How to Become a Forensic Scientist in 5 Steps

Research what it takes to become a forensic scientist. Learn about job duties, education requirements, job outlook and salary to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Forensic Science degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Does a Forensic Scientist Do?

Forensic scientists use scientific tools to document and analyze criminal evidence. They visit crime scenes to photograph and collect evidence, which they then transfer to labs for analysis. In the lab, they conduct specialized tests, like looking for DNA evidence, and try to find connections to help solve crimes. They also work with other professionals, like toxicologists, to gain further insight into the crime scene. Continue reading to learn more about this profession.

Degree Required Bachelor's degree
Education Field of Study Chemistry, biology, forensic science
Training Required Moderate on-the-job training is required
Key Responsibilities Retrieve and store evidence from crime scenes, examine evidence, recreate crime scenes
Job Growth (2014-2024) 27% for all forensic science technicians*
Median Salary (2015) $56,320 for all forensic science technicians*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What is a Forensic Scientist?

A forensic scientist is a professional who applies concepts from the natural sciences to analyze physical evidence. In most instances you would focus on solving crimes, but you could also play a role in civil cases. Your duties might include recovering and storing evidence from crime scenes; photographing crime scenes; using microscopes, spectrometers and other devices to examine evidence; reconstructing crime scenes; preparing reports detailing your investigatory methods and conclusions; and providing expert testimony in court.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

A bachelor's degree in biology, chemistry, physics or physical anthropology is sufficient for entry-level work as a forensic scientist. However, many schools offer interdisciplinary 4-year degree programs in forensic science that synthesize content from each subject area with criminal justice concepts. In addition to basic science, academic and lab courses might include organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, genetics and microbiology. Some programs offer specialized tracks in forensic biology, chemistry or anthropology.

Step 2: Participate in an Internship

An internship enables you to network with professional forensics experts and observe the investigatory process first hand. County governments, federal agencies and local police departments may have standing programs for students and recent graduates. Some bachelor's degree programs formally include an internship as an elective class.

Step 3: Earn a Graduate Degree

A master's degree in forensic science could give you access to more advanced positions. Degree programs at this level are widely available. Many emphasize further specialization in biology, chemistry or anthropology, while others offer a comprehensive or integrated approach. Serology, toxicology, microscopy or ballistics are other possible areas of emphasis. Most master's degree programs require the completion of a master's thesis or capstone project.

Step 4: Obtain a Job

Your leading job prospects are with city, county and state crime labs. Federal law enforcement agencies are the next largest employer of forensic scientists. You could also become an independent consultant or consider seeking positions with coroners' offices or medical labs.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that forensic science technicians held 14,400 jobs in 2014. Employment was projected to increase 27% from 2014-2024, which is much faster than average for all occupations. This is due to improvements in the technology that is used to examine forensic evidence, making forensic science more accessible than ever before. There thus requires an increase in the number of technicians. The median salary of a forensic science technician in May 2015 was $56,320.

Step 5: Consider Certification

You have multiple options if you want a professional credential. The American College of Forensic Examiners International offers the Registered Investigator (RI) credential. To qualify to take the exam, you must be 21 years of age and have a bachelor's degree, two years of work experience and no criminal record. The RI exam will test your knowledge of crime scene processing, interrogation methods, evidence handling and types of investigations.

The American Board of Criminalistics (ABC) offers two levels of certification for forensic professionals: the Diplomate of ABC (D-ABC) and Fellow of ABC (F-ABC). To earn the D-ABC credential, you'll need a bachelor's degree in a natural science, two years of lab experience and passing scores on a forensic specialty exam. To earn the F-ABC credential, you'll need two years of experience in a forensics specialty and passing scores on both a specialty and proficiency exam. Specialty exam areas for both certifications include trace evidence analysis, drug analysis, molecular biology and fire debris analysis.

The International Association for Identification offers eight certification types, including crime scene, forensic photography, forensic video, footwear and bloodstain pattern examiner certification. Each certification has distinct training requirements and its own exam; most require several hundred hours of training in forensic science, as well as some job experience and/or a professional portfolio.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

There are several other science-related career paths that you may want to consider. Biological technicians and chemical technicians both perform duties similar to forensic science technicians, though they typically aren't part of an investigative team. While biological technicians typically need a bachelor's degree to enter the field, an associate's degree is the essential education requirement for chemical technicians. You may also be interested in working as an epidemiologist, which would involve studying various infectious disease and look at public health problems. This career typically requires a master's degree.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

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