How To Become A Forensic Scientist: A Step-By-Step Guide (2024)

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The criminal justice system relies on forensics experts to investigate crime scenes, collect evidence and link suspects to crimes. But what is forensics? And what do forensic scientists do?

Forensics is the application of scientific methods to crime solving. Law enforcement agencies rely on forensic scientists to document and process evidence, including fingerprints, DNA and weapons. Forensic scientists can also specialize in toxicology, ballistics and digital crime.

As experts in their field, forensic scientists work closely with law enforcement and the court system to prosecute crimes. They create detailed reports documenting their investigative procedures and testify in court as expert witnesses.

Careers in forensic science require specialized training and a bachelor’s degree. Is forensic science the right field for you? Keep reading to learn more.

What Do Forensic Scientists Do?

Forensic scientists collect and analyze evidence for legal proceedings. They gather evidence in the field and analyze it in forensic laboratories. Then, these professionals partner with law enforcement to build a legal case against suspects. As part of their job duties, forensic scientists may testify in court as expert witnesses.

Forensic scientists draw on diverse analytical methods and techniques, using their specialized knowledge to shape their approaches. Specializations within the broad field of forensic science include toxicology, DNA, firearms and trace evidence.

Common job titles in the forensic sciences include:

  • Crime scene investigator
  • Forensic science technician
  • Criminalist
  • Forensic toxicologist
  • DNA analyst
  • Forensic anthropologist
  • Forensic chemist
  • Forensic medical examiner

Forensic science also encompasses tech-focused roles in digital forensics, including computer forensic examiners, fraud examiners and forensic accountants. These specialists investigate financial fraud, cybercrime and other computer-based crimes.

Forensic scientists work in multiple settings, including laboratories, medical facilities and law enforcement agencies. They also work in the field, visiting crime scenes to collect evidence. In addition, forensic scientists may consult, teach or testify in court.

How To Become a Forensic Scientist

Typically, forensic scientists need a college degree and work experience. Most careers in forensic science require a bachelor’s degree. In addition to formal education, forensic scientists complete on-the-job training, gain experience and pursue optional professional certifications.

Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

What degree do you need to be a forensic scientist? Many roles in this field require a bachelor’s degree in forensic science or a related field, including biology, chemistry and other natural sciences. Forensic scientists can also pursue master’s degrees to advance their education and move into specialties that require additional training.

Choose a Specialty

The forensic science field encompasses many specialties. For example, professionals in this field can specialize in toxicology, forensic anthropology, forensic chemistry or criminalistics. Most forensic scientists begin their specialized training during college, where they choose electives or a concentration based on their career goals. Forensic scientists also specialize while in the workforce.

Some specialties may require additional training. For example, crime scene investigators may need to attend a police academy and meet the requirements to become a police officer.

Gain Work Experience

Early-career forensic scientists complete on-the-job training under experienced professionals. During this training, new hires learn procedures for collecting and processing evidence. Work experience can also help forensic scientists gain specialized skills.

As forensic science continues to evolve due to technological advances, forensic scientists must invest in professional development and continuing education to stay current.

Consider Professional Certification

Professional certifications help forensic scientists demonstrate their expertise. Most certifications require a mix of education and career experience, with many requiring 1-3 years of full-time experience in the certification area.

Generally, these credentials are voluntary for forensic science roles. Though some employers may prefer to hire candidates with professional certifications, most forensic scientist jobs do not require them.

Forensic Scientist Salary and Job Outlook

Careers in this field report above-average salaries and faster-than-average growth projections. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), forensic scientists earned a median annual wage of $63,740 as of 2022, and the top 10% of earners made over $104,330.

Earning potential varies by industry. For instance, forensic scientists who work for state and local government agencies made an average salary of $64,500 in 2022, while their counterparts in medical and diagnostic laboratories earned only an average of $42,600. Experience also shapes earning potential: October 2023 from Payscale reveals forensic scientists with 10 to 19 years of experience earned average salaries $16,000 higher than their counterparts with less than one year of experience.

