How to Become a Forensic Scientist


Forensics is a broad field that deals with the use of scientific methods to investigate and solve crimes.

Law enforcement agencies in the United States have forensics teams that are responsible for collecting and analyzing physical evidence. Mainstream depictions of these professionals in TV shows such as CSI and Dexter may be somewhat accurate, but these professionals are required to go through extensive training and must show high levels of professionalism to work in this challenging field.

What do Forensic Scientists do?

To get a better understanding of what these professionals do, let’s take a look at the job description of a forensic scientist.

  • Analyze and Collect These professionals collect and preserve evidence from the crime scene. In short, they re-create the crime scene to understand the relationship between evidences.
  • Identification The evidence needs to be identified. Unknown objects and substances may hold crucial information.
  • Documentation By sketching and photographing their activities, forensic scientists are able to document without hurting the evidence’s integrity.
  • Examination After collecting the evidence, forensic scientists run tests to determine the facts of the case. With the help of physical and chemical analysis, they conclude the sequence of events.
  • Testimony Based on their findings and conclusions, forensic scientists are sometimes required to testify in court. This typically includes questions about their methods of collection, analysis and conclusions.

How to become a Forensic Scientist?

Now that you know what forensic scientists do, the next question would be how to become one. These professionals must have a solid understanding of natural sciences. These include biology, chemistry and physics. Here is the educational roadmap students should follow to become forensic scientists.

Certificate (graduate or undergraduate) – These certificates could be quite useful in a forensic science, chemistry or biology degree.   In case of undergraduate certificates, students usually supplement their main degree. And for graduate certificates, the main purpose for students is to focus their career to a specific field in forensic science. This is when they already have a bachelor’s degree in one of the natural science disciplines.

Bachelor’s Degree – This degree may be in biology or chemistry or it may be a forensic science degree with a concentration in chemistry or biology. In addition, a bachelor’s degree in forensic science may focus on specific areas such as trace evidence, DNA or ballistics.

Master’s Degree – This is specifically for those students who already have a bachelor in forensic science or one of the natural sciences. Degrees like Masters of Science in Forensic Science or Forensic Biology gives students a chance to concentrate on a particular field to advance their careers.

Doctorate Degree – Doctoral programs are also available in forensic science. Degrees such as Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) are for students who are interested in teaching opportunities and scholarly work.

Training Programs & Apprenticeship – Upon graduation, graduates may work under the tutelage and supervision of a senior forensic scientist.

Professional Certification – After the completion of the training program, to work as a forensic scientist, individuals must be certified by a board. In some cases employers may ask for a certification, while other times professionals may opt for certification themselves to improve their prospects. The Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board is one such organization that certifies forensic scientists.

What skills and qualities you must have to become a Forensic Scientist?

Getting all the above mentioned qualification will not mean anything if you don’t have the qualities mentioned below. It is these qualities that separate exceptional forensic scientists from the average  ones:

Analytical Skills

The ability to analyze is the main aspect of the job. With every crime, the analytical abilities of a forensic scientist are tested. Attention to detail, critical thinking and using the right scientific methodology are critical here.

Communication Skills – Good communication is also an essential skill forensic scientists must have to be successful. Part of a forensic scientists’ job is to testify in cases. They need to be able to present their testimony in a clear and coherent way.

Accuracy – Forensic scientists must be accurate with their findings. They must also be diligent in their research as their findings and testimony could have serious and far reaching repercussions. So it is absolutely imperative for these professionals to be careful.

High Ethical Standards – As juries and judges rely on forensic evidence to reach a decision, forensic scientists must have high ethical standards. For these professionals their findings and opinions must be a result of scientific methods and not their personal prejudices.

Be Emotionally Strong – Day in day out, forensic scientists will come across gruesome crime scenes. It is important for these professionals to be emotionally strong and not be squeamish as they will be required to often inspect unpleasant crime scenes.

Types of professionals in Forensic Science

Forensic scientists in a smaller setting may be required to take on different roles. However, in bigger departments these positions are filled by trained professionals. Here are a couple of positions in forensic science:

Criminologists

These professionals study the link between physical evidence and suspects.

Toxicologists – These professionals determine if there are any traces of drugs, poison or alcohol in the victim’s or suspect’s system.

Digital/Multimedia Scientists – They assist in documenting and investigating forensic digital evidence. This includes laptops, cell phones and tablets.

Document Examiners – These professionals determine whether the signature is real and also if the document is authentic or altered.

Physical Anthropologists – These professionals study the bones of a body to determine the time and cause of death.

Employment Outlook

According to O*NET OnLine, the demand for forensic scientists is expected to grow by 3% to 7% over the next few years.  In 2013, the same source reported that forensic scientists earned a median annual wage of $54,360.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that the state of California had the highest level of employment for these professionals followed closely by Florida, Texas, Arizona and Maryland. In short, finding employment as a forensic scientist will be relatively easier in the abovementioned states than in the rest of America.