Willow Dawn Becker
For those that live in New Mexico (NM) already or are eyeing a move to the Land of Enchantment, there are plenty of opportunities for forensic science education as well as ways to pursue a career as a professional in forensics or crime scene investigation (CSI). Forensic science technicians and crime scene investigators have hands-on involvement in solving crimes from start to finish – from collecting and evaluating evidence to testifying to their findings in court.
In order to achieve success on this career path, it is necessary to start with the right credentials. This can begin as early as high school with the decision to take and excel in science and mathematics in order to be granted admission later to undergraduate and perhaps graduate programs.
Forensic science is currently a small but growing field in New Mexico. As of 2016, 2,030 people are employed as forensic science technicians in New Mexico, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), but the occupation is expected to grow by 17 percent over the next 10 years (BLS, 2017).
Keep reading to learn more about forensic science degree programs, certification, and career opportunities in New Mexico.
There are a few different pathways to becoming a forensic scientist in New Mexico and not every person can or should follow a traditional path. Following are some of the most common steps people take towards becoming forensic science technicians in New Mexico.
At minimum, forensic scientists must have a high school diploma or GED. If possible, high school students should focus on science courses that will help them in their further education, including chemistry and biology, as well as math courses. Having a good GPA will also help when applying to forensic science colleges in New Mexico.
After high school, prospective forensic scientists should enroll in an undergraduate program. While some forensic science technicians (15 percent) have only a high school diploma, many more (48 percent) have at least a bachelor’s degree, according to the Career One Stop, a site that sources its data from the U.S. Department of Labor, Employment, and Training Administration. Some universities, including Eastern New Mexico University, offer undergraduate degrees in forensic sciences. However, it is also possible to pursue the career by studying more broadly at the undergraduate level and choosing a program in biology, chemistry, or another scientific pursuit. On average, an undergraduate degree will take 4 years to complete, although it may be possible to finish faster with advanced high school courses, and it may take longer for those students who start at a community college level.
Of the 48 percent of forensic scientists that earn at least a bachelor’s degree, more than 16 percent have a master’s or doctoral degree. The timeline for completing these types of advanced studies in forensic science varies. A master’s degree may take as little as two years while a doctoral degree with a thesis component can take up to 10 years – or more – to complete.
There is no federal or state requirement for forensic scientists to become registered or certified, but there are options for peer certification that may assist in finding employment as a forensic scientist. For instance, the American Board of Criminalistics (ABC) offers certification both in general forensic science knowledge as well as specialities such as toxicology, fingerprints, and firearms.
Although organizations like the BLS tend to group all forensic scientists together as “Forensic Science Technicians” the reality of the work is that of specialization. Forensic scientists may choose to specialize in anything from blood spatter analysis to DNA research. These specializations may be pursued at the graduate level or as a post-graduate certification after gaining some hands-on experience in a laboratory or in the field. The American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS), which offers a student membership, recognizes the following specialties in the forensic field:
While working as a forensic science technician can certainly be a fulfilling career, there are those who are more interested in working in the field as a crime scene investigator. The pathway to a successful career as in CSI in New Mexico is similar to that of a forensic scientist, but not identical, as indicated in the common path below.
Like forensic scientists, crime scene investigators will need to have a high school degree for most jobs. Taking as many math and science courses as possible – and excelling in them – is recommended for those high school students who want to pursue a career as a crime scene investigator.
After high school, there are two common paths for crime scene investigators. Some choose to study towards an undergraduate degree in criminal justice or a related field, while others choose to enter law enforcement. Both of these paths can lead to eventual employment as a crime scene investigator. Choosing a law enforcement path means that prospective investigators will have to complete a police academy training, which takes an average of 6 months. Though it is rigorous, it is a shorter training time than an undergraduate degree, which takes on average 4 years to earn.
Much of the training of a crime scene investigator comes from on the job experience, either through law enforcement work, internships or entry level positions.
As with forensic scientists, there is no legal requirement for certification in crime scene investigation. However, CSI certification can help in obtaining jobs, particularly for those that are new to the career. Certification is available from organizations like the International Association for Identification (IAI), and the International Crime Scene Investigators Association (ICSIA).
Both forensic scientists and crime scene investigators are classified as “Forensic Science Technicians” by the BLS. Unfortunately, New Mexico is not the state with the highest demand for forensic scientists. According to the BLS 230 forensic science technicians were employed in New Mexico in 2016. The occupation overall is expected to grow by 17 percent through the year 2026, which is a significantly faster than the average pace for all occupations, which sits at just 7 percent. In New Mexico, the rate of growth is expected to be 21 percent, meaning more jobs could become available year after year.
The median annual salary for a forensic science technician in the U.S. is $57,850 (BLS 2016). The expected salaries for forensic science technicians in New Mexico are as follows:
The highest concentration of jobs for forensic scientists tend to be in more densely populated areas. New Mexico consist of large swaths of rural land that is not densely populated (the state is ranked 45th in the U.S. for population density), therefore most of the forensic science jobs are likely to be concentrated in cities like Albuquerque and Las Cruces, which are the two most populous cities.
Both graduate and undergraduate studies in forensic science are available in New Mexico. Upon successfully completing high school, as well as any general education prerequisites, students can apply to any of the following programs in the state:
There are many reasons why a forensic science student may prefer or require online coursework. There are schools around the country that can accommodate these determined learners, including programs based in New Mexico.
It should certainly be noted that even those programs that take place online may require hands-on laboratory experience prior to graduation. While distance learning can be extremely effective in many ways, there are some career prerequisites that require a student’s physical presence.
Before enrolling in any program, students should be sure to verify its accreditation. Although the process differs between agencies, most accrediting agencies require a thorough self-study as well as a site visit that confirms facilities, faculty, and curricula before offering accreditation.
FEPAC is the main accrediting agency for forensic science programs, but not all programs have yet been recognized by FEPAC. It is also important to note that FEPAC accreditation status is not necessary for earning a reputable degree. Indeed, FEPAC only accredits those forensic science programs that are heavily focused on sciences such as biology and chemistry, making many criminal justice and CSI programs ineligbile for accreditation.
Additionally, the Higher Learning Commission awards institutional accreditation to schools using a holistic view of the facilities, faculties, and programs.
Those interested in pursuing individual certification in forensic science, crime scene investigation, or other forensic specialties should visit:
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.