Forensic science can be a terrific career for those interested in different fields of science and its intersection with crime and law enforcement. So much unique knowledge is needed to work as a forensic science technician, with programs generally providing instruction in anatomy, anthropology, biochemistry, biology and chemistry as part of a bachelor’s degree. And the learning doesn’t stop there. Programs are so interdisciplinary in approach that they also may include clinical laboratory sciences, criminal justice, math, molecular biology, physics, and psychology.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that a bachelor’s degree is typically needed to enter the forensic science field (2017). Colleges in North Dakota (ND) can help lay the foundation in the natural sciences or in forensic science for dedicated students.
In addition to bachelors-level programs, both associate degree programs and graduate-level programs are available. However, because forensic science programs are fairly limited in North Dakota, students may have the best luck finding a program that suits their needs with online learning.
The curriculum available through forensic science schools typically prepares graduates to work in a forensics lab, but this could mean employment in a police department, a private facility or a crime laboratory, such as with the North Dakota Attorney General’s office. Some programs focus more on crime scene investigation (CSI), which shows students how to collect evidence at a crime scene and to properly handle and store it. Learning how to testify in court may also be part of any available CSI programs in North Dakota.
Keep reading for more details on what types of forensic science technician and crime scene investigator programs and jobs are available in the Peace Garden State.
According to May 2017 data from the BLS, the mean annual wages for forensic science technicians working in the U.S. were $61,220. This compares fairly well to the BLS mean annual wage of $48,130 for all occupations in the U.S. combined. In North Dakota, forensic science technicians earn a mean salary of $42,240, which puts the state somewhat lower than the national average (BLS 2017).
From 2016 to 2026, the demand for forensic science technicians across the U.S. is expected to grow by 17 percent, resulting in some 2,600 new positions becoming available – good news to a recent graduate from one of the colleges in North Dakota. The best job opportunities could be available to those who specialize in DNA or digital computer forensics or those who have a bachelor’s degree in a natural science and a master’s degree in forensic science.
In a forensic science lab, a technician performs biological, chemical or physical analysis of evidence that comes from a crime scene. This detailed scientific analysis is why a bachelor’s degree is so important to entering the field. Following is one of the most common paths followed to make a start in forensic science, including earning that initial degree.
Natural science skills are not the only essential ones to becoming a forensic science technician. Knowledge about criminal justice, courtroom procedures, the law, as well as communication, can be important. In fact, the BLS says that communication skills are so essential because forensic science technicians need to be able to communicate with a variety of people, present information in courts and compile reports.
Crime scene investigators, who do different work than forensic science technicians, may be involved in taking photos, making sketches of a crime scene, collecting fingerprints and bodily fluids, as well as preserving evidence so that it can be taken to a crime lab, according to the BLS. These meticulous skills are those that can be obtained through a CSI program. Often, the education necessary is not as in-depth as that required for forensic science programs. Potential paths to a career in CSI include:
In North Dakota, the biggest cities are Fargo, Bismarck and Grand Forks, which together have a combined population of more than 250,000 people. Cities may be the best place to look for jobs related to forensic science and CSI, but some rural jurisdictions may be in need of employees, too. As mentioned earlier, the North Dakota Attorney’s General’s Office could be one place that needs trained professionals. The AG’s crime laboratory provides evidentiary support to the criminal justice system in the state by analyzing, identify and comparing physical evidence used in criminal offense cases. Given that North Dakota has a small population, new forensic science technicians may have to look harder for opportunities. Graduates or students looking for hands-on experience may consider IFI DNA Testing and Technologies or the Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The BLS reports that nine out of every 10 forensic scientists work for local or state government, and that they are most often employed in crime laboratories, morgues, coroner’s offices or police departments. However, job availability may also be dependent on the budgets and funding available in these governmental agencies.
Because there is only one forensic science program available in North Dakota, students may want to look for programs in criminal justice or the natural sciences instead. In fact, no forensic science programs offered in North Dakota are accredited through the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC), which is the accrediting branch of AAFS, although FEPAC-accreditation may not be necessary to seek employment. Students interested in forensic science programs in North Dakota can consider any of the following:
Because there are so few forensic science programs in North Dakota, it may be better to look for undergraduate degrees in the natural sciences. Biology and chemistry are exceptionally common offerings at virtually all institutions of higher learning. From there, students can look for a graduate-level program, either on-campus or online, to help them gain more forensic science-specific knowledge. This may be an optimal path, as the BLS reports that many people entering the field of forensic science often have a bachelor’s degree in the natural sciences followed by a master’s degree in forensic science.
Students seeking forensic science programs online will find numerous options. Some, but not all, of the programs listed result in a degree in criminal justice with a specialization in forensic science or crime scene investigation. A few of the available online forensic science programs include:
There are many other online programs available to students in North Dakota and which are listed on the AAFS website. Information on undergraduate and graduate degree programs as well as certificate programs can be found there, along with information on the Young Forensic Scientists Forum (YFSF) for teenagers.
While graduating from a FEPAC-accredited program in not always possible, it certainly may be advantageous. Keep in mind that FEPAC-accreditation is not something that occurs overnight or even in a year, however. In fact, the University of North Dakota formed an accrediting body as far back as 2004, but is still not ready to apply for FEPAC accreditation. Further, FEPAC only offers accreditation to science-focused programs, making criminal justice and CSI programs inelgible for accreditation.
In this case, regional institutional accreditation of a university is important. Institutional accreditation means that the school has been accredited in entirety by an agency. There are six of these accrediting agencies across the U.S., and in North Dakota accreditation is done through the Higher Learning Commission. HLC reaccreditation of the University of North Dakota last occurred in 2013 and the next reaffirmation of accreditation is expected in 2023-24.
FEPAC accreditation may also be important to seeking certification, although each certifying organization has its own regulations and standards. Certification may not even be available, and individuals may want to seek out membership instead. As an example, the International Crime Scene Investigators Association (ICSIA) offers active membership to currently employed or recently retired personnel with a law enforcement agency. Below are a handful of organizations offering board certification or membership:
Students should keep in mind that not all branches of forensic science offer board certification. To help in determining this, the AAFS has 11 different sections of forensic science listed on its website and has the education and career details, including the certification details if available, specific to each. Students or working professionals can also become members of the AAFS, which has information on career opportunities, provides access to the Journal of Forensic Science, and offers an annual meeting and educational conferences and more.
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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.