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 opportunity 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 this profession.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2018), there were about 15,400 forensic technicians nationally as of 2016. However, openings in this profession are expected to grow 17 percent between 2016 and 2026, adding 2,600 new jobs around the country. This is considered much faster than the projected average for all occupations (7 percent). As of May 2017, California had the highest demand for the profession, followed by Florida, Texas, New York, and Arizona.
The BLS reports that the highest level demand for forensic technicians can be local government followed by the state government. Medical and diagnostic labs as well as higher education and agricultural and engineering fields also employ forensic technicians.
The BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook indicates that the median salary for forensic technicians in 2017 was $57,850 per year or $27.81 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, entry-level forensic technicians make about 6 percent lower than the national average, and mid-career technicians make 1 percent higher.
States with the highest mean salaries, forensic technicians (BLS)
|State||Average hourly wage||Average annual wage|
Nine of the metro areas with the highest mean wages include Washington, D.C., Springfield, Illinois, and seven cities in California. The top five metro areas for mean wage include:
Cities with the highest mean salaries according to the BLS
|City||Hourly wage||Annual wage|
|Los Angeles, CA||$44.35||$92,250|
|San Francisco, CA||$42.62||$88,660|
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 begin with a high school diploma, then pursue the following credentials and experience:
Bachelor’s degree in science or forensics (4 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.
Experience in a laboratory setting (at least 1 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.
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. Certifications can be completed in a few semesters compared to a master’s program that may take a few years to complete. 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.
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 might be more a competitive job candidate.
While every college likely will have physical science coursework and degree programs available, some people may be interested in online options, which, depending on the program, can offer 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. Even if a prospective student lacks a bachelor or an associate degree, the program offers admission to students who worked in the military, law enforcement, or similar capacity for at least 18 months.
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. Various 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:
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 people using forensic techniques, including footwear, fingerprints, art and blood type. 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: