Studying for a career in forensic science may seem overwhelming at first. After all, there are many different types of careers and even more programs to consider. There are several forensic science degree programs in Washington (WA) to review, in addition to law enforcement training and online certification programs.
Students can choose different paths toward this exciting career, but each involves a commitment to academics and hands-on training. The earlier someone starts down the path, the more likely they will be able to find employment. Some forensic scientists even start pursuing a career as early as high school.
Luckily for aspiring crime solvers in Washington, there are several forensic science programs in the state and a healthy employment landscape for these trained professionals.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2022), forensic science technicians make an average of $74,990 annually in WA, 8 percent more than the national average for this occupation ($69,260).
Students interested in this field should note that becoming a forensic science technician is just one of many career options for program graduates. Another option, becoming a detective or criminal investigator, can be even more lucrative.
This article will outline the most popular pathways for becoming a forensic scientist and a little bit about some of the available forensic science programs in beautiful Washington State.
Becoming a forensic scientist in Washington requires hard work and perseverance. Like any career path, it also means taking the proper steps—from high school courses to professional certifications—to get set up for success. Unlike some more structured careers, such as medical doctors or nurses, no single path leads to success as a forensic scientist. However, below are the most common steps that people who go on to be employed in the field follow.
Step 1: Graduate high school. For those lucky enough to know what career they want to pursue in high school, it is possible to begin the forensic scientist pathway at that point. High school students should study and excel in hard science classes like chemistry, biology, and physics. It is also a good idea to pursue advanced-level math classes, including calculus, and to study hard for college entrance exams. Although some forensic scientists do not have advanced degrees, a college education is quickly becoming a prerequisite with increasing competition in the field. Career One Stop reports that 31 percent of working forensic scientists have at least a bachelor’s degree, while an additional 24 percent have at least some college.
Step 2: Pursue an undergraduate degree. Upon graduating high school, students should look to enroll in an undergraduate program at a local community college or university. Many colleges and universities do not offer degrees specifically geared toward forensic sciences, but a degree in chemistry or biology can be helpful in eventually obtaining employment.
There are also a few forensic-focused programs in Washington specifically. Keep reading to learn more about those. Many forensic scientists also spend time completing internships with local agencies, such as the Washington State Patrol Forensic Laboratory Services, which offers services to Washington law enforcement as well as a hands-on experience for forensic science students.
Step 3: Consider a graduate degree. Graduate studies are also a good option for aspiring forensic scientists who want to pursue academia or research. Students may choose to enroll in a master’s or doctoral program immediately following their undergraduate studies or choose to work in the field for a few years before returning to school.
Step 4: Certification. When a new forensic scientist is ready to leave the nest of education for the exciting world of full-time work in a crime lab, it is important to be prepared and to have the credentials that hiring managers want to see. One way forensic scientists do this is by specialization and certification. There is no legal requirement that forensic scientists be certified in the U.S., but many professional organizations offer certification so applicants can prove their expertise.
Some of the certifying organizations in the Pacific Northwest as well as nationally include:
Specialization is also important for aspiring forensic scientists to consider. Although the term forensic science technician is used by the BLS to describe all manner of forensic scientists, the truth is that most usually work in a much more discrete profession, such as odontology, toxicology, questioned documents, or crime scene analysis. For a full list of forensic specializations certified by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS), visit their student page.
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Becoming a crime scene investigator in Washington includes many milestones similar to those along the pathway to becoming a forensic scientist. However, the paths do diverge along the way to a career as a crime scene investigator who collects and analyzes evidence found at crime scenes.
Option 1: Academic route. After graduating from high school with a solid background in basic sciences, students who wish to pursue crime scene investigation (CSI) should either look for undergraduate programs in Washington in criminology or criminal justice, or should join the law enforcement track.
Those prospective crime scene investigators who choose to go on to college will need to network with other professionals and ideally complete at least one internship during their time in school in order to gain employment as a CSI upon graduation.
