Forensic scientists and technicians use science to help convict criminals or acquit the innocent. Keep reading for more information about this specialized field of study, including career options, degree requirements and potential salaries.
Forensics is the application of scientific principles and advanced technology, like DNA analysis, to resolve legal issues. Forensic scientists use their knowledge of science and technology, as well as collected evidence, to understand and recreate the scene of a crime or accident for legal proceedings and trials.
According to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS), there are 11 disciplines within the field of forensic science, including digital and multimedia science, general forensics, criminalistics and toxicology. You might also specialize in behavioral science and psychiatry, biology and pathology, jurisprudence or questioned documents. Additional areas of emphasis include engineering science, odontology and physical anthropology. Each of the specialties addresses a different aspect of the examination and analysis of evidence (www.aafs.org).
As a forensic technologist or scientist, you'll most likely work in a crime lab that is run by a city, county, state or federal government agency, analyzing DNA evidence or trying to match fingerprints to suspects. In your position as a crime scene investigator, you'll be the first to arrive at the scene of a crime to collect evidence. If you pursue a position as a forensic specialist, you'll examine documents to determine whether a signature is genuine or forged. As a toxicologist, you'll take a close look at the substances found in a body, in order to decide if a person's death was an accident or a homicide.
In any one of these positions, you might have to spend time in court as an expert legal witness. In preparation for your testimony, you'll have to be neat in appearance with good poise and communication skills.
In May 2013, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that forensic science technicians had a median annual salary of $54,360. Nationwide, opportunities for technicians were projected to increase by a slower-than-average rate of 6% from 2012-2022. Areas of growth will include digital forensics and specialized work in DNA technology. Candidates with a 4-year degree in natural science and a graduate degree in forensic science may enjoy more opportunities in the job market (www.bls.gov). As of June 2014, Payscale.com reported that most forensic scientists made between $33,297 and $81,875 per year.
While some schools offer associate degree programs in forensic technology and science, according to the AAFS, a bachelor's degree in forensic science is the usual minimum requirement for working in the field. Advanced and specialized positions, such as those in lab administration, typically require a master's degree in forensic science; some employers prefer candidates with a doctoral degree. If you're interested in a career as a forensic pathologist, you'll first need to become a licensed medical doctor.
In a 4-year program, you can expect a rigorous course load that emphasizes the study of math and science. In particular, you'll take courses in quantitative analysis, statistics, biochemistry and organic chemistry, as well as receive training in criminalistics and instrumental methodology. Additional courses in criminal justice, law and technical writing will also be part of your program. Most programs require an internship, which can provide you with the chance to acquire some hands-on experience in a medical lab.
To demonstrate your competency in forensic science, you may want to pursue certification through the American Board of Criminalistics, the American College of Forensic Examiners International or the International Association for Identification. While each organization has its own educational and professional requirements, you'll most likely need to pass an exam to earn your credential. Additional requirements may be necessary to maintain your certification.