Studying towards 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 to take different paths towards this exciting career, but each involves a commitment to academics as well as hands-on training. The earlier someone starts down the path, the more likely they will be able to find employment down the line. Some forensic scientists even start their pursuit of the career as early as high school.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), top forensic scientists in Washington can make more than $80,000 per year (BLS 2017). While those who are just starting out should not expect those types of salaries, it is certainly worth aspiring to.
This article will outline the most popular pathways for becoming a forensic scientist as well a little bit about some of the available forensic science programs in beautiful Washington state.
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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 – in order to get set up for success. Unlike some more structured careers, such as medical doctors or nurses, there is no single path that 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 that are 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 be sure to study and excel in hard science classes, such as 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, with increasing competition in the field, a college education is quickly becoming a prerequisite. Career One Stop reports that 48 percent of working forensic scientists have at least a bachelor’s degree while an additional 21 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 hands-on experience for forensic science students.
Step 3: Consider a graduate degree. For those aspiring forensic scientists who want to pursue academia or research, graduate studies are also a good option. 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 do offer certification so that applicants can prove their expertise.
Some of the certifying organizations in the Pacific Northwest as well 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 the forensic specializations as certified by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS), visit their student page.
Becoming a crime scene investigator in Washington includes many milestones that are 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. In Washington state, this consists of 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 the law enforcement training in Washington, visit the website for the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission.
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 17 percent, or 18,000 total jobs from 2016 to 2026 (BLS 2017). In Washington, that growth rate is expected to be slightly slower, with a projected 11 percent growth over that same period, which amounts to 280 total jobs.
The median annual salary for a forensic science technician in the U.S. is $57,850. According to the BLS, expected salaries for forensic science technicians in Washington are:
Because forensic science is directly linked to crime, more jobs tend to be available in areas where more crime occurs, which is naturally more populated regions. The highest number of forensic science technicians employed in one area of Washington is the 260 that work in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue region.
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.
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 in order to verify their facilities, faculty, and curricula. As of 2018, 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 a number of factors. FEPAC accredits very few schools and accreditation by them is only applicable to those 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 prior to obtaining employment. However, many choose to earn certification to further their professional opportunities. The Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB) has identified 10 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 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.