Willow Dawn Becker
From dental records to the contents of maggots’ bellies and even hair that still remains attached to a victim, numerous clues can lead to a body’s identification at a crime scene. These clues are then sent off to a forensic science lab where technicians start the process of close analysis to help provide an idea about what may have happened at a crime or who may have been involved in its commission.
For many types of people, a forensic science career sounds exciting but it is hardly a monolithic career. Rather, there are many different disciplines where students can develop their expertise, including anthropology, entomology and even toxicology. These specific fields do require very high-level degrees, however, so those who are interested should be willing to make an academic commitment. Most forensic science technicians have an undergraduate degree in the natural sciences followed by a master’s in forensic science, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Those that do not want to work in a lab may want to consider a career in crime scene investigation (CSI) instead. Most often, a bachelor’s degree or work as a law enforcement officer is needed to obtain CSI skills, but knowing how to secure a scene and collect and preserve evidence is of utter importance when it comes to solving crimes. There are several different educational options available in Nebraska (NE) when it comes to training for a forensic science career.
The burning question on your mind may be whether forensic science technicians can earn a good income. According to May 2017 data from the BLS, they do. In fact, the BLS indicates that the mean annual wage for forensic science technicians working across the U.S. was $61,220, as of May 2017, which is $10,000 more on average than the mean annual income of $50,620 for all occupations in the country combined. In Nebraska, the mean annual wage for forensic science technicians was $53,990, according to May 2017 BLS data. It is important to note that despite the slightly lower expected salary, Nebraska also has the advantage of having a cost of living that is below than the national average, ranking 15 out of 50 (with 50 being the most costly) from the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (2017).
Nationwide, job opportunities for forensic science technicians are expected to grow by 17 percent. This growth could still result in 2,600 new positions opening up from 2016 to 2026, according to the BLS. In Nebraska, job growth is expected to be a whopping 28 percent from 2014 to 2024, according to Career One Stop. Despite impressive growth numbers, graduates should still be prepared to need to hone their competitive edge. Ways to do this include obtaining a master’s degree in forensic science or knowing about digital forensics or having a DNA specialty, according to the BLS.
A master’s degree in forensic science is typically needed to work in the field, although graduates may be able to find entry-level opportunities with just a bachelor’s degree. Because forensic science requires a vast understanding of the sciences, a significant amount of education is necessary to be able to perform such job-related duties. One of the most common paths towards a career in forensic science includes:
There are also certain qualities that are important to entering the forensic science field, as well, according to the AAFS. These include good speaking, note-taking and observation skills as well as the ability to be able to write scientific reports, remain unbiased, be intellectually curious and have personal integrity.
CSI is another field of forensic science that takes place largely out of the lab, in the field at the scene of a crime. Knowing how to collect and preserve evidence is important, but so is the ability to sketch a crime scene, take photos or videos of evidence, and keep fibers and fluids from being contaminated by outside sources. Some of the more common training options in CSI are:
Of interest, the International Crime Scene Investigators Association (ICSIA) reports that many crime scene investigators are actually uniformed officers, but they can also be hired without training through a law enforcement agency. However, it also notes that there are differences related to economic and arrest powers when it comes to civilians versus trained officers. Police officers are generally paid at a higher level than their civilian counterparts, they usually have better benefits and have an available career ladder whereas civilian. investigators have fewer career opportunities, fewer benefits and still must work in the same dangerous environment, according to the ICSIA.
Omaha and Lincoln are the two largest cities in Nebraska, together being home to almost 800,000 people. Either could be a good place to look for a job simply because there may be more governmental, academic or private entities there, but also because more crime could be committed there as well. However, many additional opportunities could be found in the state either through city or county law enforcement agencies.
The Nebraska State Patrol Crime Lab, in Grand Island could be one entity hiring graduates of forensic science programs. It conducts analysis of evidence in criminal cases for federal, military, state, county and municipal law enforcement agencies within Nebraska. Its services are performed free of charge in areas like drugs, DNA/serology, questioned documents and toxicology. Other agencies having job opportunities could include the:
Many job opportunities are available through governmental agencies. In fact, the BLS reports that nine out of 10 forensic science technicians work for local or state government. Other forensic scientists, however, do go on to work as experts in their own right — just think of Michael Baden or Henry Lee — so working as a consultant or privately could be another option for those that can establish themselves as experts.
Students can find several on-campus forensic science training programs available in Nebraska. As of 2018, none of the programs available in Nebraska have been accredited by the Forensic Science Education Program Accreditation Commission (FEPAC). However, because FEPAC has accredited very few programs, this is not indicative of the level of education students who enroll in the following programs will get. Rather, applicants should look towards institutional accreditation in these cases. The programs below begin to build at the associate degree level and can be pursued all the way up to the graduate degree. Some of the NE choices include:
Keep in mind that students are not just limited to forensic science programs at the undergraduate degree level in Nebraska. Students may alternatively want to complete a bachelor’s degree in biology or chemistry and learn more about the forensic science field at the graduate level.
Numerous programs in forensic science can be found online for those students that are unable to participate in an on-campus program. Online education can eliminate the time spent on commuting to a campus-based program and provide more flexibility to busy working adults. Some of these online options include:
Students can also turn to the AAFS to find a full listing of undergraduate, graduate degrees and certificate programs that are available online. Many of these provide a general education in criminal justice or a tighter focus, such as in cyber security or forensic psychology.
Graduating from a FEPAC-accredited program can be valuable in obtaining a job or looking for advancement. Not all employers may require it, however, simply because this accreditation is rigorous and relatively rare. Further, FEPAC only offers accreditation to forensic science programs that focus on natural sciences such as biology and chemistry, meaning that CSI and criminal justice programs would not be eligible.
Another way for students to feel secure in their choice of program is to enroll in one that has regional institutional accreditation. In Nebraska, this accreditation is available through the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), which reports that “[r]ecognition by CHEA affirms that the standards and processes of the accrediting organization are consistent with the academic quality, improvement and accountability expectations that CHEA has established, including the eligibility standard that the majority of institutions or programs each accredits are degree-granting.”
Finally, professional certification can also prove that a potential employee has quality-level skills. Students or graduates of a forensic science program may also choose to join a professional organization.
Organizations such as the International Association for Identification (IAI) and the International Crime Scene Investigators Association (ICSIA) offer numerous forensic science certifications, including in forensic art and latent print certification. Membership in an organization can also be valuable in providing networking opportunities, advocacy and even job boards and continuing education. Entities offering certification or membership include the:
Graduates might also look to joining the AAFS, which offers several levels of membership, including potential promotion to Fellow. An application process is required and new members must be voted on for acceptance by the AAFS Board of Directors during its annual meeting.
|University of Nebraska-Lincoln
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.
Willow Dawn Becker
Willow is a blogger, parent, former educator and regular contributor to www.forensicscolleges.com. When she's not writing about forensic science, you'll find her blogging about education online, or enjoying the beauty of Oregon.