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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? 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 2018).

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

Forensic Scientist Career Outlook

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) predicts an explosion in job opportunities in this field (BLS 2019). In fact, the BLS projects that between 2018 and 2028, there will be a 14 percent increase in open positions for forensic science technicians—a figure that is much more robust than the 5 percent growth rate predicted for all occupations during the same time period (BLS 2019).

The expected addition of 2,400 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 (2019) reported that forensic science techs make an average annual salary of $58,230 which is 12 percent more than the mean annual wage for all occupations at $51,960 (BLS 2018).

Here is a more granular look at the expected salary percentiles for forensic science technicians, one of many career possibilities in forensic science (BLS 2018):

  • 10th percentile: $34,600
  • 25th percentile: $44,340
  • 50th percentile: $58,230 (median)
  • 75th percentile: $76,440
  • 90th percentile: $97,200

Three related occupations that 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 – 77,450 employed nationwide, $48,060 annual average salary (BLS 2018):

  • 10th percentile: $29,330
  • 25th percentile: $35,190
  • 50th percentile: $44,500 (median)
  • 75th percentile: $57,400
  • 90th percentile: $71,440

Clinical laboratory technicians and technologists – 321,2200 employed nationwide, $53,880 annual average salary (BLS 2018):

  • 10th percentile: $29,910
  • 25th percentile: $38,310
  • 50th percentile: $52,330 (median)
  • 75th percentile: $66,920
  • 90th percentile: $80,330

Not surprisingly, employment figures and wages also tend to vary by region, experience, education, specialty, and other factors. PayScale (2020)—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 $55,330 (PayScale 2020):

  • Chicago, Illinois: 46.5 percent higher than the national average
  • New York, New York: 6.1 percent higher
  • Dover, Delaware: 2 percent higher
  • Houston, Texas: same as the national average
  • Atlanta, Georgia: 1 percent lower than the national average
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: 2 percent lower
  • Phoenix, Arizona: 19 percent lower

 

Forensic Scientist Salary by Region

As mentioned above, the state or municipality in which a forensic scientist works also has a significant impact on one’s salary. Here are the top-paying states for forensic science technicians listed with the annual mean salaries (BLS 2018):

  • Illinois: $87,660
  • California: $85,280
  • Massachusetts: $79,440
  • Connecticut: $73,970
  • New Hampshire: $70,960

Luckily for aspiring forensic science technicians in the Golden State, four of the top-five highest-paying metropolitan areas were in California (BLS 2018):

  • San Francisco-San Mateo-Redwood City, CA: $101,180 annual mean salary
  • Sacramento-Roseville-Arden-Arcade, CA: $92,230
  • Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, CA: $89,180
  • Boston-Cambridge-Nashua, MA-NH: $86,180
  • San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA: $85,340

It’s crucial to note that four of the five top-paying states—California, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire—were also among the top ten most expensive states according to the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC 2020). In fact, the top five most expensive states are Hawaii, Washington DC, California, Oregon, and New York, whereas the most affordable states are Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, and Tennessee.

The BLS (2018) also reports on the top-employing states for forensic science technicians, a figure that corresponds roughly with state population size:

  • California: 2,110 forensic science technicians employed
  • Florida: 1,710
  • Texas: 1,320
  • New York: 840
  • Arizona: 700

 

Forensic Scientist Salary by Industry

As mentioned above, salaries for forensic science technicians 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 2018):

  • Federal Executive Branch (OES Designation): $110,720 average annual salary
  • Scientific Research and Development Services: $85,510
  • Local Government, excluding schools and hospitals (OES Designation): $63,560
  • Offices of Physicians: $62,270
  • State Government, excluding schools and hospitals (OES Designation): $62,070

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 2018):

  • Local Government (OES Designation): 9,520 employed
  • State Government (OES Designation): 4,480
  • Medical and Diagnostic Laboratories: 670
  • Architectural, Engineering, and Related Services: 260
  • Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools: 250

 

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 (2020) 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): $48,642 (62 respondents)
  • Early-career: (one to four years) $51,649 (149 respondents)
  • Mid-career: (five to nine years): $62,010 (80 respondents)
  • Experienced: (ten to 19 years): $75,055 (56 respondents)
  • Late-career: (20 or more years): $81,497 (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 59 percent of these professionals are employed by local and state governments in police departments, morgues, crime labs, and coroner offices (BLS 2019).

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.

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 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 2020)—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 1: Graduate from high school (four years). At this phase, aspiring forensic scientists are encouraged to excel in classes such as biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Additionally, some students may choose to volunteer through a local police department, fire department, or laboratory in order to garner some hands-on forensics experience in the field.

Step 2: 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 predominant program approval body for forensics programs in the country. Classes in forensic science bachelor’s programs can include forensic chemistry, molecular biology, criminal investigation, biochemistry, ethics, and evidence identification. Be advised that a majority of FEPAC-accredited programs are generally offered through hard sciences departments (e.g., chemistry, biology) and many are at the master’s level, although 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 in accordance with 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 reference the forensic programs page.

Step 3: Get experience in the field (timeline varies). Following the completion of an accredited forensic science program, these professionals generally get some experience on-the-job. It’s at this phase that 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 in order to enhance their employment candidacy and earning prospects. There are 10 specialty boards accredited by the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB 2020).

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

Forensic Science Program Accreditation

When researching educational programs, accreditation is an essential factor to consider. Top educational 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:

  • How to Become a Criminal Profiler
  • How to Become a Detective
  • How to Become a Forensic Accountant
  • How to Become a Forensic Nurse
  • How to Become a Forensic Psychiatrist
  • How to Become a Forensic Psychologist
  • How to Become a Forensic Scientist
  • As previously mentioned, there are currently 10 professional certification organizations recognized by the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB 2020). 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. Diplomate and fellows credentials are valid for five years.

     

    Medicolegal Death Investigator

    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. The cost to apply for the exam is $50.

     

    Forensic Toxicologist

    According to the American Board of Forensic Toxicology (ABFT), candidates for certification must submit a $250 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.

     

    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 Engineer

    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).

    Certification lasts for five years and records of forensic experience, continuing education, professional development activities, and other documents are required to be submitted 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 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.

     

    Forensic Anthropologist

    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 detailed case reports, and a passing score on the ABFA examination. This certification is valid for three years with the submission of annual dues.

     

    Fire Investigator

    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.

     

    Forensic Computer Examiner

    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.

     

    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 this specialty is no longer recognized by the FSAB.

     

    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 (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.

    Please note that this specialty is no longer recognized by the FSAB.

     

    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 show proof of experience and education. For example, candidates with a bachelor’s degree must have at least two years of experience as a footwear examiner. For associate degree holders, 60 semester-hours plus three years of full-time experience as a footwear examiner are required. 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 this specialty is no longer recognized by the FSAB.

     

    Forensic Artist

    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.

    Please note that this specialty is no longer recognized by the FSAB.

     

    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 successful completion of a two-part exam (written component and a portfolio assessment). This credential is also valid for five years.

    Please note that this specialty is no longer recognized by the FSAB.

     

    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 with 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, 16 hours of instruction in courtroom testimony, and applicants must pass a three-part exam. To recertify after five years, an individual must pass a Fingerprint Pattern Recognition Exam.

    Please note that this specialty is no longer recognized by the FSAB.

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. A dedicated Ashtanga yoga practitioner, Rachel is interested in exploring the nuanced philosophical aspects of contemplative physical practices and how they apply in daily life. She writes about this topic among others on her blog (Instagram: @oregon_yogini).