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Forensic Scientist

Popular television programs have given forensic science broad exposure, but what’s shown is often oversimplified or inaccurate. The full truth is, this is an intellectually challenging, interesting, widely varying career path. If you’re good at science, like puzzles, and you’re fascinated by law enforcement, forensic science might be the career for you.

Forensic scientists are, first and foremost, scientists. They apply their knowledge of chemistry, biology, physics, and other sciences to gather, test, and analyze information from crime scenes and other locations. Their analysis might be used to help apprehend criminals, determine a cause of death, help locate a missing person, determine who is at fault in a car accident, or provide evidence about whether the discharge from a manufacturing plant is likely to cause biological harm, among other things.

This page provides an overview of the field, with topics including:

  • What is forensic science?
  • What does a forensic scientist do?
  • Salary and job outlook Information for forensic scientists
  • How to become a forensic scientist: education and experience requirements

 

What Is Forensic Science?

The American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) defines forensic science as any science that is “used for the purposes of the law.” More specifically, forensic science is the application of science and the scientific method to recognize, identify, and evaluate evidence (usually physical evidence) for legal purposes, for both criminal and civil law.

Forensic scientists are the experts who can explain to investigators and juries the “science of the evidence,” such as how blood splatter patterns occur, what skid marks mean, what DNA indicates, why a walkway failed and killed pedestrians, or how trace evidence provides the tiniest details about a crime scene.

The AAFS also emphasizes that forensic science is not just a tool for law enforcement: It is an objective search for the truth and can be used on all sides of an investigation for any legal matter.

Note that although many people use the terms forensic scientist and forensic science technician synonymously, these are different jobs. Forensic scientists work mainly in labs and generally need a post-secondary degree in a science. Forensic science technicians go to locations to gather evidence. They do testing and analysis, they are skilled and trained, but they don’t need as much in-depth scientific knowledge as forensic scientists do. Usually a bachelor’s degree is all that’s required to become a forensic science technician.

Another source of confusion is about how forensic science relates to criminology. Many criminology departments and programs include forensic science degrees, and both require strong analytical and problem-solving skills, but they are different fields. Criminology is the scientific study of the nature, causes, consequences, and prevention of criminal behavior. It’s based in the sociological and behavioral sciences. Forensic science, on the other hand, is factual analysis rooted in the natural sciences such as physics, biology, and chemistry.

Finally, confusion sometimes arises from the use of the terms “criminalistics” and “criminalist.” Despite sounding so much like a part of “criminology,” criminalistics is the analysis of physical evidence from a crime scene, and a criminalist, who gather and analyzes such evidence, is one type of forensic scientist.

What Does a Forensic Scientist Do?

Forensic scientists typically work in laboratories utilizing skills in physics, chemistry, and biology. They might also specialize in computer and digital forensics, or they may focus on vehicular accidents or infrastructure issues. While forensic scientists don’t usually conduct in-person crime or accident scene investigations, some may do on-site analysis to get more information about a case. Because forensics is involved in many criminal and civic legal cases, forensic experts might be called upon to testify in court to lay out the facts they found in a case.

While popular television shows usually focus on forensic scientists’ involvement in crime scenes and murder investigations, the field is much wider than that. Forensic scientists are involved in any investigation that would be considered a legal matter, including civil disputes (such as divorce cases) and civic cases (such as a company being sued for violating clean air standards). Forensic engineers may determine what caused a bridge to collapse and who is responsible. The handwriting expert who determines whether a signature is correct is one type of forensic scientist; the odontology expert who evaluates bite marks is another. Almost any kind of expertise can be applied through the scientific method to test material forensically if the need arises.

Duties of a Forensic Scientist

Broadly, forensic scientists work in laboratory settings to perform biological, chemical, and other tests on evidence that has been collected. They work with reports from the crime or accident scene, with other investigators, or with other forensic scientists.

Some specific duties might include:

  • Preparing solutions and other formulations needed for laboratory work
  • Operating and maintaining laboratory equipment
  • Testing evidence
  • Interpreting laboratory findings or test results to identify and classify evidence collected at crime scenes or other locations
  • Identifying drugs or poisons found in biological fluids or tissues
  • Preparing reports
  • Testifying in court about investigative or analytical methods and findings

Where Do Forensic Scientists Work?

