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 that 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, which include forensic toxicologists, are forecast to grow 17 percent in the decade preceding 2026, much faster than the U.S. average for all fields (7 percent). Forensic toxicologists might find themselves in their own 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. When it comes to 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 the typical responsibilities, specialties, salaries, and career paths for forensic toxicologists.
According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the three sub-disciplines 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 a particular death. Forensic toxicologists analyze biological fluids, tissues, and in some cases hair and bone, to identify the presence of adulterating 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 of is performed on specimens typically collected from living people. Assessing the effects of alcohol, drugs, and other substances upon an individual’s performance and behavior can have applications in 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 a variety of contexts, including doping control in athletics, probation and parole meetings, and compliance monitoring. Forensic drug toxicology also acts as a safeguard against drug use in the workplace, where non-compliance can have a negative impact on 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 mean the difference 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, found an average salary figure of $68,395 per year. This survey included a wide range of forensic scientists and one in which forensic toxicologists were included. The average tenure for the surveyed forensic scientists was four to six years.
More specific data from Payscale found an average salary of $60,000 a year for forensic toxicologists, with the top ten percent earning close to $90,000 a year. Over half of the forensic toxicologists in Payscale’s data set had less than four years of professional experience.
The Bureau of Labor and Statistics does not track forensic toxicology specifically, but they do provide robust data on forensic science technicians, which can encompass forensic toxicology. According to the BLS, in 2017, the average salary for forensic science technicians was $57,850 per year, with the top ten percent earning $95,600 per year. Of the various environments in which a forensic science technician can work, the most lucrative were private testing laboratories, where technicians made an average of $62,130 per year—outranking state and local government workers who made under $60,000 per year.
Step One: Attain a Bachelor’s Degree (4 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 they 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 both in university laboratories and internship programs are integral, boosting one’s professional resume and graduate school applications.
Step Two: Gain Real-World Experience (1-2 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 not only beneficial to apply to graduate schools, but 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 levels of experience.
Step Three: Pursue an Advanced Degree or Certificate (2-4 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. Graduate-level education in forensic toxicology can boost specialized one’s 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, which covers pathophysiology, pharmacology, biopharmaceutical sciences, pharmacodynamics, expert witness testimony, and more.
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.
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 can 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. Applicants for every certification must submit three professional character references. Applicants who meet all requirements are eligible to take an examination, passage of which leads to official certification. Study guides and recertification information are available on the ABFT’s website.
Those ready to get started can check out some of the degree programs below: