If you ever flip through prime-time crime shows, you already know that forensic toxicologists make science look cool. Where toxicology is the study of drugs and chemicals on biological systems, forensic toxicology applies to situations with administrative and medicolegal consequences. In practical terms, this requires a heavy reliance on scientific data, technical analysis, and diligent recordkeeping. But the notion of applying such skills to the ends of catching a criminal or serving justice gives it a sense of drama that’s fit for Hollywood.
If you decide to pursue a career in forensic toxicology, you might not end up making as much as someone who plays one on TV, but you will have a better chance at steady employment and real-world impact. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, jobs in the forensic science technician sector, including forensic toxicologists, are forecast to grow 16 percent in the decade preceding 2030, much faster than the U.S. average for all occupations (8 percent).
Forensic toxicologists might find themselves in their real-life version of a famous TV show, working with law enforcement, government, and research institutions to solve scientific puzzles with tangible consequences.
It’s not all glossy glamor and high-paced action, of course. However, when it comes to the portrayal in television, the nitty-gritty details of careers in forensic toxicology often end up on the cutting room floor. Read on to get a realistic glance at forensic toxicologists’ typical responsibilities, specialties, salaries, and career paths.
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According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), subdisciplines of forensic toxicology are postmortem toxicology, human performance toxicology, and forensic drug toxicology.
In postmortem toxicology, forensic toxicologists team up with coroners, medical examiners, and pathologists to uncover the role of alcohol, drugs, and other substances in the cause of certain death. Forensic toxicologists analyze biological fluids, tissues, and in some cases, hair and bone to identify the presence of degrading substances in a deceased person. Their interpretations can contribute to the investigation of suicides, homicides, and overdoses by determining the cause of death.
Human performance toxicology is similar to postmortem toxicology, except the chemical analysis is performed on specimens typically collected from living people. Assessing the effects of alcohol, drugs, and other substances on an individual’s performance and behavior can apply to criminal investigations dealing with impaired driving, vehicular assault, child custody cases, and sexual assault. Interpretations of test results in human performance toxicology require an intricate understanding of the precise impact and timing of foreign substances in a human body.
Forensic drug toxicology also tests for the presence of certain substances in a living human body. This type of testing can be performed in various contexts, including doping control in athletics, probation and parole meetings, and compliance monitoring. Forensic drug toxicology also safeguards against drug use in the workplace, where non-compliance can harm safety and productivity.
Such testing can be essential in hazardous and sensitive industries like transportation, law enforcement, and the military. While the scope of forensic drug toxicology is more narrow than the other subdisciplines, the quantity of testing is greater, and many workplace testing laboratories use specialized configurations of their equipment to boost throughput.
In each subdiscipline, a forensic toxicologist generally follows a five-step system in analyzing a specimen:
Forensic toxicologists use state-of-the-art analytical techniques that are similar to those performed in research and hospital laboratories. This requires knowledge of analytical chemistry procedures and instrumental analysis. While most of their work occurs in a laboratory or private facility, forensic toxicologists may find themselves in the courtroom occasionally for testimony and out into the field for roadside testing and collection.
Despite the varied work locations, this can be a solitary profession. Forensic toxicologists can spend entire shifts studying a single substance in isolation. Persistence and mental acuity are critical skills for forensic toxicologists, whose work can distinguish between whether or not justice is served.
A forensic toxicologist’s salary varies based on experience, specialty, job title, and geography. Furthermore, precise figures may vary further due to disparate data sources and calculation methodologies.
A small survey of 132 forensic scientists performed by Indeed (2021) found an average salary figure of $61,334 per year. This survey included a wide range of forensic scientists and one forensic toxicologist. The average tenure for the surveyed forensic scientists was four to six years.
More specific self-reported data from PayScale (2021) found an average salary of $77,303 a year for forensic toxicologists, with the top ten percent earning close to $102,000 a year. In addition, about half of the 39 forensic toxicologists in Payscale’s data set had one to four years of professional experience.
The Bureau of Labor and Statistics does not track forensic toxicology precisely, but they provide robust data on forensic science technicians, which can encompass forensic toxicology. According to the BLS, the average salary for forensic science technicians was $64,890 per year, with the top 10 percent earning $100,910 or more per year (BLS 2020). Of the various environments in which a forensic science technician can work, the most lucrative were laboratories within the Federal Executive branch, where technicians made an average of $120,790 per year—far outranking state and local government workers who made under $64,770 per year.
