How to Become a Forensic Scientist in 5 Steps
Learn how to become a forensic scientist. Read about job duties, education requirements, job outlook, and salary to find out if this is the career for you.
What is Forensic Science?
Forensic science is a branch of criminal justice that applies concepts from the natural sciences to analyze physical evidence. In most instances, forensic science is focused on solving crimes, but it can also play a role in civil cases.
What Does a Forensic Science Technician Do?
Forensic science technicians, also known as 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. Other duties might include reconstructing crime scenes, preparing reports detailing investigatory methods and conclusions, and providing expert testimony in court.
Forensic Scientist Requirements and Career Facts
|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 (2020-2030)||16% (for all forensic science technicians)*|
|Median Salary (2020)||$60,590 (for all forensic science technicians)*|
Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
How to Become a Forensic Scientist: 5 Steps
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 programs for students and recent graduates. Some bachelor's degree programs formally include an internship as an elective class.
Step 3: Optional: Earn a Graduate Degree
A master's degree in forensic science could give you better job prospects and 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 17,200 jobs in the U.S. in 2020. Employment is projected to increase by 16% from 2020-2030, 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 and more commonly used in crime investigation. The median salary of a forensic science technician in May 2020 was $60,590.
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.
How Long Does it Take to Become a Forensic Scientist?
Since a bachelor's degree is the typical entry-level requirement for forensic science positions, 4 years is the average minimum length of time it takes after high school to become a forensic science technician. However, job prospects and pay may both increase with a graduate degree and/or the certifications discussed above, which take additional time and investment.
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 minimum education requirement for chemical technicians. You may also be interested in working as an epidemiologist, which would involve studying various infectious diseases and looking at public health problems. This career typically requires a master's degree.