The primary role of a forensic technician is to collect and analyze physical evidence. Forensic technicians spend most of their day working with evidence from crime scenes in a laboratory environment. This can consist of biological material, glass, hair, fingerprints, fabric, bullets, various chemicals, and anything else that can help identify what happened during a crime.
Often the position is in a law enforcement capacity, where a technician’s research and conclusions can help build a case against someone or identify a suspect or suspects. Private labs and employers might also utilize the services of trained forensic technicians, such as insurance companies, attorneys, or private investigators, who may require a specific protocol or a different focus than law enforcement.
In some cases, forensic technicians can also be crime scene technicians, which requires going out into the field to use various tools and investigative techniques to find and collect evidence. However, they spend much of their day in the lab processing information gathered by others. Forensic technicians must sometimes testify in court about their methods and conclusions. Their methodology and protocol can sometimes be as valuable to a trial as their conclusions.
Procedural TV shows like “CSI” and “Law & Order” have popularized the current world of forensic technicians and show how exciting the field can be. While often on the sensational side, they touch on how scientific skills can help determine how a crime was committed and who was responsible.
Critics may say there are some unrealistic elements, such as being able to crack the whole case in a day when real-world evidence may take months or even years to process. These shows also show how lab discoveries can directly lead to a confession or conviction when this data more commonly helps support a more significant case or rules someone out as a suspect.
Overall, the forensic technician field offers plenty of opportunities for career advancement. Spending time in the lab and the field and gaining these skills can open doors to various other specialized roles within forensics, such as fingerprinting, ballistics, or handwriting analysis. Doing well in multiple areas could also encourage someone to move into a management track or continue their academic efforts for other scientific or investigatory career fields.
Continue reading for more information about a forensic technician’s career outlook, salary, certifications, and education.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2021), there were 17,020 forensic technicians employed in the United States. However, openings in this profession are expected to grow 11 percent between 2021 and 2031, adding 2,000 new jobs around the country (BLS 2022). This growth rate is much faster than the projected average for all occupations (5 percent).
Locations with large populations have an immense demand for forensic technicians. The BLS shows that in May 2021, California had the highest demand for the profession, followed by Florida, Texas, Arizona, and New York (BLS May 2021).
The BLS reports that the industries with the highest demand for forensic technicians are the local government, followed by the state government. Medical and diagnostic labs, agricultural and engineering fields, and higher education also employ forensic technicians.
The BLS Occupational Employment Statistics (May 2021) indicates that the mean annual salary for forensic technicians was $66,850 per year (or $32.14 per hour) in the U.S. The lowest 10th percentile earned $37,670, while the top 10th earned $103,430. Indeed, some specialized positions may have higher salaries. Similarly, private labs may pay more than public agencies.
According to PayScale (2023), an aggregator of self-reported salary data, shows that forensic scientists earn average annual salaries of $56,674, based on 192 profiles. By comparison, this represents an 18 percent difference in pay. Still, it’s important to remember that the PayScale data set is significantly smaller (in the hundreds) compared to the BLS figures (in the tens of thousands). Also, salary data is very much dependent on other factors such as the location of employment, education, and experience.
Here are the top-paying states for forensic science technicians according to the BLS:
|State||Average hourly wage||Average annual wage|
|Illinois||$ 43.43||$ 90,330|
|California||$ 43.41||$ 90,300|
|Massachusetts||$ 40.74||$ 84,740|
|New York||$ 39.12||$ 81,370|
|Oregon||$ 39.11||$ 81,340|
Source: BLS May 2021
In 2021, the five top-paying metro areas for forensic science technicians were as follows:
|City||Hourly wage||Annual wage|
|Los Angeles, CA||$ 46.62||$ 96,980|
|Phoenix, AZ||$ 32.15||$ 66,880|
|New York, NY||$ 40.43||$ 84,090|
|Houston, TX||$ 30.92||$ 64,310|
|Atlanta, GA||$ 24.94||$ 51,880|
Source: BLS May 2021
Unlike more advanced forensic analysis and investigation positions that require a master’s degree in a scientific or law enforcement field (or comparable professional experience), it is possible to begin as an entry-level forensic technician with a bachelor’s degree. Generally, the position requires aptitude in hard sciences, such as chemistry and biology.
People considering a career in forensic science can pursue the following pathway to gain credentials and experience.
High school students wanting to gain admission into reputable colleges or universities to begin a forensic technician career are advised to take science and math courses and keep their grades as high as possible. Pursuing courses or extracurricular activities in public speaking or gaining an internship at a laboratory would also give valuable hands-on experience before beginning a career and may increase one’s chances of admission or earning scholarships.
Even if a school may not have a forensic program, they likely will have a variety of natural science courses to provide a foundation for the skills necessary to become a forensic technician, such as analysis, microbiology, pathology, and biochemistry. Courses in law or criminalistics also may be useful.
An example of an online bachelor of science program is offered at Arizona State University Online. This 120-credit program features 7.5-week classes with 40 total classes. Upon completion of the program, students will have a foundational understanding of forensic methods and procedures and a strong background in the legal system and criminal justice principles.
