate certificates, and advanced degrees. These programs are accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC).

Florida International University (FIU) offers an undergraduate certificate and four advanced degree programs, including an MS in forensic science, a combined MS in forensic science/PhD in biology, a professional science master’s in forensic science and a PhD in chemistry with a forensic track. FIU’s forensic science programs rank as some of the top on-campus and online programs in the nation.

Housed in the International Forensic Research Institute on campus, students practice forensic DNA profiling and analytical toxicology using state-of-the-art equipment for forensic research. Graduates from these programs go to work in forensic laboratory positions and research teams all over the world.

  • Location: Miami, FL
  • Duration: One to two years
  • Tuition: $3,084 per semester
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) and FEPAC

Texas A&M University offers a bachelor of science in forensic and investigative sciences program. Students can choose one of two specialization tracks: pre-law emphasis or science emphasis. Courses include forensic investigations, latent print processing, forensic soil science, forensic implications of inheritance, and internships.

In addition, the Department of Entomology Scholars Society is a student organization that promotes undergraduate activities and functions with special programs and summer conferences.

  • Location: College Station, TX
  • Duration: Four years
  • Tuition: $13,012 per semester (resident); $40,896 per semester (non-resident)
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) and FEPAC

Virginia Commonwealth University offers a bachelor’s of science and a master’s of science program. All students take the 120 to 125-credit forensic science core curriculum and choose a concentration in forensic chemistry, forensic biology, or physical evidence. Forensic chemistry emphasizes toxicology, while forensic biology focuses on molecular biology. The physical evidence concentration prepares students for careers in fingerprint analysis, firearms & toolmark analysis, and other law enforcement specialties.

In addition, the Department of Forensic Science hosts a weekly seminar series with presentations by faculty, crime laboratory staff, students, and visiting lectures to connect students with various real-world perspectives and networking opportunities.

  • Location: Richmond, VA
  • Duration: Four years
  • Tuition: $15,118 per year (resident); $36,456 per year (non-resident)
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) and FEPAC

Forensic Science Program Accreditation

When researching educational programs, accreditation is an essential factor to consider. Top academic programs in forensic science are accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC), the leading accreditation organization for forensic science education programs in the United States.

There are also six regional accrediting agencies recognized by the US Department of Education: the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE), the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU), the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), and the Commission on Colleges for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).

Students and prospective employers benefit from knowing that an institution with programmatic, regional, or national accreditation has met the highest standards of educational quality.

Forensic Science Specialties & Certifications

To begin, ForensicsColleges.com has many detailed “how to become” features in various fields related to forensic science:

As previously mentioned, there are currently 10 professional certification organizations recognized by the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB 2021). Typical requirements for professional certification in these subfields include having at least a bachelor’s degree; showing proof of three to five years of relevant experience; submitting letters of recommendation; and passing an exam.

The credentials are typically valid for three to five years and can be renewed following the completion of continuing education (CE) requirements and paying a recertification fee. Here is a detailed examination of some niche careers for forensic scientists to consider, including the experiential, educational, and examination requirements for professional certification.

 

Criminalist

 

The American Board of Criminalistics (ABC) offers professional certification in criminalistics at the affiliate, diplomate, and fellow levels.

To qualify for affiliate status, candidates must have at least a bachelor’s degree and pass an examination. For diplomate status, candidates must have at least a bachelor’s degree, two years of relevant experience, and a passing score on any ABC examination.

For fellows, they must fulfill the criteria of diplomate status plus participation in an approved proficiency testing area. Candidates can be tested in the following sub-specialties: comprehensive criminalistics, drug analysis, molecular biology, fire debris analysis, hairs & fibers, and paints & polymers. Diplomat and fellows credentials are valid for five years.

 

Medicolegal Death Investigator

 

The American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators (ABMDI) offers registry and certification for professionals in this field. For registry, candidates must have at least 640 hours of experience in a medical examiner or coroner’s office; professional references; a completed Performance Training Guidebook Checklist; and a passing score on the examination.

For certification, they must submit an employment verification form, including references from a forensic science specialist, a supervisor, and law enforcement; and pass a comprehensive 5.5-hour examination. The cost to apply for the exam is $50.

 

Forensic Toxicologist

 

According to the American Board of Forensic Toxicologists (ABFT), candidates for certification must submit a $250 fee, a passport-style photo, official transcripts, and three professional references from forensic toxicology practitioners. In addition, there are three subcategories of certification at the diplomat level, all of which require at least a bachelor’s degree: forensic toxicology, forensic alcohol toxicology, and forensic drug toxicology.

At the fellow level, candidates require a doctor of philosophy of science degree. Additionally, all levels of certification require three years of experience and passing a comprehensive exam. Credentials last for five years. For additional information, please visit the How to Become a Forensic Toxicologist page.

 

Document Examiner

 

According to the Board of Forensic Document Examiners (BFDE), candidates for professional certification must have at least a bachelor’s degree, two letters of recommendation, specific training outlined in the “Standard Guide for Minimum Training Requirements,” proof of continuing education (CE) in the field, possession of lab equipment relevant to the examination of documents, and a passing score on BFDE’s examination.

Another certification in this field is available through the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners (ABFDE), which similarly requires at least a bachelor’s degree, in addition to two years of recognized document examination training, three professional references, and the successful completion of three exams: written, practical, and oral.

