How to Become a Forensic Scientist

September 23, 2021 | bestvalue

There is more interest in the forensic sciences today than ever before. While the recent popularity of sensationalized and somewhat exaggerated crime scene investigation television dramas are partially responsible for this surge in interest, there are countless real-world reasons why a career in this fascinating discipline could be appealing to you.

The glamorized crime scene investigation shows we see on television were designed for entertainment, rather than education, which is why they decided to clear up some of the confusion and misconceptions that surround the forensic sciences.

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We aim to explain what the forensic sciences are, how you could go about earning a forensic science degree, and what sorts of careers you would be eligible for with an education in the forensic sciences. We will also highlight salary expectations and job growth statistics for those looking to start careers in the field of forensic science.

Earning a degree in forensic science will open doors to new and exciting career possibilities and allow you to play a vital role in the criminal justice system. If you are unsure where to start, or just have some questions about forensic science degrees and careers, you have come to the right place.

What is Forensic Science?

While many are familiar with the term, relatively few people know what forensic science is. The term forensic is derived from the Latin word forensic, which can be roughly translated to “in open court” or “having to do with questions of law”. In the modern-day, we use the word forensic to refer to the process of finding evidence to solve a crime.

When you piece the two words together, it makes sense that the term forensic science describes the application of the science and the scientific method within the bounds of the judicial system.

Today, the forensic sciences are used to find the evidence and proof needed to enforce laws and government regulations, resolve legal disputes, establish responsibility for crimes, and improve overall public safety.

Why Do We Use Forensic Science?

People who study and use forensic science in their careers use cutting-edge scientific techniques to discover, examine, and interpret evidence in connection with civil and criminal proceedings. During criminal law investigations, forensic sciences establish the guilt or innocence of the defendants. In civil proceedings, forensic science is used to resolve a broad spectrum of legal issues by discovering, analyzing, and evaluating physical evidence.

The forensic sciences draw upon the techniques and methods used by a diverse range of scientific disciplines, including biology, physics, and chemistry. As such, forensic science programs at the college and university level are often considered interdisciplinary programs, where students will need to study a variety of scientific disciplines, as well as take courses in mathematics and criminal justice to earn their degrees.

Career Options for Forensic Science Graduates

As mentioned above, forensic science is an interdisciplinary field. Forensic scientists will borrow principles and techniques from all branches of science to complete their tasks. 

Given that forensic science is such an overarching term, those that practice it almost always has a specialization. While each sub-field and specialization requires the application of scientific methods and principles to discover and interpret evidence, they can vary quite substantially.

Forensic science students will often focus their studies and eventually their careers in the following areas:

Ballistics and Firearms Examination:

Forensic scientists that focus on the examination of ballistics and firearms evidence rely heavily on the application of physics to complete their jobs. They need to be firearms experts that have a keen understanding of weapons and ammunition. 

They will use their skills and knowledge to examine spent ammunition and connect it to the weapon that was used to fire it. They will also study trajectories, ricochets, and more to establish a timeline for how weapons were used during a crime. They also can analyze gunshot residue and other crime scene evidence connected to the use of firearms.

Their jobs involve collecting and photographing evidence found at crime scenes in the field before examining and interpreting that evidence in the crime lab. They will also recreate crime scenes by firing test rounds, which helps them study how weapons and ammunition react in certain situations. This helps them accurately map out the timeline of a crime long after it has been committed. 

Ballistics and firearms experts use forensic science to provide crucial analysis that can help the crime scene investigator and prosecutors connect individuals to the weapons used during crimes

Forensic DNA Analysis:

Since it was first used in a criminal investigation in 1986, DNA analysis has become an increasingly important branch of forensic science and is now one of the main tools the justice system has at its disposal. 

Forensic DNA analysts rely heavily on their professional understanding of biology to compare DNA samples from suspects and victims to determine whether an individual was present at a crime scene or not. Using their specialized skills and expertise, they collect, analyze, and interpret DNA samples. Because of the delicate nature of their work, forensic DNA analysts follow strict quality control guidelines to ensure that their findings are as accurate as possible.

While many DNA analysts will work in the field to ensure that the correct samples are located and collected, most of their work takes place in crime labs. Forensic DNA analysts work in crime labs that are either privately-owned commercial entities or publicly-funded labs under the authority of federal and local law enforcement agencies. 

Sometimes forensic DNA analysts testify as expert witnesses in court if their findings have relevance to a particular case.

Forensic Document Analysis:

Forensic document examiners use their expertise to analyze both electronic and handwritten writing samples. This analysis can be used to identify forgeries of contracts, checks, bank statements, and other signed documents. It can also determine the validity of a piece of writing and determine its age and whether or not a particular individual was responsible for writing it.

Forensic document examiners obtain degrees in forensic science before they complete an apprenticeship that will give them the specific skills required for their complicated jobs. 

More often than not, forensic document examiners and analysts are called upon during criminal investigations related to white-collar crimes. However, their expertise can be used to investigate any criminal case where writing was involved, such as crimes featuring a ransom note or threatening letter. 

Blood Pattern Analysis: 

As you may have guessed, blood pattern analysts use their expertise to analyze and interpret blood splatters and stains found at crime scenes to discover clues and help solve crimes.

Essentially, a blood pattern analyst is a specialized forensic technician who uses their expertise to interpret violent crime scenes. They can study photographs and physical evidence to determine the particular types of weapons used during a crime, decide whether a struggle occurred, who the likely attacker was, whether wounds were self-inflicted or the result of an assault, and where the initial attack took place. All of this information is ascertained through a meticulous analysis of blood drips, trails, spatters, and stains. They will even work with forensic DNA analysts to study and interpret microscopic blood samples.

Forensic Toxicology: 

Forensic toxicologists perform scientific tests on tissue and fluid samples to identify any drugs or chemicals that are present in the body. They work almost exclusively in lab settings and examine various samples that were collected by. a forensic pathologist during an autopsy or by a crime scene investigator. 

They use precise scientific methodologies and highly sophisticated scientific instruments to examine samples. Their findings are used to determine the presence or absence of substances in the bodies of victims or accused criminals.

Essentially, forensic toxicologists isolate and identify any substances that could have impacted or contributed to a crime. Their expertise can be used to identify, alcohol, illegal and prescription drugs, poisons, metals, gases, and other chemicals.

While most will work in conjunction with law enforcement agencies, some can work in other areas of the public and private sphere, such as those that test professional athletes to determine if they used performance-enhancing substances during competition.  Wherever they are working, they form educated opinions based on their professional experience and understanding of the relevant science. 

Forensic Arson Investigation: 

Forensic arson investigators collect and examine residue, ash, and other substances left behind after a fire has occurred. They examine evidence to determine the cause of fires and whether or not they were started intentionally or the result of an accident.

While it is possible to pursue a career in arson investigation without first earning a forensic science degree, the field is related to the forensic sciences. Many who have studied it at the college or university level can take their careers to more advanced levels.

Forensic Anthropology:

Forensic anthropologists use their forensic science expertise to examine and identify human remains in situations where DNA and fingerprint analysis is not possible. 

Forensic anthropologists will use their unique application of a scientific methodology to determine the age, sex, weight, and other identifying characteristics of unknown victims. They can study physical remains, such as skeletal parts, to determine information about recent and old crime scenes. Not only can their expertise be used to identify victims, but it can also often be used to help discover the cause of death.

While some are employed directly by law enforcement agencies, most forensic anthropologists will work on a full-time basis at colleges, universities, and private entities. In these situations, law enforcement entities will hire them on a contractual basis when their services are required. Forensic anthropology is one of the more advanced specializations within the discipline of forensic science, so professionals will typically hold a graduate degree, such as a MA or Ph.D. in physical anthropology or forensic science.