Option 2: Law enforcement route. Those who choose to enter law enforcement must complete basic training. Washington state has a 720-hour curriculum that includes training in such diverse subjects as firearms, communication skills, and cultural awareness. Upon completing basic training, newly minted officers may be able to pursue crime scene investigation in conjunction with other law enforcement personnel and forensic scientists. For more information on law enforcement training in Washington, visit the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission website.
The BLS classifies both forensic scientists and crime scene investigators as “forensic science technicians,” therefore the demand for both occupations is lumped together. In the entirety of the U.S., demand for forensic scientists is expected to grow by 11 percent, or 2,000 total jobs from 2021 to 2031 (BLS 2022).
The outlook is brighter for residents of Washington. Projections Central (2023) found that demand for forensic science technicians in Washington is expected to grow 18.4 percent between 2020 and 2030.
Because forensic science is directly linked to crime, more jobs tend to be available in areas where more crime occurs, which are naturally more populated regions. The highest number of forensic science technicians employed in one area of Washington is the 190 that work in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue region.
Forensic sciences degrees can be versatile and these graduates of Washington may take on several careers such as forensic engineers, medical examiners, crime laboratory analysts, crime scene examiners, document examiners, physical anthropologists, criminal profilers, behavior scientists, or digital analysts.
The training, education, and experiential requirements may vary for these professions. The American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) provides a career resource list with professional associations, organizations, and networking opportunities across a range of disciplines in forensic science.
Finally, the ForensicsColleges blog offers a number of in-depth career articles for graduates in forensic science in its How to Become series, with step-by-step instructions to becoming a crime scene technician, profiler, forensic accountant, forensic psychologist, detective, and more.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2022) reported that there were 340 forensic science technicians in Washington.
Furthermore, the state boasts higher-than-average wages for forensic science technicians. As proof of point, the United States employs 17,590 forensic science technicians with an average annual salary (mean annual wage) of $69,260. In WA, the average salary in this field is $74,990.
In more detailed terms, here is a breakdown of the salary percentiles among all forensic science technicians in the country compared with those in Washington (BLS May 2022):
|Number of Forensic Science Technicians Employed||17,590||290|
|Annual Mean Wage||$69,260||$74,990|
The national figures were slightly different according to another source of data, PayScale (April 2023), which relies on self-reported salaries. Among the forensic science techs reporting their annual salaries, Payscale found these percentiles for the US:
It is important to note that while the wages in Washington are higher than national wages, so too is the cost of living. For illustration, the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC 2023) reported that WA is the 13th most expensive state in the country, particularly for housing. A high cost of living means that even higher than average salaries will not go as far as they would in other states, so prospective forensic science technicians should keep that in mind while evaluating the state’s salary data.
Students wishing to pursue a forensic science degree in Washington have a few options, ranging from comprehensive 4-year forensic science degree programs to shorter CSI certifications.
Green River College, with four campuses throughout western Washington, can be a convenient choice for completing an associate of applied science (AAS) degree in forensic technology. The total program length is six quarters. The college also offers several more programs related to forensic technology. These programs include a 90-credit AAS in criminal justice, a 40-credit corrections certificate, a 40-credit forensic and fingerprint technology certificate, and a 40-credit certificate in law enforcement.
Comprising 90 credits, the AAS in forensic technology includes courses such as introduction to criminal justice; criminal law; fingerprint science; individual rights in criminal justice; criminal evidence; race and class in criminal justice; and an introduction to forensic science.
Centralia College, located in Centralia, Washington, offers two degree options: a 90 to 93-credit associate in applied science degree in criminal justice and a 90-credit associate in arts degree in criminal justice. These programs provide students with an education that instills and emphasizes a genuine spirit of professional ethics, personal integrity, moral courage, public service, honesty, and devotion to duty.
The programs ensure that students have the cutting-edge communication, academic, and problem-solving skills required for building a successful career in law enforcement or corrections. The curriculum includes courses such as introduction to criminal justice; criminal procedures; community policing; criminal law; criminal justice ethics; criminology; and juvenile justice.
Notably, Centralia College also offers a certificate of proficiency in crime scene investigation. The certificate requires four quarters of classes for a total of 55 credits. Though the curriculum may shift with time, current offerings include classes such as criminal interviews and interrogations; homicide investigation; and crime scene photography.
For adults who are already working as deputy sheriffs, state troopers, or police officers, Centralia College is the only college or university in Washington to award 45 credits for that work experience.
Seattle University, located in scenic Seattle, offers a campus-based bachelor of arts (BA) in criminal justice with a specialization in forensic science and a campus-based bachelor of science (BS) major in criminal justice with a forensic science specialization.
The latter prepares students for employment as crime scene investigators, while the former is focused more specifically on law enforcement and criminal justice. While there is no explicitly hybrid or online option for these criminal justice programs, some graduate-level courses are available through the SU online portal that undergraduates may take.
The curriculum includes courses such as criminology; introduction to criminal justice; gender, race, & crime; criminal law; criminal investigation; forensic science; and theological explorations.
Eastern Washington University (EWU), with its campus located in Cheney, offers an American Chemical Society-certified bachelor of science degree in chemistry, with a concentration in forensic science. This forensic option prepares students for entry-level positions in state and federal forensic science labs and graduate schools. Students in the EWU program are also invited to apply for internships with Washington state law enforcement agencies, which can be a great stepping stone toward a career in forensic science.
Students must take courses in criminalistics and forensic chemistry; quantitative analysis; modern inorganic chemistry; organic chemistry; instrumental analysis; topics in forensic chemistry; biochemistry; molecular biology; introduction to the criminal justice system; and elementary probability and statistics for a total of 151 credits.
Whatcom Community College offers an associate of applied science degree in criminal justice with a concentration in computer forensics. Students in this program will be provided with the skills and knowledge required for entry-level employment in the field of criminal justice. The program also offers opportunities for current criminal justice employees to enhance their knowledge and skills.
This 90-credit program’s core curriculum includes courses such as introduction to criminal justice; community relations; criminal law; introduction to forensic science; criminal investigation/interviewing techniques; and patrol procedures. The computer forensics concentration includes courses such as computer literacy; computer operating systems; introduction to computer security; computer support; and computer forensics.
North Seattle College offers an accounting fraud & forensics certificate program. This program provides fraud detection skills to those training for accounting careers and professionals in law enforcement, accounting, and other target industries with a high potential for financial abuse.
Made up of 15 credits, this certificate program offers three fully online courses in fraud examination, introduction to financial crimes, and forensic accounting. The program offers an innovative summer institute where students can complete this entire certificate in eight weeks.
The main accrediting body for forensic science programs is the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC). In order to obtain FEPAC accreditation, programs must subject themselves to a self-study in addition to a site visit to verify their facilities, faculty, and curricula. As of May 2023, there are no FEPAC-accredited programs in the state of Washington. However, applicants should be aware that there are certainly reputable programs that have not earned FEPAC accreditation, due to many factors.
FEPAC accredits very few schools and accreditation by them only applies to forensic science programs that focus heavily on natural sciences, meaning that criminal justice and CSI programs are ineligible for accreditation. In the case of an unaccredited program, applicants should look to institutional accreditation to verify a school’s credentials.
Schools may also receive institutional accreditation for all programs from a regional accrediting body such as the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU). These agencies are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and such accreditation is important in establishing the value of a degree from that institution.
As mentioned earlier, there is no specific legal requirement for forensic science technicians or crime scene investigators to become certified before obtaining employment. However, many choose to earn certification to further their professional opportunities. The Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB) has identified ten certifying bodies that specialists may want to investigate, including:
Those who are interested in pursuing further certification should be sure to check with the certifying body as to their requirements, which often require a certain number of years of work experience in addition to formal training.
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.
Farheen Gani writes about forensics schools across the United States, and has covered topics such as forensic chemistry and forensic science and biochemistry since 2018. She writes about healthcare, technology, education, and marketing. Her work has appeared on websites such as Tech in Asia and Foundr, as well as top SaaS blogs such as Zapier and InVision. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter (@FarheenGani).