Education and Training: Bachelor's, master's, or doctoral degree
Salary: Varies—see profile
Employment Outlook: Good
Definition and Nature of the Work
Forensic scientists gather and evaluate evidence from the victims, vehicles, and scenes of crimes. They analyze the data scientifically, and their findings may help to convict or prove the innocence of a person accused of a crime. Forensic scientists are sometimes known as crime lab analysts or criminalists. Almost all of the people in this field work for federal, state, or local law enforcement and investigative agencies.
Police may submit clothing to be tested for the presence of drugs. Forensic scientists may be asked to decide whether spent bullets match firearms, or they may test and examine burned debris, footprints, inks, and papers.
The forensic scientist's report may be requested in civil as well as criminal cases. For instance, in a case where a company is held responsible for the pollution of a stream, the forensic scientist may test water samples for traces of waste from the company's plant.
Education and Training Requirements
High school students interested in a forensic science career should take courses in mathematics, computers, earth sciences, biology, and chemistry. Almost all jobs require at least a bachelor's degree. Several colleges offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees in forensic science. A bachelor's degree with a major in forensic, natural, or physical science from an accredited college prepares job seekers for work in a crime laboratory. However, most employers prefer applicants with a master's or doctoral degree. Employers often pay tuition for courses that forensic scientists take to improve their job skills.
Most crime laboratories offer initial on-the-job training. Some trainees who have served as police officers enter the forensic science field and continue to take college courses while they work. Computer skills are increasingly important as databases are used for retrieval of information on drugs and other substances.
Getting the Job
Visiting a crime laboratory and talking to employees may be an interesting and helpful introduction to this career. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), a major employer, can send you an application. College placement offices and state employment offices will also help graduates find jobs in forensic science.
Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook
Forensic scientists may become managers of the crime laboratories in which they work. They can direct the training of new crime lab analysts. They can also establish their own consulting businesses.
Jobs for forensic science technicians (those with a bachelor's degree only) are expected to increase much faster than average. Employment opportunities for forensic scientists are expected to increase at an average rate. Job growth to some extent is directly related to crime rates and the number of civil action cases brought against companies accused of endangering personal or public health. However, crime rates have decreased in many areas, and the federal and state governments are expected to reduce the number and severity of environmental regulations imposed on companies.
Although much of their time is spent in clean, well-equipped laboratories, forensic scientists may accompany police into dangerous territory and may observe very unpleasant sights. They may take some risks working with firearms. They may have to examine some weapons that are in poor condition. They may be exposed to fumes and odors from decaying remains. They may also work with poisons. Most forensic scientists work a five-day, forty-hour week. However, situations may arise when they must work beyond their normal hours.
Where to Go for More Information
American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors
139K Technology Dr.
Garner, NC 27529
Earnings and Benefits
Earnings vary widely depending on education, specialty, and location of employment. In 2005 entry-level forensic lab technicians earned about $30,000 per year, and the median salary for forensic technicians was slightly more than $40,000 per year. More experienced forensic scientists with bachelor's or master's degrees earned up to $70,000 per year. Medical doctors who work in the field of forensics, such as pathologists, earned more than $200,000 per year. Benefits include sick leave, medical insurance, and pension plans.