Forensic scientists work in a variety of settings. The better-known forensics positions are within law enforcement agencies or county/state forensics laboratories. However, forensic scientists also work within the federal government agencies including the Department of Justice (such as within the FBI), the Department of the Treasury, Health and Human Services, and the Postal Inspection Service. These agencies typically require high-level technical forensic specialties.

Forensic scientists also work at hospitals, often alongside social workers and counselors who work with victims of crimes who seek treatment at the facility. Someone with a medical or nursing background and forensics training may be sought out for these positions.

Specialty Areas

There are many specialty areas in forensics. Because these positions often require a high level of expertise, a master’s degree or higher is usually needed to specialize. Following are just a few examples of forensic science specialty areas:

  • Forensic psychologist: Studies how and why criminals commit crimes
  • Forensic pathologist: Examines corpses to determine cause of death; usually a medical doctor
  • Forensic anthropologist: Studies human remains using techniques such as skeletal analysis and carbon dating in order to identify bodies and help determine cause of death
  • Forensic artist: Creates free-hand or digital renderings of a suspect or victim
  • Forensic serologist: Analyzes bodily fluids (e.g., blood, saliva, semen, urine, etc.) found at a crime scene
  • Forensic toxicologist: Tests and analyzes bodily fluids and tissue samples to identify substances (e.g., poison, drugs, etc.) that might be present in the body
  • Forensic digital expert: Examines data generated by computers, mobile phones, tablets, and other devices, as well as media captured by audio, photography, and video recording devices, such as security cameras
  • Forensic engineer: Reconstructs crimes and accidents to help determine causes and responsibilities

Forensic Scientist Salary

The salary of forensic scientists can vary depending on specialty, education, and location. However, payscale.com provides the following median salary information:

  • Forensic scientist, general: $64,547
  • Forensic toxicologist: $79,096
  • Forensic pathologist: $99,829 (according to a study in Sage Journal, this figure can go much higher for positions such as chief medical examiner)

This wide range of salaries is partly based on level of education: becoming a forensic scientist requires a bachelor’s or master’s degree, while forensic toxicologists and pathologists generally need a master’s or doctorate degree.

Forensic Scientist Career Outlook

Career outlook also varies depending on your specialty and education. However, advances in evidence-processing technology and high crime solve rates due to forensics all indicate that forensic science is an up-and-coming career.

For forensic science technicians, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 17% growth rate between 2016 and 2026. Although the job description is different from that of a forensic scientist, this figure is an indicator of general growth in the field.

Every branch of forensic science offers opportunity for personal growth, career advancement, and increased financial compensation.

How to Become a Forensic Scientist

Following are the general steps to becoming a forensic scientist. We’ll go into more details below.

  1. Complete a comprehensive degree program
  2. Engage in on-the-job training
  3. Pursue certification

Get Your Degree

To pursue a career in forensics you’ll need a degree in either forensic science, one of the natural sciences (e.g., chemistry or biology), or engineering — it all depends on the type of forensic science you plan to work in. Although becoming a forensic scientist requires at least a master’s degree — and usually a doctorate — schools other degree programs that can help you determine the specific career path you want to follow.

  • Associate degree: Associate programs introduce the fundamentals of forensic science; they also generally include courses in science. Although this degree is often a stepping stone to getting a bachelor’s, you may be able to find positions such as laboratory assistant, laboratory technician, and evidence custodian.
  • Bachelor’s degree: Bachelor’s programs in forensic science dig deeper into the fundamentals of forensic science, and they focus heavily on math and the sciences. In addition to lectures, bachelor’s programs include laboratory classes and possibly internships in crime laboratories. This degree is often the minimum requirement for many entry-level forensic science positions.
  • Master’s degree: If you’re interested in specializing in a specific area of forensics or becoming an expert in the most advanced forensic technology, you’ll need a minimum of a master’s degree. Examples of positions that typically require a master’s include computer forensics, toxicology, and forensic microbiology.
  • Doctorate degree: Some areas of forensic science require a doctorate, usually due to the need for medical training or experience with highly-specialized scientific research tools. Some examples of specialties that require a doctorate include forensic anthropology, forensic psychology, forensic pathology, and forensic dentistry.

