Becoming a crime scene investigator is an ideal job for those who can’t choose between working in criminal justice or science. Justice can be served or denied at the hands of a crime scene investigator, so those with scientific backgrounds, an objective bent of mind, and a strong physical and mental constitution are encouraged to earn a certification or a degree in this field.
It goes without saying that a crime scene investigator (CSI) must be prepared to work at crime scenes and laboratory work environments. CSIs are tasked with carefully collecting and preserving evidence for analysis at a crime lab. As well, a CSI takes photographs and detailed notes of blood spatter patterns, fingerprints, and the types of weapons involved. Testifying in legal proceedings and writing official reports is often the responsibility of a CSI meaning strong writing and speaking skills are necessary for this growing profession.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that between 2019 and 2029, the occupation of forensic science technicians, a closely-related career field, will grow 14 percent which is much faster than the national average for all occupations in the same decade (four percent). For a detailed step-by-step pathway to become a CSI and future salary projections, please read our guide to Crime Scene Investigator Career & Salary Outlook.
Earning a crime scene investigation (CSI) certificate helps students to learn about the fundamentals of crime scenes, including that ever-important component that should be always on the mind: detail, detail, detail. Students in CSI certification programs can learn how to handle and preserve evidence as well as write reports and present material in a court of law.
At an advanced level, these programs can give students the opportunity to delve deeper into the biology and physiology of CSI, even providing potential credit toward a master’s degree, or the opportunity to learn further about investigation techniques, such as evidence handling, and the use of digital photography in capturing a crime scene.
CSI certification programs at the undergraduate level may not require a prior degree or education. However, students interested in crime scene investigation do often have a deep interest in the field or currently work in law enforcement or a similar setting.
Certificates at the master’s degree level typically require students to have an undergraduate degree and an understanding of the depth of work that can come with advanced education. Sometimes certificates obtained at the graduate level, such as through the National University online program, can be applied toward completion of a full degree at a later date
Typically, students gain knowledge about the broad scope of crime scene investigation in a program, including how to document findings, take photographs, and present evidence in court. Below are sample courses that can be found through CSI training at the undergraduate level, but the scope of learning will depend on the requirements for the certification and the focus of the program.
Certificates in CSI are available to those students who have not completed an undergraduate program. This type of certification is common for those that work in law enforcement and have learned most of their CSI skills on the job.
At the University of California, Riverside students are immersed in classes that include crime scene photography, forensic entomology, and rules of evidence. Students in the school’s program also complete a one-unit CSI practicum that allows them to use their skills of evidence collection and preservation, including diagramming and photography, in a mock crime scene, and to do a written report and group presentation afterward.
Those who complete the program earn a Professional Certificate in Crime Scene Investigation. This program is designed for current law enforcement professionals or anyone seeking a career in crime scene investigation.
The University of Baltimore offers an undergraduate certificate in crime scene investigation. This 12-credit program comprises four courses and can be completed in one year or less. This program is designed for students who don’t have science or criminal justice degrees or who are currently crime scene investigators in need of continuing education credits. Students in this program have the advantage of working in the state-of-the-art Jami R. Grant Forensic Laboratories to practice instrumental analysis, microscopy, and crime scene recreation.
The International Crime Scene Investigators Association (ICSIA) offers CSI certification to those who are actively employed by law enforcement and have been working in crime scene processing for at least two years. Applicants must have successfully completed at least 50 hours of crime scene processing courses. Many of the courses listed here would qualify for this prerequisite. The certification test consists of:
Another option for CSI certification is through the International Association for Identification (IAI).
Certification is available through the IAI for:
At the graduate level, students will find courses to be much more rigorous. In this case, a strong foundation in the sciences may be helpful. Sample courses at the graduate level could include:
For an advanced certificate at a campus-based institution, students can turn to George Mason University, in Fairfax, Virginia., for a graduate certificate in the forensic sciences with a concentration in crime scene investigation. The 18-credit certificate requires 12 credits in the area of concentration, which in this case would be CSI, although other concentrations are offered.
Courses include basic crime analysis, forensic photography, and medicolegal death investigation and pathology. This program can be completed part-time or full-time and qualifies for Title IV Federal Financial Aid. To be admitted to this program, applicants must have a BA or BS degree from a regionally-accredited university and a minimum 3.0 GPA. A capstone project in moot court expert testimony is required.
The George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, DC offers a graduate-level certificate in forensic investigations. This program serves students in two ways: a certification that proves competency for those applying for CSI positions and students hoping to pursue crime scene investigation at the graduate level with GWU’s master’s of science with a concentration in crime scene investigation (MS/CSI).
To be eligible to apply for this certificate program, students must have a bachelor’s degree in any field. Topics covered include best practices in preservation and protection of evidence; documentation verification; firearms and tool mark identification; forensic psychiatry; and child abuse investigation.
Like in many other subject areas, students seeking CSI certification programs can find options online. Some of these may be hybrid programs, meaning they combine online learning with some classroom instruction, or be offered entirely online. Below, several different options are listed.
When it comes to completing a CSI certification program through a community college or university, students will want to ensure that the school has been accredited through an accrediting agency. This helps to ensure that the programming and instruction at a school meet specific standards in learning and that students are receiving a quality education.
For example, George Mason University is accredited through the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Programs offered through centers or other organizations may have a different type of accreditation, but it’s always best to ask if the school or program is accredited. Students might also find that some programs or schools are additionally accredited through the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC). However, FEPAC accredits very few programs and only offers accreditation to those programs that are heavily focused on the scientific aspects of forensics, meaning that most CSI programs are ineligible.
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).