The primary role of a forensic technician is to collect and analyze physical evidence. Forensic technicians spend the majority of their day working with evidence gathered from crime scenes, usually in a laboratory environment. This can consist of biological material, as well as 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 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 a variety of 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 are sometimes required to testify in court about their methods and conclusions as their methodology and protocol can sometimes be as useful to a trial as the conclusions made from it.
Procedural TV shows like “CSI” and “Law & Order” have popularized the current world of forensic technicians and do a fine job of showing how exciting the field can be. While often on the sensational side, they do 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 larger 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 the career outlook, salary, certifications, and education of a forensic technician.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2020), there were 16,640 forensic technicians nationally as of 2020. However, openings in this profession are expected to grow 14 percent between 2019 and 2029, adding 2,400 new jobs around the country (BLS 2021). This growth rate is much faster compared to the projected average for all occupations (4 percent).
As of May 2020, California had the highest demand for the profession, followed by Florida, Texas, New York, and Arizona (BLS 2021).
The BLS reports that the industries with the highest level of demand for forensic technicians are local government, followed by the state government. Medical and diagnostic labs, as well as agricultural and engineering fields and higher education, also employ forensic technicians (BLS 2021).
The BLS Occupational Employment Statistics (2021) indicates that the mean annual salary for forensic technicians in 2020 was $64,890 per year (or $31.20 per hour) in the U.S. Certainly, some specialized positions may have higher salaries. Similarly, private labs may pay more than public agencies.
According to PayScale (2021), an aggregator of self-reported salary data, entry-level forensic technicians make about 37 percent lower than the national average, and mid-career technicians make 20 percent less. Still, it’s important to remember that this salary data is not correlated with specific industries.
States with the highest mean salaries for forensic technicians (BLS May 2020)
|State||Average hourly wage||Average annual wage|
|California||$ 42.35||$ 54,570|
|Illinois||$ 29.39||$ 61,120|
|Massachusetts||$ 33.05||$ 68,750|
|Alaska||$ 30.35||$ 63,130|
|Virginia||$ 26.23||$ 54,570|
In 2020, ten of the metro areas with the highest mean wages included six cities in California as well as other high-populated cities. The top five metro areas for mean annual wages according to the BLS are:
Cities with the highest mean salaries (BLS May 2020)
|City||Hourly wage||Annual wage|
|San Francisco, CA||$ 51.14||$ 106,360|
|Oxnard, CA||$ 46.04||$ 95,760|
|Los Angeles, CA||$ 45.22||$ 94,060|
|Toledo, OH||$ 43.13||$ 89,710|
|Washington, DC||$ 43.15||$ 89,750|
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 this career path can pursue the following credentials and experience:
Step 1: Graduate from high school (four years)
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 prior to beginning a career and may have the benefit of increasing one’s chances of admission or earning scholarships.
Step 2: Pursue a bachelor’s degree in science or forensics (four years)
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.
Step 3: Gain experience in a laboratory setting (at least one year)
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 be qualified for a position as a technician.
Step 4: Pursue additional education (timeline varies)
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 that may take a few years to complete. Forensics certification programs are an excellent option for testing out master’s-level classes before choosing to enroll 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.
Step 5: Achieve professional certification (timeline varies)
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.
While every college likely will have physical science coursework and degree programs available, some people may be interested in online options. Depending on the program, classes can include live and recorded lectures, online discussions, and self-paced projects. 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. If a prospective student lacks the required bachelor’s or an associate’s degree, they can qualify if they have been in the military, law enforcement, or similar capacity for at least 18 months.
Ashworth College in Norcross, Georgia, offers a short three-lesson online diploma in forensics. This course can cost as little as $699 if paid in full upfront and provides students with the basic knowledge necessary to begin entry-level work in this field. This program has a strong emphasis on career research which helps prepare students for the job hunt post-completion.
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 a variety of 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.
Both law enforcement and the judicial system rely on those in the forensic field to provide accurate data. Because a suspect’s livelihood, freedom, and sometimes life can be on the line in a criminal case, it is vital that all professionals involved follow proper protocol.
A mistake or shoddy work can increase the likelihood of reasonable doubt and also damage the credibility of the lab 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 many 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:
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 is made up of 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).