With courses taught by expert faculty members and opportunities for real-world experience through internships, students can be confident that they are receiving a comprehensive education in this exciting field. This bachelor’s program serves as a strong foundation for those interested in pursuing advanced degrees or careers in forensic science or related fields.
Many on-campus science courses have a lab component, but students interested in pursuing forensic careers may consider seeking other opportunities, such as volunteering at the school lab, tutoring students, serving in the military, or working at a science-focused employer or law enforcement agency in a nearby community. LaborMarketInfo suggests having at least one year of lab experience to qualify for a technician position.
A certificate in a subfield of forensics (e.g., DNA analysis) or from a professional organization might provide supplementary applicable knowledge and training that could be an asset when seeking employment.
Graduate-level certifications in forensic science can be completed in a few semesters compared to a master’s program, which may take a few years to complete. Forensics certification programs are an excellent option for testing out master’s-level classes before enrolling in a two-year program. Current or former military personnel who may have had research or scientific duties may have gained further procedural training that could qualify them for a position.
For example, Ashworth College in Norcross, Georgia, offers a short three-lesson online diploma in forensics. This course gives students the basic knowledge necessary to begin entry-level work in this field. Students get a textbook, access to the student portal dashboard, and access to an online community, digital library, and research sources. This program strongly emphasizes career research, which helps prepare students for the job hunt post-completion.
Industry organizations like the American Board of Criminalistics (ABC) offer opportunities for certificates in various fields within forensics. There are also proficiency standards and exams available within the profession through the ABC, including exams in drug analysis, molecular biology, fire debris analysis, paints, and polymers.
Some of these advanced skills may not be learned until one begins working as a technician, but a candidate who has gained some of them before applying for a position may have a competitive advantage.
Please see the certification section below for more information about forensic science professional certifications.
While every college likely will have physical science coursework and degree programs available, some people may be interested in online options. Classes can include live and recorded lectures, online discussions, and self-paced projects, depending on the program. These can provide a range of academic credentials and training, from basic forensic certificates to advanced degrees.
For example, Purdue University offers a 41-credit crime scene technician certificate online. This distance learning program requires 15 to 18 hours worth of effort every week. Credits completed in this program can be transferred to another degree program, such as a bachelor’s. Suppose a prospective student lacks the required bachelor’s or an associate’s degree. In that case, they can qualify if they have been in the military, law enforcement, or similar capacity for at least 18 months.
For students looking for a more comprehensive program, the University of Maryland Global Campus offers an online investigative forensics bachelor’s degree. While this program does require 120 credits, students can transfer up to 90 credits from another institution. The primary focus of this program is on applying the scientific process to criminal investigations.
For more information about distance-based programs across a range of forensics disciplines, check out the online forensics colleges page.
Whether a technician has a lab or field position (or a combination of both), they should expect to be involved in various tasks and daily duties. A lab manager may instruct forensic technicians to work on one project a day or several. Responsibilities can include:
While entry-level forensic technicians may be given “a little bit of everything” to start with. Eventually, they may find an area that interests them. Some of the disciplines within the forensic technician world include:
These technicians specialize in identifying and matching the unique lines that make up our fingerprints. They know how to collect and preserve fingerprints and compare them through known fingerprint databases. If only a partial print is available, the technician must make other calculations to identify it.
Every gun has unique features about it, including how and what it fires and from where it fires. A ballistic analyst can determine whether a gun used at one crime may have been used in other crimes. They also can reconstruct the shooting based on the distance between the shooter and the victim and the angle from which the bullet hit the victim.
These experts know how to find out a person’s identity from biological material, such as skin cells, blood, or hair. In these samples is DNA—an individual’s unique identifier—which can help detectives and police officers narrow down their suspect list or confirm a criminal’s identity.
Law enforcement and the judicial system rely on forensic professionals to provide accurate data. Because a suspect’s livelihood, freedom, and sometimes life can be on the line in a criminal case, all professionals involved must follow proper protocol.
A mistake or shoddy work can increase the likelihood of reasonable doubt and damage the lab’s credibility for future and past cases. Even in cases where there is no suspect, a lab technician may be able to help unravel a mystery and provide closure.
Many professional organizations offer certification, training, and ongoing support. They also provide opportunities for networking, leadership, and even advancement at a state or national level. These include:
American Board of Criminalistics
The ABC offers the opportunity to take exams on forensic and crime scene techniques. Successful candidates must be proficient in specific technical and scientific skills and familiar with law enforcement protocol and ethics. Three levels of certificates are available:
International Association for Identification
This certification specializes in identifying details from a crime scene using forensic techniques, including footwear, fingerprints, art, and bloodstain pattern analysis. Certification exams are provided by the board, which comprises members around the country. To sit for a test, a candidate must have a blend of professional and academic credentials. For instance, the Bloodstain Analysis program has multiple requirement pathways for candidates who meet the following criteria:
The bloodstain pattern analyst certification exam requires a four-part exam: a written test with 100 multiple choice and true-false questions; pattern identification; analysis; and area of convergence and area of origin calculation. Applicants must earn 75 percent or higher to pass this exam. Certification is valid for five years, and recertification requires 50 hours of continuing education credits.
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).