Careers in Forensic Science

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Image by Lara Antal © The Balance 2019

The term "forensic scientist" doesn't describe a single job title, but rather a host of scientific specialties that apply expertise to legal questions. "Forensics" means "of or having to do with questions of law," so nearly any discipline can be considered "forensic" if it's applied to solving crimes or to the court system. Wherever your interests lie, there's likely to be a discipline that fits you. 

01
Forensic Science Technicians

Scientist examining skull with caliper
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Technicians are the utility players of the forensic science field. They assist in the collection of evidence, conduct analysis, and help investigate crime scenes. Often called crime scene technicians or crime scene investigators, forensic science technicians conduct most of their work either on the scene or in a laboratory.

Specially trained in evidence collection, technicians must have an eye for detail. They might also provide assistance to other forensic scientists and serve as liaisons to other specialists.

Forensic science technicians can earn a median pay of $58,230 annually as of 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). 

02
Bloodstain Pattern Analysts

Scientist swabbing bloody knife
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Popularized by the television series "Dexter," bloodstain pattern analysts do just what the job title suggests: They analyze patterns in blood to help gather important clues about various crimes.

Often referred to as blood spatter experts, bloodstain pattern analysts are forensic science technicians who specialize in violent crime scenes. They can help determine the type of weapon used, whether a struggle occurred, the direction of travel of a victim or suspect, who was the primary aggressor, and whether wounds were self-inflicted—all through the examination of drips, spills, spatters, and stains.

Bloodstain pattern analysts can start at salaries in the neighborhood of $42,000 a year, according to BLS. 

03
Forensic Ballistics Expert

Ultra-high speed photo of bullet fired out of a S&W revolver photographed with an air-gap flash
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Detectives call on forensic ballistics experts when they need help tracing a bullet back to a gun or identifying the type of firearm used. These experts provide crucial analysis at complex scenes, helping investigators identify the trajectory of fired rounds to find a point of origin.

Forensic ballistics experts can identify what type of bullet was used, its caliber, and even where it was manufactured. They can analyze whether a gun was recently fired and whether a particular bullet was fired by a specific gun.

Forensic firearms experts, according to BLS, can earn a median $56,750 with job growth of 17% expected through 2026. 

04
Forensic DNA Analyst

CBP chemist reads a DNA profile to determine the origin of a commodity.
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Deoxyribonucleic acid analysis (DNA) is gaining more and more prominence in criminology and forensic science. DNA contains the genetic coding that makes us...well, us. It's believed to provide an as-close-to-perfect identification as possible, far more accurate than fingerprinting.

DNA analysts compare DNA samples taken from suspects and victims to determine whether someone was present at a crime scene, whether they were involved in a violent encounter, and other questions of identity when a sample is available. DNA analysts can also compare unknown samples to databases to identify potential suspects.

DNA analysts can expect to earn an average of about $64,000 a year, BLS reports. 

05
Polygraph Examiner

Person's hand hooked up to polygraph test, close-up (Overhead view)
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Polygraphs have limited admissibility in courts, but the polygraph exam remains a useful tool in solving crimes and detecting deception from suspects and witnesses.

Polygraph examiners are trained to conduct examinations using the "lie detector" and to provide analysis of the results. Polygraph examiners undergo lengthy training to hone their skills, and they're often used in internal administrative investigations of law enforcement personnel.

Polygraph examiners might work for criminal justice agencies or as private contractors. Their services are quite often employed during the candidate screening process for many sensitive jobs. '

Polygraph examiners earn around $95,000 a year on average, according to the 2019 ZipRecruiter database. PayScale's database sets a lower average of $52,230. (Both are self-reported.)

06
Forensic Documents Examiner

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Forensic documents examiners compare handwriting samples and  use their expertise to identify forgeries of contracts, checks, bank statements, and other documents and electronic records. They can also determine the validity of a signature through handwriting analysis and even determine the relative age of a document.

A forensic documents examiner must undergo an apprenticeship to learn the trade, and she might be employed by private contractors or government agencies. Forensic documents examiners most often assist in white-collar crimes and work with digital experts and forensic accountants.

