Forensic Scientist

Forensic scientists retrieve and examine evidence at crime scenes. They retrieve blood, saliva, and other bodily fluid samples, fingerprints, weapons, and other pieces of evidence. Forensic scientists also retrieve bone fragments and reconstruct skeletons, write reports, process and preserve physical evidence, meet with lawyers and police officers to discuss investigation conclusions, and provide expert testimony. Since crime laboratory findings can determine whether people on trial are guilty, forensic scientists play a vital role within the legal system.

Forensic scientists can specialize in various fields, including:

  • Medical Examiner
    Medical examiners are highly paid forensic scientists, but they're required to perform autopsies, complete more than 7 years of training, and work odd hours. Medical examiners conduct autopsies and other tests to determine exact causes of death. Medical examiners are licensed doctors, so they must graduate from medical school. Those interested in medical examiner careers should study biology, chemistry, or a related field as an undergraduate. Additionally, it's advisable to take investigation, crime detection, and criminal justice courses as elective credits.

  • Forensic Odontologist
    Practicing dentists typically work part-time as forensic odontologists. These specialists must complete similar training as medical examiners.

  • Crime Laboratory Analyst

  • Crime Scene Examiner/Investigator

  • Forensic Engineer
    Forensic engineers investigate arson, traffic accidents, and various wrongful death and injury cases. They have similar duties as crime scene examiners, but they are paid better, enjoy flexible work hours, and typically do not have to examine corpses. Forensic engineers typically hold college degrees in electrical, mechanical, civil, traffic, and materials engineering.

  • Academic Analysts
    Statisticians, social scientists, and psychological profilers often work as academic analysts.

  • Technical Analysts
    Include composite technical analysts, polygraph experts, and computer analysts, usually participate with crime scene investigations and assist crime laboratory specialists with technical questions.

Education Requirements
To qualify for an entry-level forensic science job, applicants must hold a bachelor's degree in biology, microbiology, chemistry, medical technology, or genetics, and it's advisable to complete communication courses. Additionally, aspiring forensic scientists are encouraged to complete an internship at a crime laboratory to acquire some real-world experience. Many crime laboratories only hire applicants with experience.

Additional details about preparing for forensic science careers can be found in the following articles:

  • Higgins, LM, Selavka, CM. Do forensic science graduate programs fulfill the needs of the forensic science community? J Forensic Sci, 1988;33:1015-21.
  • Furton, K., Hsu, Y-H., Cole, MD. What educational background do crime laboratory director require from applicants? J Forensic Sci, 1999;44(1):128-132.
  • Gaensslen, RE, Lee HC. Regional cooperation and regional centers among forensic science programs in the United States. J Forensic Sci, 1988;33:1069-70.
  • Siegal, JA. The appropriate educational background for entry level forensic scientists: a survey of practitioners. J Forensic Sci, 1988;33:1065-8.
  • Lee, HC, Gaensslen, RE. Forensic science laboratory/forensic science program cooperation and relationships: the view from the forensic science laboratory. J Forensic Sci, 1988;33:1071-3.
  • Smith, FP, Lui RH, Lindquist CA. Research experience and future criminalists. J Forensic Sci, 1988;33:1074-80.

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Special Skills
Because forensic scientists work with multiple individuals in stressful circumstances, it's essential that they can communicate and work effectively with others. Additionally, forensic scientists must have good writing skills to write reports and have exceptional hand-eye coordination to identify and process microscopic traces of physical evidence.

Most forensic scientists are employed by state or national crime laboratories. As such, they receive medical and other benefits. Forensic scientists employed by state crime laboratories typically make $1,900 each month, while those with some prior experience can make $3,000 or more per month. Forensic scientists with experience can make anywhere from $35,000 to $50,000 each year.

Working Conditions
Forensic scientists employed by government agencies and laboratories typically work 40 hours each week, but they're often required to work overtime to meet deadlines. They work in laboratories most of the time, but frequently travel to crime scenes to collect and analyze evidence and courtrooms to provide expert testimony.

Job Outlook for Forensic Scientists Experienced and talented forensic scientists typically don't have problems finding jobs, but budget cuts are increasing competition for the few available entry-level jobs. Projected forensic science job growth is average.

Useful Links and Resources
The following are a few more good resources for learning more about a career in forensic science.

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