Every fan of true crime, criminal justice, or forensics has considered becoming a forensic scientist. Whatever reason you have behind your consideration, learning how to become a forensic scientist can lead to a great and rewarding career.
Forensic scientists are extremely important to the process of solving crimes and becoming one makes for an interesting and valuable career choice. Due to the high demand for forensic scientists, it virtually impossible to not find a job after you follow this guide.
What Is a Forensic Scientist?
Most of the time, forensic scientists are lumped into the entire forensics team and simply called “forensics.” But there are many different aspects of a forensics department, ranging from scientists to psychologists to photographers. Forensic scientists use science to solve crimes.
By applying scientific processes and methods to crimes and crime scenes, forensic scientists are able to make observations and hypotheses that would be otherwise unattainable. To put it in simpler terms, they run the equivalent of a science fair for crimes and crime scenes.
What Does a Forensic Scientist Do?
Forensic scientists are responsible for completing many different tasks. Their jobs are not simply looking around crime scenes with a magnifying glass. Some of their most important tasks include the following.
Collecting Evidence at Crime Scenes
Forensic scientists accompany teams sent out to crime scenes to find and collect evidence. They are charged with looking for any fingerprints, hair, blood spatter, or other pieces of evidence that could link someone to the crime.
Conducting Tests and Analyses of Evidence
After gathering all of the evidence, forensic scientists perform any tests and analyses needed to draw conclusions from the evidence. This entails everything from simply running fingerprints through a database to performing tests to match blood spatter patterns to weapons.
Presenting and Defending Evidence in Court
Since forensic scientists are the most well-versed in the evidence they analyze so thoroughly, they are often asked to present and defend it in court. Typically, this means explaining how conclusions were drawn from the evidence and defending the analysis.
Essential Forensic Scientist Skills
Critical thinking is a skill necessary in many jobs, but particularly in forensic science. Being able to have a clear and practical mind is vital to ensure no evidence is missed at a crime scene. It is also what helps forensic scientists to not only know what tests to run but also how to put together a timeline for a crime.
Being able to remain composed may be the most essential skill for this job. Forensic scientists are required to visit many crime scenes and consistently review photographs taken at crime scenes. In cases of homicides, the crime scene may be horrific to look at, so having good self-composure is a must.
Forensic scientists are expected to notice little things that other detectives may have missed. Paying close attention to all of the details of a crime is absolutely vital to being a good forensic scientist. Working in this field, you often have a better idea of what to look for, and missing one small detail can result in never solving the crime.
Forensic Scientist Salaries and Job Outlook
Forensic scientists, unlike crime scene investigators, typically work a regular work week with very little overtime. Of course, there will always be exceptional cases that require forensic teams to assess the crime scene immediately, but this rarely affects their salaries much.
The average forensic scientist earns around $59,150 per year. As with every profession, this pay varies based upon your education, experience, and location. Some forensic scientists only make around $35,620 per year while others can earn over $97,000.
Unfortunately, crime is not expected to disappear anytime soon. But, this is good for future forensic scientists as according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of forensic scientists is set to increase 14 percent by 2028. This is much faster than most other occupations, meaning there will be a plethora of job opportunities for you.
It is currently expected that state and local governments will begin hiring more forensic scientists to help them handle enormous workloads. This could mean working on a lot of cold cases or lower-profile cases for a while if this is your first job. However, working for one of these governments is a great way to gain experience.
The competition for forensic science jobs is predicted to be very high, so it is currently recommended that future applicants pursue a master’s degree. Having a master’s degree may not be technically necessary, but having one will knock out a lot of that competition.
How Long Does it Take to Become a Forensic Scientist?
Becoming a forensic scientist can take anywhere from four to six years depending on what level of education you pursue. If you are only interested in a bachelor’s degree, it will likely only take you four years to complete your degree program and get started in the field. Adding a master’s degree tacks on an additional year or two.
If you are hoping to get started sooner than that, there are options. As with all degrees, many schools will offer an option for fast-tracked or accelerated programs. These programs are often online and are designed to be completed at a much faster pace so that students can graduate earlier than average. Oftentimes, enrolling in one of these programs can knock off two years of your education.
How to Become a Forensic Scientist: A Step by Step Guide
Step 1: Earn an Undergraduate Degree
Earning an undergraduate degree is the first step to take toward becoming a forensic scientist. Some jobs will accept applicants who only hold an associate’s degree, but most will require a bachelor’s degree. If you are unsure of where you intend to apply, a bachelor’s degree is the best choice.
Many forensic scientists choose to earn an Associate Degree in Criminal Investigation and then pursue a Bachelor’s Degree in Forensic Science. There are also options to pursue both levels in forensic science. Whichever route you choose, be sure to take as many science courses as possible, as they will greatly assist your work.
Step 2: Earn a Graduate Degree
Pursuing a graduate degree is not always mandatory, but it is a great decision to guarantee the advancement of your career. If you choose not to pursue a higher degree level, you will likely be able to find employment just fine, but being able to present a master’s or doctoral degree to potential employers will make it easier.
If you decide to pursue a graduate degree, be sure to check what degree level is required for the position you are hoping to be hired for before deciding on a degree program. You may want to earn a doctorate regardless of the requirements, but if you do not have to go that far, you may be uninterested in spending additional years in school.
Step 3: Train On-the-Job
Especially in the world of forensics, on-the-job training is the best way to learn. It is one thing to learn concepts and procedures in a classroom environment, but it is completely different to use your education at an actual crime scene. Replicating crime scenes can be done in a classroom, but it is difficult to mimic the real deal.
During your first year or so of work, you are going to gain just as much education as you are work experience. This helps better prepare you for higher positions and different jobs, should you choose to pursue them.
Step 4: Earn Credentials and Certifications (optional)
In some states and jurisdictions, it is required for forensic scientists to earn specialty certifications. While this is not the requirement everywhere, having a few certifications under your belt is appealing to employers and can drastically improve your career.
Depending on your interests and areas of focus, there are quite a few potential certifications you can earn. Some of the more popular ones include drug analysis, hairs and fibers, molecular biology, paints and polymers, and fire debris analysis.
Should You Become a Forensic Scientist?
Becoming a forensic scientist is a wise career decision. For anyone who possesses the skills and passion for the job, now is the time to do it. With the field growing rapidly and paying well, there is no reason not to go for it and become a forensic scientist.
FAQs About Becoming a Forensic Scientist
Forensic science is a very competitive field, so finding a job can be difficult. Arming yourself with higher education and certifications can help tremendously.
Forensic scientists spend a lot of time in labs, but they spend a lot of time around potentially toxic chemicals, and also at crime scenes.
The metropolis areas of California tend to pay the most for forensic scientists.
Yes, the FBI hires forensic scientists, though the positions are harder to get.