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How to Become a Crime Scene Investigator

Forensic serologists, commonly referred to as crime scene investigators (CSIs), are some of the most crucial criminal justice professionals in the crime-solving process.

Solving crimes requires more than just witness testimony, investigative work, and confessions. Physical evidence is a significant part of finding out what happened at a crime scene and who was responsible for the crime, as you may have seen on popular television shows like “Dexter.” This is especially true as DNA technology has progressed over the years.

If this sounds like a profession that interests you, read on to learn more about how to become a CSI.

Crime Scene Investigator Job Description

Crime scene investigation involves looking for, identifying, collecting, documenting, and studying physical evidence such as bodily fluids from a crime scene, on a victim, or in relation to a crime that’s been committed.

Personal safety is of the utmost importance in this job, since you may encounter feces, urine, semen, blood, and other potential disease-carrying fluids. Not only must you be well-versed in the identification and handling of different bodily fluids, but you must also be well-educated in how to safely interact with them without risking disease transmission or destroying evidence.

As a crime scene investigator, you may work for a variety of employers, including local police stations, crime labs, and other criminal justice agencies. In addition to working with samples in the lab, your expertise may be needed in the courtroom as an expert witness.

It’s important to be self-motivated, able to work independently, and capable of working very carefully. One wrong move may destroy evidence that prosecutors count on to put criminals away. A Palm Beach Post article featuring the retiring crime-lab chief shows how vital a crime scene investigator’s work is. Using CSI, she was able to solve rapes, homicides, and cold cases.

In many cities, thousands of old rape kits are sitting in storage. These samples must be processed and analyzed by trained crime scene investigators who can properly process samples that are years old. With your attention to detail and careful work, you can directly contribute to making your community safer.

Job Titles for CSIs

Crime scene investigators go by many titles. As you’re searching for jobs, you may run across some of the following. These are not all interchangeable but refer to the same type of job:

  • Crime laboratory analyst, crime scene analyst, crime scene evidence technician, crime scene investigator, crime scene specialist, crime scene technician
  • Criminalist or criminalistics officer
  • Evidence technician
  • Field identification specialist
  • Forensic evidence technician, forensic investigator, forensic science examiner, forensic scientist, forensic services technician, forensic specialist, forensic technician
  • Identification officer or identification technician
  • Latent fingerprint examiner
  • Police crime scene specialist or police evidence technician
  • Scenes of crime officer

Regardless of the job title, CSIs share similar duties. They might be called upon to do the following during an average workweek:

  • Identify potential physical evidence at a crime scene, including fingerprints and genetic material, and collect it
  • Make casts and impressions of evidence, such as tire tracks and shoe prints
  • Document what is collected through a combination of written reports, photographs, videos, and spreadsheets
  • Process fingerprints and enter them into criminal databases
  • Recreate crime scenes through diagrams and reports
  • Get warrants to search suspects’ property and make arrests
  • Testify in court
  • Attend autopsies

The work schedule of a CSI will depend on the nature of the role. Those whose jobs require collection of or analyzing crime scene evidence anytime the need arises may be covering day, evening, or overnight shifts and may need to work overtime. CSIs whose jobs are based in crime labs may be able to work more standard business hours, with some on-call duties for urgent case needs.

Smaller jurisdictions may combine a CSI’s duties with those of an evidence clerk. In such cases, you’d also be responsible for managing evidence after it’s collected.

CSI Salary and Career Outlook

Between 2018 and 2028, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects job openings for forensic technicians to increase at 14%, which is much faster than the national average increase expected for other jobs. Crime isn’t a field that ever rests, so the need for forensic specialists will likely stay consistent. As DNA analysis techniques become more sophisticated and demand more highly trained specialists, the nationwide outlook for crime scene investigator jobs may continue to increase.

According to the International Crime Scene Investigators Association, the average salary for a crime scene investigator is between $20,000 to over $50,000 annually. However, the BLS reports that the top 10% in the profession earned more than $97,200 annually as of May 2018. You are likely to be paid more in areas with a higher cost of living, if you have more education, and if you have more experience.

Crime Scene Investigator Requirements

Nearly 40% of forensic science technicians don’t have a college degree, meaning it might be possible to start a CSI career with just a high school diploma or GED. However, a bachelor’s degree is quickly becoming the norm.

There are two types of CSIs: 1) those who were first hired as police officers and later became investigators, and 2) civilian investigators. Increasingly, the job is being filled by civilians as the scientific techniques in CSI become more advanced than just dusting for prints.

That means the general route to becoming a crime scene investigator involves the following steps:

  1. Earn a science degree: Forensic science, chemistry, and biology are all relevant degrees. A criminology degree may also be an option. While bachelor’s degrees are ideal, often the minimum requirement is just an associate degree. However, when an employer requires less in the way of education, they may expect candidates to have law enforcement experience.
  2. Get hired: According to the International Crime Scene Investigators Association, the best way to get hired is by having an education in the field (unless, of course, you are already in an entry-level CSI position).
  3. Complete on-the-job training: Up to the first year of employment may involve learning evidence collection procedures so as not to break the chain of custody or otherwise render evidence inadmissible in court. Your employer may require you to pass a competency exam before being permitted to work solo.
  4. Get certified: To maintain employment, it’s not uncommon for an employer to mandate a crime scene investigator gets certified. The Certified Crime Scene Investigator from the International Association for Identification or certification from the American Board of Criminalistics are examples of certifications your employer may require.

Bachelor’s Degrees in Crime Scene Investigation

Though some job descriptions list a high school diploma as a minimum requirement, a bachelor’s degree is the new normal for getting hired as a crime scene investigator. Complicating matters, however, is that there aren’t that many bachelor’s degree programs specifically for CSIs. After all, until recently, the field was dominated by police officers.

Forensic science degrees are a great preparation thanks to a curriculum featuring chemistry and biology. Even if you choose a school without such a program, you can get on track to becoming a working crime scene investigator by completing an undergraduate degree in a relevant field. Different bachelor’s degrees may qualify you for a career in crime scene investigation, including biology, chemistry, and human biology.

The requirements to get into college are typically straightforward: a high school diploma or GED, a solid GPA, competitive SAT scores, reference letters, a personal essay, and no major red flags. Once enrolled, you can declare your major, which may involve a few general education prerequisites. Bachelor’s degrees generally take four years, which equates to about 120 credits or 40 classes. A final research paper or project may be required by some programs.

Regardless of the degree you choose, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences recommends additional coursework in math, statistics, and writing – as there’s a lot of report-writing involved in the job. Laboratory-based classes in chemistry, biology, and physics may help with note-taking and observation skills required to do the job well.

Master’s Degrees in Crime Scene Investigation

Some police departments and criminal justice agencies, especially those with large caseloads or high-exposure cases, may require crime scene investigators to have a master’s degree in criminal justice or forensic science. Look for a program with specific courses in DNA analysis, forensic serology, and forensic chemistry.

To have a competitive graduate school application, you’ll likely want a bachelor’s degree in a natural science with a 3.0+ GPA – schools may also prefer a strong GPA in science and math subjects. Before starting the program, you may need to complete courses in physics, general chemistry, organic chemistry, calculus, and statistics.

Many schools ask for GRE scores, which might be waived for students with higher GPAs. Cutoffs differ. You’ll typically need letters of recommendation from your undergrad professors as well as a statement of purpose.

The curriculum for a forensic science program may include classes such as:

  • Forensic Microscopy: Get “hands-on” with trace evidence by examining hair, fiber, and other materials using a variety of microscopic techniques.
  • Forensic Serology: Learn how to identify, collect, and examine bodily fluids safely.
  • Expert Testimony: Practice ethically translating scientific evidence from a case into digestible explanations for juries and judges.
  • Instrumentation in Forensic Chemistry: Explore the different chemical techniques for analyzing evidence, including chemical separation and spectrophotometry.

A master’s in forensic science typically takes two years, or 40 to 45 credits, to complete.

Crime Scene Investigator Training

When you start at a criminal justice agency or forensic lab, you may need training in the specific lab procedures of that agency. Keep in mind that the sample you receive from a crime scene may well be the only one available; contaminating it or rendering it unfit for analysis can have a devastating impact on an investigation. Therefore, lab procedures and specimen storage are essential aspects of your training.

The training period may cover the following:

  • Collecting biological evidence, trace evidence, and fingerprints
  • Making casts and/or impressions of tire tracks and shoes
  • Collecting evidence of tool use or evidence left from a firearm, such as shells
  • Photographing evidence with proper setup and lighting
  • Following the law and ethical guidelines during evidence collection

Certifications for Crime Scene Investigators

There are no licensure requirements for crime scene investigators. However, some employers require certification to continue employment. Even if they don’t, it’s an acceptable way to boost your resume and try for promotions.

For a comprehensive list of certifications reviewed by the National Commission on Forensic Science, from video analysis to toxicology, see its 2016 report. Here are three of the primary certifying bodies:

  • American Board of Criminalistics: The ABC provides certification in six different areas. Technicians with two years of experience can get certified in dealing with trace evidence in the form of fire debris, hairs and fibers, or paint and polymers. Certifications in drug analysis and molecular biology are also available, but the most popular is the comprehensive exam.
  • American Board of Forensic Document Examination: The American Academy of Forensic Sciences recognizes the ABFDE, which administers certification for professionals who need to verify authorship or authenticity of a document.
  • International Association for Identification: The IAI has two separate certifications for fingerprinting, one for marks and impressions, another for audiovisual analysis, a bloodstain pattern certification, and four separate certifications for scene investigation, including Certified Crime Scene Investigator and Certified Crime Scene Reconstructionist.

Resources for Crime Scene Investigators

While you’ve been thinking about collecting evidence, we’ve been gathering resources. Here are five sites to help you network, understand the field, and research job opportunities:

  • American Academy of Forensic Sciences: A membership organization for forensic science professionals and students, the AAFS publishes the Journal of Forensic Sciences and hosts an annual meeting where academic papers are presented. Its’ standards board maintains guidelines for how to use DNA in the courtroom, examine firearm evidence, and perform a dozen of other skills.
  • American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors: Formed by the director of the FBI Laboratory in 1973, ASCLD runs an online leadership academy that concludes with a capstone at its annual symposium. It also runs a curated job board with listings for crime lab directors as well as technician positions.
  • “Forensic”: Though part of an advertising push by a laboratory equipment company, “Forensic” magazine features eye-catching articles. The publication is frequently updated with posts like “Glitter as the ‘Best’ Trace Evidence.”
  • International Association for Identification: The IAI recognizes 11 separate forensic disciplines, including biometrics, facial identification, footwear and tire track examination, and crime scene investigation. It hosts an annual conference for professional and student members and publishes the Journal of Forensic Identification.
  • International Crime Scene Investigators Association: ICSIA is a smaller membership organization that runs an annual conference featuring workshops and presentations.