During his career, Dr. Michael Baden has had the opportunity to review cases and evidence related to more than 3,000 homicides, drug deaths and suicides. This includes the passing of people such as John F. Kennedy, David Carradine and even Dr. Martin Luther King. Of course, not everyone develops such a high-profile forensic science career, but Baden’s experiences are illustrative of the kinds of opportunities that could develop from an interest and education in the field.
A bachelor’s degree in the natural sciences and a master’s degree in forensic science are often needed to enter the field, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Of course, nothing is ever set in stone and some graduates may be able to find an entry-level position with just a bachelor’s degree in forensic science. Once employed, new forensic science technicians could then work on a master’s degree if desired, and maybe even find an employer to cover or partially cover the costs of this continued education. Whatever any individual chooses, it’s important to know that forensic science training is essential to assessing evidence in the lab and that is why so many forensic science degrees focus heavily on science learning, particularly in biology and chemistry.
A career as a crime scene investigator could be another forensic science option. Most people in this field complete a bachelor’s degree in forensic science, but may also be able to train for the job by completing a law enforcement academy. In an academy, students can learn about how to become a police officer or sheriff’s deputy and gain crime scene investigation (CSI) skills as part of their training or learn later through career and agency opportunities on the job.
While lab work and crime scene work are two different forensic science paths, at times the individuals in these fields may have the opportunity to collaborate on cases together. In Kansas (KS), students and graduates that want to pursue work in the field of forensic science will find plenty of opportunities to learn and advance their careers in this fascinating field. Perhaps one Jayhawk will even become the next Michael Baden.
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Forensic science can be a high-paying career. Data from the BLS shows that the mean annual wages across the country, as of May 2017, were $61,220 for all forensic science technicians. This is higher than the $50,620 for all occupations combined, according to the BLS. In Kansas, forensic science technicians had a mean annual wage of $47,930 with all occupations in KS having a mean salary of $43,950 (BLS 2016). While the KS mean salary is not as high as the nationwide average for forensic science technicians, it still beats the statewide average for all occupations combined. It is also important to keep in mind that Kansas has a lower cost of living than many other states. In fact, according to the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center, Kansas had the 7th lowest cost of living in the country, as of 2017. In other words, a dollar will go much further in Kansas than in virtually any other state.
What does the job forecast look like for forensic science technicians in upcoming years? Across the nation, jobs are expected to grow by 17 percent from 2016 to 2026, leading to the potential creation of 2,600 new positions. In Kansas, job growth is expected to be 11 percent from 2014 to 2024, according to Career One Stop. Job opportunities nationwide are expected to be the best for those who have a bachelor’s degree in the natural sciences followed by a master’s degree in forensic science. Additionally, those who specialize in digital computer forensics or a DNA specialty could find their skills in high demand.
Usually, a bachelor’s degree is required to compete for entry-level employment in the forensic science field, but a master’s can be advantageous. In a bachelor’s degree program, students are introduced to many of the sciences and can heavily study both biology and chemistry. Forensic science students can expand their knowledge in a master’s program or pursue more nuanced studies. Below is one of the most common paths that people follow when pursuing a forensic science education:
The final step to developing a career in a forensic science specialty may be professional certification. This can be a complex process involving experience on the job, testing and providing documentation of proof of education. Not all forensic science disciplines offer certification, but forensic anthropology is one that does, and, as an example, makes board certification available through the American Board of Forensic Anthropology.
Crime scene investigation (CSI) is a different field of forensic science that may require less training than is needed to be able to work in a lab. Much of the work is done in the field, although investigators may certainly consult with professionals working in the lab. There are a variety of degrees and certificates available in CSI, and students may want to complete a more advanced education once they have obtained entry-level work. Some options include:
As with forensic science training for the lab, certification can also be useful in the CSI field, particularly for showing potential employers that an applicant has developed critical skills. Organizations to consider seeking CSI certification through include the International Association for Identification (IAI) and the International Crime Scene Investigators Association (ICSIA), both of which offer a variety of certifications.
The largest cities in Kansas include Wichita, Overland Park and Kansas City. Although the overall population of Kansas is just 2.9 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, crime can occur anywhere and is not dependent on population. In fact, the serial killer known as BTK and the Benders, a family of serial killers, committed their crimes in Kansas. The Kansas City Bureau of Investigation (KBI) could be just one place to look for a job after completing forensic science or CSI training. The KBI includes a biology section, chemistry section, latent print section, and evidence control center, all with the mission of providing investigative and lab services within the state. Other organizations that may have employment opportunities include the:
Keep in mind that many forensic science technicians and CSIs find employment with governmental agencies. In fact, nine out of 10 forensic science technicians are employed for local or state government. They often work for coroner offices, crime laboratories, morgues, and police departments, reports the BLS. The AAFS additionally reports that forensic scientists may be employed for international organizations, private labs, hospitals and universities, as well as do consulting.
There a few different forensic science programs offered in Kansas, but none that are specifically accredited through the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC), the accrediting branch of the AAFS. Some employers may prefer this accreditation, but the truth is that a vast majority of schools do not have FEPAC-accreditation and that does not indicate that the programs are subpar. Rather, many institutions have yet to pursue FEPAC accreditation status and instead rely on institutional accreditation, as detailed a bit further down in this article. That said, listed below are several different campus-based forensic science programs available in the Sunshine State:
It is important to remember that a bachelor’s degree in forensic science is not the only point of entry into the field. Students who are unable to find a suitable program may instead choose to complete an undergraduate degree in biology or chemistry and follow that with a master’s degree in forensic science, like at Emporia State University, or through an online program.
Hybrid and online learning can be another choice when it comes to obtaining a forensic science education. Often, many of the specific forensic science programs available online are at the master’s level just because so much hands-on laboratory work is needed for an undergraduate degree. Still, the options available online are diverse and some of these include:
Students interested in more online offerings can look to the AAFS website to find additional undergraduate, graduate degrees and certificate programs. Not all programs AAFS lists are forensic science-specific, with some focusing on criminal justice in general.
While graduating from a FEPAC-accredited program may prove valuable when it comes to employment, it is not always necessary. Accreditation from a regional institution is also an indicator that your school of choice has been accredited from a third-party organization. In Kansas and nearby states, regional accreditation is given through the Higher Learning Commission (HLC). However, accreditation through FEPAC may bring more value to your degree since FEPAC has a mission based upon: “enhancing the quality of forensic science education through a formal evaluation and accreditation system for college-level academic programs that lead to a baccalaureate or graduate degree.”
Additionally, students may wish to seek certification through a number of organizations ranging from the IAI to the ABFA. Certification is not available in all niche fields, but some of the most diverse options can be found in CSI. For example, the IAI offers four CSI certifications in bloodstain pattern analysis, latent prints and forensic videography. Membership in an organization can be another way to increase job opportunities, especially through resources like continuing education, seminars, journal articles, job boards and networking. Organizations worth consideration can include the:
Additional organizations to think about joining include the AAFS, which has numerous details about membership posted on its website, as well as the Midwestern Association of Forensic Scientists or the Kansas IAI.
School "total forensics grads" data provided by IPEDS (2018) for the 2016-2017 school year, and includes all certificates and degrees awarded for the following programs: Criminalistics and Criminal Science, Forensic Chemistry, Forensic Science and Technology, Forensic Psychology, Cyber/Computer Forensics, and Financial Forensics and Fraud Investigation.