Engage in On-the-Job Training

On-the-job training in forensic science is a requirement in the field. While academics can help you learn about the different techniques and gain specific skills, it takes putting those skills into practice to develop expertise. Because forensic investigations can involve an infinite number of situations, exposure to many different scenarios will help you hone your deductive, critical thinking, and analytical skills.

Look for opportunities to jump into new tasks and learn about innovative techniques. Seek out professional development opportunities to take full advantage of on-the-job training and development. Get involved with organizations such as the Young Forensic Scientists Forum to learn about opportunities and become part of the forensics community.

Pursue Certification

While most careers in forensics don’t require certification, there are advantages to honing your skills in this way. Pursuing certification can help you go beyond the coursework from your degree program and focus on a specialty in forensics. Additionally, being certified shows your dedication to advancement in the field. Not only can certification lead you to better jobs, but it could also lead to leadership positions.

Certifications are often offered by university and college programs accredited by the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB). Established with the support of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS), the National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC), and the National Institute of Justice, the FSAB oversees the quality of forensic science certificate programs. You can find a list of FSAB-accredited programs on the website of the Department of Justice.

Online Programs

New technologies have made it possible for forensic science programs across the country to be available online — you can find associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degree programs online, many of which are accredited by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS). However, note that some of these programs involve a hands-on component that cannot be competed online — especially at the master’s degree level.

Online learning formats offer convenience and flexibility. You can take courses as they fit into your schedule, and if you’re already working in forensic science you will have the chance to apply what you learn to your job. However, some people miss the in-person interaction with peers and professors that come with on-campus programs. In addition, you need a certain amount of self-discipline to stay motivated.

To decide whether an online program is right for you, consider whether or not the field you are interested lends itself to online learning. For example, a degree with a focus on computer forensics may fit with an online format, but specialties that require a great deal of laboratory work may work better in an on-campus program.

Spotlight: Featured Forensic Scientist Degree Programs

Many schools have excellent master’s programs in forensic science. The following is a list of programs that we think particularly shine, based on factors including reviews, cost, and accreditation.

Pennsylvania State University

The Eberly College of Science at Penn State offers an interdisciplinary forensic science master’s program that combines studies in core crime scene, research, and laboratory topics with electives in areas such as anthropology, criminal justice, or geology. The program requires 40 credits and allows you to concentrate in forensic biology, forensic chemistry, or criminalistics. The institution emphasizes career preparedness and discipline exposure by creating opportunities for students to interact with criminal lawyers, defense attorneys, forensic scientists, and investigators. Learners can also apply for several departmental grants, scholarships, and awards to offset costs.

Degrees offered:
Master of Professional Studies (M.P.S.) in Forensic Science
Also offers Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Forensic Science

Tuition:
In state: $766 per credit hour
Out of state: $1,282 per credit hour

Marshall University

From its home base in Huntington, West Virginia, Marshall University provides a Master of Science in Forensic Science that maintains accreditation via the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission. If you enroll at Marshall, you can elect to either write a thesis or follow a non-thesis option that requires a capstone project. Areas of emphasis include DNA analysis, forensic chemistry, crime scene investigation, and digital forensics. All told, Marshall’s degree requires 38 credits and takes five semesters of full-time study. The department maintains professional relations with the West Virginia State Police to give students access to state crime laboratory facilities. You can also use the campus-based DNA laboratory. Students can acquire a separate graduate certificate in digital forensics.

Degrees offered:
Master of Science in Forensic Science

Tuition:
In state (West Virginia): $373 per credit hour
Out of state: $934 per credit hour

Florida International University

The master’s in forensic science at Florida International University (in Miami) incorporates an interdisciplinary curriculum that prepares graduates for positions in government agencies, research firms, laboratories, and consultancies. The program takes approximately two years of full-time study and incorporates traditional semester-based classes and shorter workshop-style classes. FIU’s program meets criteria provided by the American Academy of Forensic Science and the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission. If you’re interested in administration, the school also offers a professional science master’s in forensic science. If your primary area of interest is biology or chemistry, there are two specialized Ph.D. programs that include a forensics emphasis.