Other Forensic Science Sub-Disciplines and Careers: 

As you can see, there are plenty of specialized careers and sub-disciplines that exist within the field of forensic science. Additional specializations an aspiring forensic scientist can pursue include the following:

  • Professional polygraph examination
  • Digital and computer forensics analysis and investigation
  • Forensic psychology 
  • Forensic pathology
  • Forensic accounting analysis
  • Forensic engineering
  • Forensic odontology 
  • Forensic chemistry
  • Forensic fingerprint analysis 

The specializations listed above are just some of the career opportunities out there for those that are interested in studying the forensic sciences. As you can see, it is a field of study that opens up plenty of opportunities for specialized and rewarding careers.

Within each particular type of forensic science career, there are also various employment opportunities in both the private and public sectors. Professionals can begin their careers in entry-level positions and move on to more advanced roles as they gain experience in the field.

How Do You Become a Forensic Scientist?

Now that you are somewhat familiar with the different types of forensic science specializations, you are probably wondering what sort of education you will need to get started in this exciting field. 

While each particular type of forensic science career will have its own unique, specialized education requirements, the following step-by-step guide will give you a general idea of where you need to start:

With a few exceptions, you will need to earn an undergraduate degree if you plan on pursuing a career as a forensic scientist. While you can find related jobs that hire individuals that only hold an associate’s degree, most positions have a bachelor’s degree as the minimum education level they will accept.

As will be explained later, some of the more specialized forensic science careers will require you to earn a graduate-level degree, but for the most part, you can land an entry-level position with just a bachelor’s degree. Many forensic science technicians only ever earn a bachelor’s degree and never need to take their education to a higher level.

If you are fairly sure that a career in forensic science is right for you, you can apply directly to a four-year forensic science program. However, if you are not entirely sure it is the right career for you, you always have the option to pursue a degree in a related discipline, such as chemistry, biology, or physics. Earning a bachelor’s degree in one of these disciplines will provide you with a relevant background, so you could potentially apply to a graduate-level forensic science program after graduation.

As mentioned above, most forensic science careers require bachelor’s degrees; however, earning an associate’s degree in forensic studies, a criminal investigation, or another related field can be helpful.

Associate’s degrees are usually taken at the community college level, so they tend to be two years rather than four. They are almost always more affordable and easier to get into than a bachelor’s program. If you are not confident your high school grades are good enough to get accepted to a four-year forensic science program at a traditional college or university, consider applying for a relevant associate’s degree. While the forensic science jobs you can apply for with an associate’s degree might be limited, you can use your community college grades to apply for a full four-year bachelor’s program.

Not only could enrolling in an associate’s degree program be the first step towards a forensic science bachelor’s degree, but it could also be an opportunity to see if you enjoy the field. This approach has more flexibly and affordably before committing to an expensive and time-consuming four-year program. 

Whichever path you choose, it will help you get started in a forensic science career if you earn a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university.

Step 2 – Narrow Down a Specialty Within the Forensic Sciences

Once you have decided to enroll in a four-year forensic science bachelor’s program, you should begin thinking about what sort of specialization you would like to pursue. As we explained above, there is a wide range of sub-disciplines and specializations within the forensic sciences and each can lead to a different occupation.

While you are enrolled in a four-year forensic science program, you will take a wide variety of courses that are spread across many academic disciplines. In the first two years of your studies, you will take more general courses that are designed to give you a background in each of the disciplines used by forensic scientists, including physics, biology, chemistry, math, criminology, ethics, and more.

During the final two years of a forensic science undergraduate program, students take courses that focus on subspecialties. These may include introductory courses related to ballistics investigation and fingerprint analysis.

Students should try several courses and begin focusing their studies on the sub-discipline that appeals to them the most. Remember, your education will end up being the foundation of your career, so you must be directing your studies towards a career path you want to follow.

What you focus on during the pursuit of your undergraduate degree will not just help guide your career trajectory; it can also prepare you for graduate-level studies you could potentially pursue.

