Most people may not know that dental records can be helpful in identifying bodies that have been damaged beyond recognition. That’s not the only intriguing fact about forensic science. Maggots found on decomposing bodies can provide other clues, such as out how long a body has been decomposing. For those curious few who in whom these facts do not elicit a squeamish response, and who like and have a knack for natural sciences such as biology and chemistry, a career in forensic science could be the right path.
Of course, education is an important component to the career, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reporting that a bachelor’s degree in the natural sciences and a master’s degree in forensic science are typically important steps to entering the occupation. This type of academic training can introduce students to the essentials in the sciences, and not just biology or chemistry, but also where these two combine, like biochemistry. Prospective forensic science technicians should also gain an understanding of criminal justice procedures and processes as well. That’s because whether a technician is working in a lab, or in any advanced niche forensic science field, like forensic entomology, understanding how the law applies to the science is fundamental.
For those who are more interested in being out in the field – like actually being at the scene of the crime, a career in crime scene investigation (CSI) could be the right choice. For CSI, professionals need to know how to collect and preserve evidence at a scene, but also how to secure a scene and to make sure that evidence is not contaminated. Whether working in a lab or out in the field, it could be hard to find a job without the needed background and training – and that is typically through a college education, or in many cases for CSI, completing a police academy.
No matter which path a student chooses to follow, it is important to investigate those educational programs available in their area. In Montana (MT) there are a few programs that could act as launching pads to an exciting and fulfilling career.
Here’s another interesting feature of a forensic science career – the job can pay more than other occupations. Consider that the mean annual pay for forensic science technicians in the U.S. was $61,220, according to May 2017 data from the BLS. This compares well to the mean wages for all occupations combined in the U.S., which is $50,620. That calculates to a more than $10,000 annual average difference. Of course, pay is never so cut and dry and wages can vary based on educational level, time on the job and even the state in which the technician works. As a side note, the mean pay for forensic science technicians working in Montana was $57,710 (BLS 2017).
Nationwide, job opportunities for forensic science technicians are expected to grow by 17 percent from 2016 2026, according to the BLS, which could result in approximately 2,600 new positions becoming available during this time.
A master’s degree is usually needed to become a forensic science technician, but one can make a start by building strong skills at the undergraduate level. Science will be an important part of a forensic science technician’s education whether they are pursuing forensic science at the very beginning or starting out with an undergraduate degree in a specific science. Below are the most common steps professionals take towards building forensic science skills and obtaining that first job.
Board certification can be a final step in developing a career. Not every field of forensic science offers certification, but it is available for forensic anthropology and forensic toxicology, as examples. Organizations like the American Board of Forensic Anthropology and the American Board of Forensic Toxicology provide more information about these two specific board certification processes. Other organizations offering certification can be found listed on the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB) website.
CSI provides a different way to enter the forensic science field. Instead of working in a lab, it gives individuals the opportunity to be out in the field actually collecting and preserving evidence and also keeping a scene secure to prevent evidence contamination. Crime scene investigators need to obtain a variety of skills related to the criminal justice system, including how to present evidence in court, which is why an education is so important. Common paths to enter CSI include:
There are numerous certifications available in CSI, offered through organizations such as the International Association for Identification (IAI) and the ICSIA. Usually, specific education is needed to undergo the certification process and once certification has been obtained, there are very specific steps that need to be followed to be re-certified in the future.
Even though the population of Montana is just over one million (less than the population of some cities in the U.S.), crime still occurs there. In fact, the Billings Gazette includes a list of the state’s most wanted individuals who are sought by the United States Marshals Service Montana Violent Offender Task Force. From Billings to Bozeman, job opportunities could be available within law enforcement agencies or for other types of governmental organizations.
One of the more prominent places to look for employment could be with the Montana Department of Justice State Crime Lab. The lab is set up to have many different sections including breath alcohol, drug chemistry, latent prints and impressions and serology/DNA. Accredited by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board since 2011, the lab is located in Missoula and is overseen by a director who has a PhD. Other places to look for employment in Montana could include:
Individuals can also offer their services as a consultant. However, every nine out of 10 forensic science technicians is employed by a state or local governmental agency, according to the BLS. Employment is typically found with coroner’s offices, crime laboratories, morgues, and police departments. The AAFS additionally reports that forensic scientists may find work with international organizations, private labs, as well as hospitals and universities.
There are several different undergraduate programs offered in the forensic sciences in Montana but unfortunately, none that are accredited through the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC), the accrediting branch of the AAFS. This accreditation may not be necessary to seeking employment, however, but could be preferred by some hiring agencies. Learn more about programmatic and institutional accreditation further down on this page. Some forensic science options in Montana include:
Other alternatives for students in Montana include pursuing a bachelor’s degree in the natural sciences, such as biology or chemistry, and then completing a master’s degree in forensic science. Students looking for on-campus options at the graduate level may need to seek programs in nearby states or consider online graduate training.
Online education can be another way for students in Montana to seek CSI and forensic science studies. At the undergraduate level, many of the programs are available in criminal justice with a CSI focus while at the upper level, online degrees can be specifically found in forensic science. The AAFS also has a listing of undergraduate, graduate degrees and certificates programs that are available online.
Students may also discover more online educational opportunities by joining a specific forensic science organization, such as the AAFS. Continuing education is often an important part of learning and sometimes these resources are available online.
While FEPAC is the accrediting agency for forensic science programs, it does not accredit any programs within Montana. However, that does not mean that other programs are without value. Not only has FEPAC accredited very few programs overall (fewer than 50 as of 2018), they only accredit those programs that heavily feature natural sciences such as chemistry and biology. As such, FEPAC accreditation would not even be available to CSI or criminal justice programs.
Another way that students can be assured they are enrolling in a quality program is to see whether it is institutionally accredited. In Montana and several nearby states, regional institutional accreditation is awarded through the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU). This accrediting organization is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and oversees accreditation at 162 institutions.
As mentioned previously, students may want to seek certification in their field at some point in their career. From fingerprint identification to crime scene reconstruction and bloodstain pattern analysis, a vast number of certifications are available. In some cases, certification may prove helpful in obtaining a job or advancing in a career. Other options are to join an organization that can provide members with networking and advocacy opportunities. In addition to the AAFS, this can include statewide organizations such as the Montana Violent Crime Investigators Association or the Montana Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. Other entities to look into include the:
With some 15,400 people employed as forensic science technicians in the U.S., as of May 2017, joining one of these organizations can be helpful in many ways. Not only do they allow members to to meet new people, they can provide access to presentations and conferences, information on jobs and even updates on new advances in the field.