Nevada (NV) has many wide open spaces, but also large cities, like Reno and Las Vegas, in which there is crime. Forensic science technicians and crime scene investigators are often needed to look into these criminal acts, whether they are violent, involve assault, robbery or even in some cases, homicide. Just consider the murder of 19-year-old Brianna Dennison in 2007 that went unsolved for 11 months until her convicted killer, James Biela, was later arrested. Evidence around the scene was important in helping to solve her murder and connect her to her killer later on.
Individuals interested in entering the forensic science field need to gain significant knowledge in biology and chemistry, as these are important in analyzing and assessing clues, ranging from DNA at a scene to bits of fabric or fluids left behind. A bachelor’s degree in the natural sciences followed by a master’s degree in forensic science is common for entering the forensic science field, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and should enable graduates to pursue employment opportunities within a crime scene lab.
Another option is to pursue an education related to CSI. A bachelor’s degree is most often needed to enter this field, the BLS reports, but not an advanced degree. In addition to basic science skills, students learn about taking pictures of crime scenes, collecting evidence and preserving clues for analysis in a lab.
The BLS reports that a law enforcement career is another way to enter the CSI field. Whichever path an individual chooses, it is important to be sure to fully understand all the requirements before undertaking education or training.
An important question to answer about the forensic science occupation is whether careers can be high-paying. For forensic science technicians, they can be. In fact, the BLS reports that the mean annual nationwide wage for forensic science technicians, as of May 2017, was $61,220 (BLS 2017). This is more than $10,000 higher than the mean annual wages of $50,620 for all occupations nationwide combined. In Nevada, the annual mean wage for forensic science technicians is even higher than the nationwide average, coming in at $76,160, which can be particularly advantageous in a state with a cost of living that is higher than average. In fact, that pay makes Nevada the third highest-paying location in the country, according to the BLS.
Across the country, job opportunities for forensic science technicians are expected to grow by 17 percent from 2016 to 2026, which is much faster than the expected growth for all jobs, standing at just 7 percent. According to the BLS, this level of growth could result in 2,600 new positions becoming available during this time. Job growth in Nevada is expected to be 34 percent, according to Career One Stop, which could mean another 20 jobs in NV alone. Despite good growth, jobs can still be competitive, so students can focus their education on completing a master’s degree or gaining expertise in DNA or digital computer forensics to have a competitive edge.
The BLS reports that a bachelor’s degree in the natural sciences followed by a master’s degree in forensic science are typically needed to become a forensic science technician, but there are other paths available. Following are some of the most common steps followed to enter this burgeoning career:
In addition to obtaining an education, there are several qualities that are essential to becoming a forensic science technician in Nevada and elsewhere. According to the AAFS, forensic scientists must be able to remain unbiased, have intellectual curiosity and strong personal integrity. They should possess of speaking, note-taking and observation skills.
Crime scene investigation (CSI) is another field of forensic science that could be of interest to those wanting to collect and photograph evidence at crime scenes. Crime scene investigators need to know how to stay safe at a crime scene and also how to keep evidence from being contaminated. Some of the common options for entering the CSI career include:
The International Crime Scene Investigators Association (ICSIA) reports that many CSIs are members of law enforcement and the advantage is better pay and the ability to arrest individuals. However, police agencies also do hire civilians.
The largest cities in Nevada are Las Vegas and Reno, both together with a population approaching more than 900,000. Of course, many additional people live in those cities’ suburban outskirts, meaning that there could be many opportunities for crime to be committed as well as many opportunities to find jobs to help solve these crimes. Indeed, Las Vegas made it onto Forbes’ list of the most dangerous cities in the U.S., coming in at number nine.
The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) Forensic Laboratory could be one place to look for employment. It not only provides support to Las Vegas, but other Nevada law enforcement agencies and helps to examine and analyze evidentiary material and provide expert testimony on analyses done. However, there are many other agencies that could have opportunities available in Nevada, including the:
It is more than likely that graduates will find a job through a governmental agency. In fact, the BLS shows that nine out of 10 forensic science technicians are employed for state or local government. Given the right time on the job and right experience, and the necessary education, others might seek work at a university, in research or even as a private and expert consultant.
From undergraduate to graduate level training, students will want to seek postsecondary education to work toward a forensic science career. The truth is there is little available in terms of strict forensic science training in the state, so students will need to pursue criminal justice or science based degrees and supplement with available courses in forensic science. That said, some of the college opportunities available in Nevada include:
Students may be able to seek entry-level work just by taking related forensic science classes since full degrees are not available in the state. In fact, the lab director of Washoe County, in northern Nevada, reports that students with an undergraduate degree in criminal justice interested in forensic science should take classes that are geared toward lab experiences. Students interested in CSI might want to pursue courses in drawing and photography while those interested in a criminalist career might want to obtain a degree in molecular biology or chemistry, according to the county’s web page.
There are a multitude of criminal justice programs available online, for students who are unable to make an on-campus program work. However, those programs specifically offered in forensic science are a bit more difficult to find. Some degrees may be offered entirely online, but others may use a hybrid format in which some classes are available online and others require on-campus learning. Below are three available forensic science programs that use distance-based learning.
Graduating from an accredited school is important because it shows that the school and/or programs within it have been reviewed by an outside agency and found to meet specific standards in education related to content, instruction and faculty.
The Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC) accredits forensic science programs across the nation, as of 2018 there are no FEPAC-accredited programs in NV. FEPAC accreditation can be important to obtaining a job, but may not be necessary for seeking employment, particularly when there are no FEPAC-accredited institutions nearby. Further, FEPAC only accredits those forensic science programs that focus heavily on natural sciences, making criminal justice and CSI programs entirely ineligible for accreditation.
In place of FEPAC’s programmatic accreditation, prospective students can look for a school’s regional institutional accreditation. Institutional accreditation is based on evaluation of the school as an entire institution. In Nevada and several other states, regional accreditation is granted through the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU).
Students also may be able to seek certification in a number of specific forensic science disciplines. The AAFS provides more details on the types of forensic science disciplines in which board certification may be available. That said, certification is also offered in various CSI-related fields, such as crime scene investigation and crime scene analysis and through organizations like the International Association for Identification (IAI) or the International Crime Scene Investigators Association (ICSIA).
Membership in an organization also can be beneficial in other ways, including for networking, advocacy and job leads. Any of the organizations listed below may prove advantageous in joining.
Also, students and graduates alike should stay open to joining organizations at the regional or state level. These may provide even more opportunities to new graduates or professionals interested in advancing their career, particularly when it relates to training that may be specific to area law enforcement organizations or agencies.
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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.