Degrees offered:
Master of Science in Forensic Science
Professional Science Master in Forensic Science
Master of Science in Forensic Science/Ph.D. in Biology
Ph.D. in Chemistry and Biochemistry, Forensic Track

Tuition:
In state: $380 per credit hour
Out of state: $520 per credit hour

Virginia Commonwealth University

If you’re looking for a program that offers many different educational tracks for a master’s in forensic science, Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, might be the school for you. This institution offers concentration tracks in forensic biology, forensic chemistry/drugs and toxicology, forensic chemistry/trace, and forensic physical evidence. You’ll earn 27 credits in core topics before moving into 15 credits devoted to specialization areas. VCU’s program is full-time and takes two years to complete. Members of the Virginia Division of Forensic Science Central Laboratory teach some of VCU’s classes, giving you access to expert practitioners and opportunities for networking.

Degrees offered:
Master of Science in Forensic Science
Also offers Bachelor of Science in Forensic Science

Tuition:
In state: $701 per credit hour
Out of state: $1,234 per credit hour

Michigan State University

Michigan State, in East Lansing, Michigan, is the oldest forensic science program in the nation, but it’s also recognized for its cutting-edge curricula and laboratory facilities. You can expect to gain both theoretical and practical knowledge from MSU’s master’s in forensic science program, which includes concentrations in forensic chemistry and forensic biology. The department maintains an active research arm and encourages degree seekers to participate in ongoing studies and create their own projects. This program typically appeals to individuals who want to work in research or academic roles, as it requires a thesis. The school also offers a Ph.D. in forensic anthropology.

Degrees offered:
Master of Science in Forensic Science
Also offers Doctorate in Forensic Anthropology

Tuition:
In state: $755.50 per credit hour
Out of state: $1,485 per credit hour

University of Illinois

The Department of Biopharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Illinois (in Chicago) offers a master’s in forensic science with a broad curriculum of topics ranging from biochemistry and entomology to toxicology and dentistry. The department doesn’t offer any specializations, but you can use your elective hours to take courses in related subjects from outside departments. Core courses include studies in trace evidence analysis, expert witness testimony, and environmental contamination testing. Students also participate in a residency/internship to gain real-world experience with industry experts. To graduate, you must submit a thesis.

Degrees offered:
Master of Science in Forensic Science
Master of Science in Forensic Toxicology

Tuition:
In state: $486 per credit hour (based on 12 credits per semester)
Out of state: $996 per credit hour (based on 12 credits per semester)

Sam Houston State University

Sam Houston State University, in Huntsville, was the first school in Texas to offer an accredited master’s of science in forensic science. Here, you can personalize your plan of study to meet specific career aspirations. The program requires 44 credits and mandates an internship and thesis to qualify for graduation. The department provides scholarships and assistantships to exceptional students demonstrating financial need. SHSU boasts that 90% of its graduates have received job placements in forensic science laboratories and related research institutes.

Degrees offered:
Master of Science in Forensic Science
Also offers a Ph.D. in Forensic Science

Tuition:
In state: $435 per credit hour
Out of state: $850 per credit hour

George Mason University

George Mason University, outside Washington D.C., offers a master’s program in forensic science that exposes you to theoretical approaches and practical applications. You can select a concentration in crime scene investigation, forensic chemistry analysis, forensic biology analysis, or forensic/biometric identity analysis. GMU’s forensic science faculty all possess extensive experience in the field, giving students an insider’s perspective of the discipline. The Washington, D.C. location provides exceptional access to leading government and corporate forensic science labs, and unique opportunities to see forensic science in action.

Degrees offered:
Master of Science in Forensic Science
Master of Science in Digital Forensics
Also offers Bachelor of Science in Forensic Science
Also offers graduate certificates in Forensic Science and Forensic Accounting

Tuition:
In state: $589 per credit hour
Out of state: $1,447 per credit hour

 


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