Step 3 – Consider Pursuing a Graduate Degree in Forensic Science

As mentioned above, earning a graduate degree, such as a master’s or a doctoral degree, can help you achieve your career goals. While it is not necessary to apply for a graduate program immediately after you complete your undergraduate program, it can help if you have a particular occupation in mind.

Earning a higher level of education in the specific field that interests you will allow you to apply for the exact job you want. Not only will you stand a better chance of landing a job in the specific field that you are attracted to, but you will also likely receive a greater salary if you are applying to jobs with a higher level of education.  

For certain forensic science disciplines, such as forensic odontology, you must have at least a master’s degree if you hope to get hired. If you are planning to pursue a career where a graduate degree is necessary, it is a good idea to complete your education before you enter the working world.

Here is where research is important. After you have found an interesting sub-discipline, look into careers in that field. Gear your education towards the requirements for the sub-field that interests you. Complete any pre-requisite courses you need to apply to graduate programs and do your best to make sure your undergraduate grades are as competitive as possible.

Step 4 – Complete Relevant Training and Licensure Requirements for Your Particular Occupation

Once you have earned a forensic science degree, you might have to complete a few more steps before you can apply for jobs. In some situations, a particular occupation will require state and federal licensure before you can start working. For these professions, get the process started as soon as you graduate. This way, you can start working much faster.

Some of the more advanced forensic science occupations require a residency period, which must be completed before an individual can officially start working. Again, if you have decided to pursue a forensic science profession that requires additional training or an internship phase, you should begin as soon as possible.

Most undergraduate and graduate instructors will let students know what steps need to be taken before they can work in the field, so you should already know what is expected of you before you graduate. 

If you have chosen a forensic science occupation that does not require any additional training after you graduate, you can skip this step and begin applying for positions immediately. 

Step 5 – Apply for Positions and Learn on the Job

Once you have completed all of the necessary steps, you can move onto the most exciting phase – applying for jobs. There is a high demand for individuals that have a formal education in the forensic sciences, so it should be relatively easy to find job openings you can apply for.

Once you have landed a job in your field, you will begin your on-the-job training. Since forensic science jobs are complex and require such specialized skills, the training phase can take several months to several years. When you start, you should always make an effort to learn everything you can from your more experienced co-workers.

Job Prospects and Salary Expectations for Forensic Scientists

Given that there are so many different occupations available to those with degrees in forensic science, it can be somewhat difficult nailing down specific job statistics for the entire field. However, in general, there are plenty of employment opportunities for those with forensic science degrees.

It is an in-demand field and most people can gain employment within a year of completing their degree. To give you an idea of how positive the employment statistics are for those with forensic science degrees, we will take a look at some employment statistics for forensic science technicians. The employment information below comes from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Forensic Science Technician Employment Information:

  • 2020 Median Pay – $59,150 per year
  • Typical Level of Education – Forensic Science Bachelor’s Degree
  • Prior Work Experience – None
  • Job Growth Estimate 2020-2021 – 14% (Significantly higher than average)
  • Number of New Jobs Created in 2020 – 17,500

Given that technician positions are considered the least specialized forensic science occupations, you can reasonably assume that those applying for forensic science jobs with more specialized credentials can expect a higher rate of pay. 

Your earning potential will also be impacted by where you live, as certain states pay forensic scientists more than others. For example, forensic scientists in California earn an average of $82,650 per year, which is a much higher amount than other areas of the country.

How Can You Reduce the Cost of Your Forensic Science Education?

While associate’s degree programs are available at community colleges and they have lower tuition rates than standard colleges and universities, most forensic science careers still require you to earn a bachelor’s degree before you can start working. 

This is where scholarships and academic grants can help. When you start applying for forensic science programs, take the time to research and apply to any scholarships the school offers. There are also federal and state-level scholarships that are available specifically for forensic science students.

The American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors Scholarship Program

This program offers scholarships for students pursuing forensic science degrees at the undergraduate and graduate levels. 

The Association of Firearm and Toolmark Examiners Scholarship Program

This scholarship is available to forensic science students that have achieved high grades and have aspirations to begin a career in the field. 

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