Step One: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years)
After graduating from high school, students typically need to acquire a bachelor’s degree. For their bachelor’s, aspiring forensic toxicologists usually major in a hard science such as chemistry or pharmacology or attend a forensic science program that dives into those hard science topics.
The University of Central Florida offers a bachelor’s in forensic science with a concentration in chemistry. The coursework includes heavy exposure to chemistry, laboratory science, pharmacology, and analysis.
Another undergraduate option is Arizona State University, which offers online bachelor’s degrees in biochemistry or biological sciences. While not directly focused on criminal justice and investigation, the intense scientific education in these degrees can provide a strong foundation for prospective forensic toxicologists. In any event, hands-on experience in university laboratories and internship programs is integral, boosting one’s professional resume and graduate school applications.
The University of North Dakota offers an on-campus bachelor of science in forensic science. Students in this 120-credit program can choose from four sub-plans, including chemical analysis, useful for forensic toxicology. Other specializations include forensic investigations, forensic wildlife biology, and forensic molecular biology. Three start dates are available throughout the year, and the program can be completed in four years.
Step Two: Gain Real-World Experience (One to Two Years)
On-the-job experience is one of the best educations available, and getting out of the classroom and into the professional world is the fastest way to accelerate a career. Work experience is beneficial to apply to graduate schools. Still, it also builds a professional’s network and can inform their decision about whether to attend graduate school in the first place. The Society of Forensic Toxicologists maintains an up-to-date list of job postings across the country that range across all experience levels.
Step Three: Pursue an Advanced Degree or Certificate (Two to Four Years, Optional)
At this point, students might already be working as forensic toxicologists, but there is still room to advance. For those who majored in a hard science subject that was short on forensic education, or vice-versa, a graduate degree or certificate would be the time to fill the gap. In addition, graduate-level education in forensic toxicology can boost one’s specialized skill set, hiring potential, salary, and status in the field at large.
The University of Florida offers both a master’s degree and a graduate certificate in forensic toxicology that can be completed online. Those looking for an on-campus experience may be interested in the master’s degree in forensic toxicology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, covering pathophysiology, pharmacology, biopharmaceutical sciences, pharmacodynamics, expert witness testimony, and more.
Wayne State University offers a post-bachelor forensic investigation certificate. This 24-credit program provides courses in criminalistics, forensic investigation of firearms, ballistics and explosives, and fundamental forensic analysis. An internship at a medicolegal site is required to complete this program.
Michigan State University offers an online master of science program in pharmacology with a toxicology concentration. The toxicology concentration requires 31 credits in courses such as principles of drug-tissues interaction, academic & research integrity, and cellular and molecular toxicology. To be admitted to this program, applicants must have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college with a major in biological or chemical science. Applicants with a minimum of three credits in chemistry and three credits in biology may be accepted if an applicant has substantial professional experience in the field of biomedical science.
For a terminal degree, one may choose to pursue a doctorate in toxicology through a program such as the one at Colorado State University, which could lead to work in research, industry, government, or academia as a recognized expert in the field.
The University at Albany, a State University of New York (SUNY) institution, offers a PhD in chemistry. Students in this program are required to take courses, research, and teach. A minimum of 60 credits is required in physical organic chemistry and advanced physical chemistry and the theory and techniques of biophysics and biophysical chemistry.
Before being admitted to the program, applicants must be full-time students beyond their master’s degree or equivalent and enrolled in at least 12 credits for two semesters before beginning doctoral work. Research emphasis in this program includes forensic/analytical track, and students pursuing this research area are mentored by faculty and expected to engage in research related to forensic chemistry.
Step Four: Consider Professional Certification (Timeline Varies)
Forensic toxicologists do not need to be certified to practice, but certification can cement one’s status as an expert and lead to a higher salary and job opportunities. The American Board of Forensic Toxicologists (ABFT) offers four such certifications:
To pursue the diplomate certifications, applicants need at least a bachelor’s degree in natural sciences, such as biology or chemistry, and at least three years of subsequent work experience. For the fellow certification, requirements include a doctorate-level degree, in addition to at least three years of subsequent work experience. In addition, applicants for every certification must submit three professional character references.
Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California. Since 2018, he’s written extensively about the increasing digitization of investigations, the growing importance of forensic science, and emerging areas of investigative practice like open source intelligence (OSINT) and blockchain forensics. His writing and research are focused on learning from those who know the subject best, including leaders and subject matter specialists from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) and the American Academy of Forensic Science (AAFS). As part of the Big Employers in Forensics series, Matt has conducted detailed interviews with forensic experts at the ATF, DEA, FBI, and NCIS.