The BLS projects careers in this field will grow 13% from 2022 to 2032, a faster-than-average rate. This demand reflects the need for skilled professionals—the criminal justice system relies on forensic scientists’ expertise to process evidence, testify in trials and provide forensic information to law enforcement agencies. As caseloads grow and technological advances continue, demand for forensic scientists will likely remain high.

Certifications for Forensic Scientists

Forensic scientists can pursue professional certification to showcase their skills and experience. Within forensic science, organizations offer certifications in specialized areas like bloodstain pattern analysis, forensic DNA and forensic toxicology.

International Association for Identification Forensic Certification: The IAI offers certifications in specialized areas like crime scene investigation, footwear identification, forensic photography and fingerprint analysis. Members of the IAI pay $300 for certification, while non-members pay $400.

American Board of Criminalistics Certifications: Forensic scientists can pursue certifications in biological evidence screening, drug analysis and forensic DNA from the American Board of Criminalistics. Candidates need a bachelor’s degree in forensic science or the natural sciences from an accredited institution. Each credential requires between one and two years of full-time employment. Applicants pay $325 for the application and examination fees.

American Board of Forensic Toxicology Certifications: ABFT offers certifications for forensic toxicologists at three levels: analyst, fellow and diplomate. While analysts can qualify with an associate degree and two years of work experience, diplomates need at least a bachelor’s degree and fellows need a doctorate. Both fellows and diplomates need three years of work experience. The certifications cost $300.

Professional Organizations for Forensic Scientists

Joining professional organizations helps forensic science students and professionals network, find job opportunities and keep their knowledge current. Many of these organizations offer a membership discount for students or early career professionals.

American Academy of Forensic Sciences: AAFS advocates for forensic science education and research. The academy dates back to 1948 and hosts meetings with networking opportunities. Members can access a peer-reviewed journal, educational resources and a job board.

American Society of Trace Evidence Examiners: Trace evidence specialists can join ASTEE. The association welcomes students, academics and professionals. In addition to publishing a journal, the society offers annual awards.

Association of Firearm and Tool Mark Examiners: Founded in 1969, AFTE is a professional organization for forensic scientists specializing in firearm and toolmark identification. The association offers certification and training seminars, publishes a peer-reviewed journal and hosts a forum for members to connect.

Association of Forensic DNA Analysts and Administrators: DNA experts can join AFDAA to stay current on forensic methods, share research and network at conferences. Members can also participate in training and continuous education programs, attend presentations and engage in professional development.

International Association of Forensic Sciences: A worldwide association, IAFS represents forensic scientists, forensic pathologists and professionals in related fields. The association hosts international meetings where professionals connect and share knowledge.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Becoming a Forensic Scientist

What do forensic scientists do?

Forensic scientists collect and analyze evidence of crimes. Common specialties include crime scene investigation, DNA analysis and toxicology. Forensic scientists work in law enforcement to identify and prosecute suspects.

What is forensics?

Forensics uses scientific methods to solve crimes. Forensic scientists analyze evidence in laboratory settings using techniques such as fingerprinting, DNA analysis and handwriting analysis.

What degree do you need to be a forensic scientist?

Most forensic scientists hold a bachelor’s degree in forensic science or natural sciences. Some roles require additional education, such as a master’s in forensic science.

How long will it take to become a forensic scientist?

Many forensic scientist jobs require a bachelor’s degree. A bachelor’s in forensic science generally takes four years of full-time study.

Is it hard to be a forensic scientist?

Becoming a forensic scientist can be challenging. Forensic scientists need a bachelor’s degree and specialized training in areas like DNA analysis, toxicology and fingerprint analysis. Strong analytical and problem-solving skills help prospective forensic scientists succeed in this field.

How do you start a career in forensic science?

Earning a bachelor’s degree in forensic science, biology or another natural science can prepare you for a career in forensic science. You also need on-the-job training to build specialized skills.

How To Become A Forensic Scientist: A Step-By-Step Guide (2024)
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