 

Forensic Examiner

 

The International Board of Forensic Engineering Sciences (IBFES) requires that forensic examiner credentialing applicants have at least a bachelor’s degree, three years of forensic engineering experience in litigations, three professional references, passing scores on two examinations (ethics and oral), and varying levels of overall professional experience depending on the highest academic degree achieved: bachelor’s degree holders (eight years) and master’s and doctorate degree holders (six years).

Certification lasts for five years, and the process involves submitting records on forensic experience, continuing education, professional development activities, and other documents to the board for peer review.

 

Forensic Odontologist

 

The American Board of Forensic Odontology (ABFO) reports that candidates for this certification must have a DDS, DMD, or an equivalent degree from an accredited school and two years of relevant experience working with at least 32 legitimate forensic dental cases.

Additionally, they must have attended at least four annual national forensic (or forensic dental) organizations and participated in at least two yearly programs of ABFO-approved organizations. Finally, candidates must prove having completed high-skilled work, including age estimation, bitemark analysis, and human identification.

 

Forensic Anthropologist

 

The American Board of Forensic Anthropology (ABFA)—the leading certification body in this subfield of forensic science—requires applicants to have a doctoral degree, three detailed case reports, and a passing score on the ABFA examination. The forensic anthropologist certification is valid for three years with the submission of annual dues.

 

Forensic Computer Examiner

 

The International Association of Computer Investigative Specialists (IACIS) offers this credential to applicants with 72 hours of relevant training. Also, they must complete a mentored “peer review” phase solving four practical problems, a practical exercise, and a written examination. This forensic computer examiner certification is valid for three years, and dues must be paid annually.

 

Fire Investigator

 

Through its Certified Fire Investigator Board, the International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI) provides the certified fire investigator (IAAI-CFI) credential. To qualify, candidates must earn at least 150 points in the application review process, which considers education, letters of recommendation, training, and experience.

Additionally, they must have at least a 70 percent score on an examination. For more information, please visit the How to Become a Fire (Arson) Investigator page.

 

Bloodstain Pattern Analyst

 

The International Association of Identification (IAI) requires two letters of endorsement, proof of 240 hours of training covering specific areas (e.g., stain patterns, impact angle determinations, documentation, surface considerations, falling blood, etc.), three years of documented experience in the field, and passing scores on a four-part exam. This credential lasts for five years.

Please note that the FSAB no longer recognizes this specialty.

 

Crime Scene Investigator (CSI)

 

The International Association for Identification (IAI) offers four certifications: crime scene investigator, crime scene analyst, crime scene reconstructionist, and senior crime scene analyst. To be eligible, candidates must have varying levels of relevant education and experience, in addition to two letters of endorsement; at least a 75 percent score on an exam; and for the senior certification, an additional accomplishment in authoring an article, making a presentation, or working as an instructor.

For example, candidates for the crime scene investigator (CSI) credential must have one year of experience and 48 hours of relevant experience. In contrast, crime scene analyst-level certification requires at least three years of experience and 96 hours of qualifying education. All credentials are valid for five years. Please reference the How to Become a Crime Scene Investigator (CSI) and How to Become a Crime Scene Technician pages for more information.

Please note that the FSAB no longer recognizes this specialty.

 

Footwear Examiner

 

The International Association for Identification (IAI) offers this credential to applicants who submit two letters of endorsement, pass a two-part exam (written and practical), and prove experience and education.

For example, candidates with a bachelor’s degree must have at least two years of experience as a footwear examiner. In comparison, associate degree holders must complete 60 semester hours plus three years of full-time experience as a footwear examiner. Additionally, these candidates must have completed a training program including units in the manufacturing process of footwear, photography of track/mark evidence, case note preparation, and more. This credential lasts for five years.

Please note that the FSAB no longer recognizes this specialty.

 

Forensic Artist

 

The International Association for Identification (IAI) certifies forensic artists who have at least 80 hours of IAI-approved training, 40 hours of participation in additional workshops & events, knowledge in three main areas (composite imaging, facial reconstruction, and age or image enhancement), two years of relevant experience, a detailed portfolio of cases, and a passing score on an exam. This credential is valid for five years.

Please note that the FSAB no longer recognizes this specialty.

 

Forensic Photographer

 

The International Association for Identification (IAI) also certifies specialists in this field. Candidates must have two years of experience, a minimum of 80 classroom hours or equivalent training, two letters of recommendation, and completed a two-part exam (written component and a portfolio assessment). This credential is also valid for five years.

Please note that the FSAB no longer recognizes this specialty.

 

Latent Print Specialist

 

The International Association for Identification (IAI) requires candidates for the latent print specialist certification to have 160 hours of board-certified training, two years of experience, a bachelor’s degree (or a lesser degree plus additional years of experience), and completion of a comprehensive exam. This credential is valid for five years and can be renewed following 80 hours of continuing education (CE).

Additionally, the IAI provides the Tenprint Fingerprint Certification to candidates who pass a three-part exam and possess two years of experience, an associate degree (or additional years of experience), two letters of endorsement, a minimum of 80 hours of board-approved training, and 16 hours of instruction in courtroom testimony. To recertify after five years, an individual must pass a Fingerprint Pattern Recognition Exam.

Please note that the FSAB no longer recognizes this specialty.

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Jocelyn Blore

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.