Forensic science

Overview
Degrees for forensic science careers
Salary info
Job duties and other career advice

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What forensic scientists really do

forensic scientist measures tagged dirty hammer end with calipers at desk with test swabs and evidence photos

If you’re passionate about science and can stomach the gory details, there are many great forensic science careers that might be just what you’re looking for.

Using science to help identify criminals and analyze evidence against them, forensic scientists are detectives with microscopes. From matching shell casings to the gun that fired them, to using hair samples to identify a suspect, forensic scientists help determine the facts of a legal case. These careers offer criminal justice jobs that will keep you on your toes.

In this article

Forensic scientist requirements

As a forensic scientist, you’ll need to possess certain skills and qualities to help you get the job done. Your program, and any internships you complete, will help you build the hard skills needed, and if you don’t feel particularly strong in the personality traits expected, you can find a mentor or friend to help you develop these skills.

You’ll need to be aware before entering a forensic science program that this career does generally require you pass a full background check, whether for employers or certification. This background check looks for felonies and other problems that may call your ability to testify into question. If you are concerned about a background check becoming a barrier to employment, discuss this issue with your school or program counselor.

Hard skills

Evidence handling:
You’ll need a steady hand in many cases to ensure the quality of evidence does not degrade in your hands. You’ll also need to make sure you maintain the chain of evidence with the upmost care.
Laboratory skills:
You’ll be expected to use and occasionally troubleshoot laboratory equipment, as well as maintain lab safety standards. You’ll also need to be familiar with data analysis software and general security practices.
Math and statistical analysis:
As a forensic scientist, you’ll be responsible for comparing your evidence to databases to find matches and make decisions. This requires an understanding of statistics and other mathematical studies.
Driving:
Many forensic positions require some travel. This is to collect evidence, deliver evidence, or travel to court proceedings. Driving laboratory vehicles can be a little different from driving a sedan, but employers will make sure you are comfortable with the vehicle before letting you hit the road.

Soft skills

Communication:
You’ll be asked to testify in court and write reports, requiring public speaking and professional communication. You’ll also need to communicate clearly with detectives, lawyers, coworkers, and upper management to ensure accidents and misunderstandings are at a minimum.
Critical thinking:
You’ll use logic to analyze problems, search for facts, and find solutions. You’ll also evaluate new technologies and techniques in evidence handling and processing.
Detail-oriented:
Anyone in forensic science must avoid making errors and possess an ability to notice very small changes.
Composure:
Crime scenes and evidence can be gruesome in many cases, and forensic scientists need to be able to control their emotions and stay professional.

Job duties

Forensic scientists are sometimes also referred to as criminalists, and the field is sometimes called criminalistics. While they may not be exactly as they appear on TV, forensic science careers do play a crucial role in our legal system.

Forensic scientists perform essential tasks in criminal investigations and cases, and their work is held to a high degree of scrutiny. At the top of their mind must be maintenance of the chain of evidence to ensure they are not responsible for breaches of security or tampering of evidence.

Forensic scientists perform these types of essential tasks:

  • Analyze physical evidence collected at crime scenes
  • Provide expert forensic testimony before and during trials
  • Collect evidence such as blood, hair samples, and other trace evidence
  • Use chemical and biological techniques to analyze the evidence and document their findings
  • Prepare reports on their findings
  • Provide expert opinions for people within the judicial system
  • Accurately document everything they do so that their testimony holds up in court
  • Maintain certification through continued learning

What kind of tools do forensic scientists use?

A career in forensic science gives you an opportunity to use fascinating tools as well. Here’s a look at some of the items you’ll use on the job:

  • Mass spectrometers
  • High powered microscopes
  • Chromotagraphs
  • Computer-aided design (CAD) software
  • DNA sequencer
  • Immunochromatography
  • Biological evidence collection kits
  • Cameras
  • Photo imaging software
  • Footprint lifters

Day in the life of a forensic scientist

Julia, a scientist who shares her forensics journey on social media, shows us around her lab and gives a sample of what her typical day looks like.

Workplaces

Forensic careers offer a variety of workplace opportunities. Forensic scientists can be found in any of these places:

  • Police departments
  • Sheriffs’ offices
  • District attorneys’ offices
  • Regional and state agencies
  • Medical examiners’ offices
  • Private companies
  • Colleges and universities
  • Hospitals
  • Toxicology labs
  • Federal law enforcement agencies such as the DEA and the FBI

Other forensic paths

Forensics experts can also be found in fields you might not expect. If you’re looking for a unique opportunity, consider these options. In many of these cases, such as forensic dentistry or nursing, you’ll need to pursue a field specific degree rather than a forensic science degree before learning the forensics aspect of the job.

Forensic accounting:

This field focuses on analyzing financial data to determine where money has gone missing. This includes tracing assets, looking for data manipulation, and perform data analysis on complex financial records.

Forensic engineering:

From bridge collapses to product defects, forensic engineers focus their attention on the health and safety of humans. They are often called upon to investigate issues related to environmental damage and personal injury. While many forensic engineers operate their own consulting firms, they’re also employed by crime labs, insurance companies, and corporations.

Forensic dentistry:

Also known as odontology, this field of forensics focuses primarily on identifying human remains using dental records. However, you may also be asked to analyze bite marks or dental injuries that occurred during a crime. In many cases, medical examiner offices have an ongoing relationship with a forensic odontologist.

Forensic toxicology:

In this role, you’ll examine how drugs or alcohol played a role in a person’s death. You’ll also determine if a substance was used in a crime or whether it affected someone’s driving ability. Forensic toxicologists perform scientific tests and often testify in court cases. They work closely with crime scene investigators, police, and attorneys.

Questioned documents:

Forensic document examiners are primarily known for analyzing handwriting and signatures. However, their role goes much further, from restoring a burned or liquid-soaked document to classifying the type of printer used in a crime. Document examiners are hired by police departments and state and federal law enforcement.

Forensic nursing:

In this fast-paced role, you’ll be needed in a hospital emergency room. There you’ll take blood samples, photograph injuries, and support victims. You’ll also spend some of your time in the courtroom testifying as a medical expert.

Forensic psychology:

Forensic psychologists evaluate the psychological state of those on trial, convicts seeking parole, and witnesses, who may or may not be telling the truth.

Veterinary and wildlife forensics:

This discipline focuses on recovery, identification, and examination of evidence. Veterinary forensic scientists often work with a licensed veterinary to conduct medical tests and they’re called on to help solve crimes related to inhumane treatment of animals and illegal trading.

General forensics:

According to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, those who work in accounting, education and research, art, and geology fall under the General Forensics category. Other disciplines include firearms analysis, radiology, and archeology.

Is a forensic scientist the same as a crime scene investigator?

In general, no. Most police departments use police officers or employ crime scene investigators to process the scene, ensure proper photography, and gather evidence. They then send the evidence to forensic scientists who work in a lab.

Sometimes forensic scientists are asked to drive to a scene to help collect the processed evidence and maintain the chain of evidence, but sometimes this is the crime scene investigator’s duty.

That said, every city, county, state, and federal law enforcement agency is set up to best serve the area they cover, so in some cases, the duties may be shared. In every case, the agency ensures that the people handling evidence are qualified for the job.