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? According to the American Academy of Forensic Scientists (AAFS), these professionals 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. 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 2014).
Read on to discover the career outlook for forensic scientists, as well as to learn about various specializations and professional certification options.
The field of forensic science is immensely popular, driven in part by television shows, sensationalist media, and the near universal desire to have a stimulating and meaningful career. Luckily for those interested, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2015) predicts an explosion in job opportunities in this field. In fact, the BLS (2015) projects that between 2014 and 2024, there will be a 27 percent increase in open positions for forensic science technicians, a figure much more robust than the growth predicted for all occupations during that time period (7 percent). And the expected addition of 3,800 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 (2015) reported that forensic science techs make an average annual salary of $55,360, 17.2 percent more than the mean annual wage for all occupations at $47,230 (BLS 2014).
Here is a more granular look at the expected salary percentiles for forensic science technicians, one of many career possibilities in forensic science (BLS 2014):
For comparative purposes, Payscale (2016)—an aggregator of self-reported salaries—found somewhat different figures among its 214 responding forensic scientists:
Three related occupations which may be open to forensic scientists include biological technology, laboratory technology, and fire investigation. Here is a breakdown of the expected salary within those careers, as well as the current employment figures.
Biological technician – 72,640 employed nationwide, $44,610 annual average salary (BLS 2014)
Medical and clinical laboratory technician – 160,460 employed nationwide, $40,750 annual average salary (BLS 2014)
Not surprisingly, employment figures and wages also tend to vary by region, experience, education, specialty, and other factors.
As mentioned above, the state or municipality in which a forensic scientist works also has a significant impact on one’s salary. Here were the top-paying states for forensic science technicians listed with the annual mean salaries (BLS 2014):
Luckily for aspiring forensic science technicians in the Golden State, four of the top-five highest paying metropolitan areas were in California (BLS 2014):
It’s crucial to note that two of the top-paying states—California and DC—were also among the top five most expensive states according to the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC 2015). In fact, the top five most expensive states are Hawaii, DC, New York, California, and Alaska, whereas the most affordable states are Mississippi, Indiana, Idaho, Oklahoma, and Kentucky.
The BLS (2014) also reports on the top-employing states for forensic science technicians, a figure that corresponds roughly with state population size:
As mentioned above, salaries for forensic science techs also tend to vary substantially by 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 2014):
Four 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 2014):
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 (2016) gives a snapshot of its respondents’ median salaries in this profession listed by years of experience:
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 (BLS 2014) found that 88 percent of these professionals are employed by local and state governments in police departments, morgues, crime labs, and coroner offices. 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 normal business hours, others may be called on to work holidays, evenings, or weekends, depending on the needs of evidence analysis.
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 police academy. Others pursue a college degree and get experience 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 2015)—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 degree.
Here is one possible path to becoming a forensic scientist:
To begin, ForensicsColleges.com has many detailed “how to become” features in various fields related to forensic science:
Additionally, there are currently 17 professional certification organizations recognized by the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB). Typical requirements for professional certification in these subfields include having at least a bachelor’s degree; showing proof of 3-5 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.
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. These credentials are valid for five years.
The American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators (ABMDI) offers both 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 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.
According to the American Board of Forensic Toxicologists (ABFT), candidates for certification must submit a $150 fee, a passport-style photo, official transcripts, and three professional references from forensic toxicology practitioners. There are three subcategories of certification at the diplomate status 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 the passing of a comprehensive exam. The credentials last for five years. For additional information, please visit the How to Become a Forensic Toxicologist page.
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 (ABDFE), 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.
The International Board of Forensic Engineering Sciences (IBFES) requires that 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).
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 30 legitimate forensic dental cases. Additionally, they must have attended at least four annual meetings of a national forensic (or forensic dental) organization and participated in at least two annual programs of ABFO-approved organizations. Finally, they must show proof of having completed high-skilled work including age estimation, bitemark analysis, and human identification.
The American Board of Forensic Anthropology (ABFA)—the main certification body in this subfield of forensic science—requires applicants to have a doctoral degree, three years of professional experience, three detailed case reports, and a passing score on the ABFA examination. This certification is valid for three years with the submission of annual dues.
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.
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 (e.g., authoring an article, making a presentation, 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. By contrast, at the analyst level, candidates must have at least three years of experience and 96 hours of qualifying education. All credentials are valid for five years. For more information, please reference the How to Become a Crime Scene Investigator (CSI) and How to Become a Crime Scene Technician pages.
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 show proof of experience and education. For example, for candidates with a bachelor’s degree, they must have at least three years of experience as a footwear examiner. For associate degree holders, they must have five years of qualifying experience. 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.
The International Association for Identification (IAI) certifies forensic artists who have at least 80 hours of IAI-approved training, 40 hours of additional workshops & events, knowledge in three main areas (composite imaging, facial reconstruction, and age or image enhancement), two years of experience, a detailed portfolio of cases, and a passing score on an exam. This credential is valid for five years.
The International Association for Identification (IAI) also certifies specialists in this field. Candidates must have two years of experience, 40 classroom hours of relevant training, two letters of recommendation, and successful completion of a two-part exam (written component and a portfolio assessment). This credential is also valid for five years.
The International Association for Identification (IAI) requires candidates for the latent print specialist certification to have 80 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 with two years of experience, an associate degree (or additional years of experience), two letters of endorsement, 40 hours of board-approved training, 40 additional educational hours specifically in tenprint-related subjects, 16 hours of instruction in courtroom testimony, and passing a four-part exam. To recertify after five years, an individual must pass a Fingerprint Pattern Recognition Exam.
The International Association of Computer Investigative Specialists (IACIS) offers this credential to applicants who have 72 hours of relevant training. Also, they must successfully complete a mentored “peer review” phase solving four practical problems, a practical exercise, and a written examination. This certification is valid for three years and dues must be paid annually.
The International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI) provides the certified fire investigator (IAAI-CFI) certification. To qualify, candidates must earn at least 150 points in the application review process, which takes factors into consideration such as 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.
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Barry is Managing Editor of ForensicsColleges.com, operated by educational web publisher Sechel Ventures Partners LLC, which he co-founded. Barry was previously VP for a financial software company, and currently sits on the board of a K-8 school and lives with his wife and daughters in the San Francisco Bay Area.