Salary and earning potential for these experts can vary significantly depending on the employer and level of expertise. ZipRecruiter self-reports average $47,044—ranging from $16,000 to $109,500.

 

07
Digital Forensics Experts and Forensic Computer Investigators

Digital Forensics 2
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Digital and computer forensics is becoming an extremely important field, and these experts are much in demand. Criminals are leaving more clues and electronic fingerprints as we all use computers and digital devices more and more. Cybercrime is a growing problem, as well as child exploitation and other similar types of criminal behavior that have found a home online.

Forensic computer investigators are trained to collect data from damaged and wiped hard drives, cellphones, tablets, and other computing devices. This digital evidence can be essential in the successful prosecution of electronic crimes.

Forensic computer investigators might work directly for law enforcement agencies or on a contractual basis. Their earning potential is significant due to increasing demand. ZipRecruiter's self-reported salary averages $98,857 per year—ranging from $24,500 to $151,000.

08
Forensic Toxicologist

CAMI scientists conduct research to detect and measure drugs, alcohol, toxic gases, and toxic industrial chemicals in victims of fatal aircraft accidents as a contribution to the analysis of accident causation.
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The ancient Greeks were the first to note the various signs and symptoms of poisons, and they were the first society known to uncover murders from poisoning due to this ability.

The field of toxicology has developed and evolved significantly since that time. Today, forensic toxicologists help investigators identify the causes of death that include poisons, chemicals, and intoxicating substances. They assist in the prosecution of DUI and DWI arrests and can detect the presence of drugs or alcohol in a suspect or victim's blood.

Aspiring toxicologists should have a firm grasp of chemistry, biology, or both, as well as knowledge of pharmacology. ZipRecruiter's self-reported average salary is $85,670—ranging from $25,500 to $152,000.

09
Forensic Accountant

Female accountant keying in numbers
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Despite their notoriety and their known ties to organized crime, some of the United States' most famous gang leaders were ultimately brought to justice through financial and tax violations. The first forensic accountants were instrumental in successfully prosecuting Al Capone.

Forensic accountants specialize in financial crimes and are trained to follow the money trail. They work to weed out fraud and to help protect bank accounts. Forensic accountants also assist courts in assessing awards and damages and to identify and investigate financiers of terrorism.

Forensic accountants can earn up to $150,000 a year and should have a bachelor's degree in finance or accounting at a minimum. The majority of ZipRecruiter self-reports earn from $67,500 to $92,500.

10
Forensic Engineer

laboratory ultraviolet light box during electrophoresis for detection of DNA
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Forensic engineers work with machinery and structures. When a bridge collapses for no apparent reason, forensic engineers determine how it happened and why. They can pinpoint foul play and differentiate it from structural failure due to age and lack of maintenance. 

This career path requires at least an engineering degree. The program you choose should be approved by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. The BLS puts the median salary for this profession at about $85,000 annually. 

 

11
Forensic Anthropologist

Forensic Anthropology Lab at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institute, Washington D.C.
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Grisly crimes and cold cases call for the expertise of someone who specializes in identifying human remains. Anthropologists can determine the age, sex, and weight of a victim by studying decomposed physical remains and skeletal systems, as well as the types of injuries the victim received and the potential cause of death in many cases.

Forensic anthropologists often work at colleges and universities and provide assistance to law enforcement entities on an as-needed, contractual basis. They generally hold a master's degree or a doctorate in physical anthropology and can expect to earn a median salary of about $62,000 a year, according to BLS.

12
Forensic Odontologist

Cmdr. Kevin Torske, U.S. Navy, a senior forensic odontologist, catalogs the dental remains of a possible service member at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command headquarters at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, on Sept. 21, 2006.
Cpl. James P. Johnson, U.S. Army/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Sometimes DNA identification is impractical and fingerprint analysis is impossible. Forensic odontologists use unique dental features to identify human remains when particularly gruesome crimes occur or after mass casualty events. They can also analyze bite marks and compare them to samples to help identify victims and suspects, as well as help investigators, determine whether injuries are defensive or offensive.

Forensic odontologists have doctorates in dental surgery or dental medicine and they usually practice general dentistry and perform forensics services in addition to their dental practices. Forensic odontologists earn between $150,000 and $180,000, according to the American Dental Association.

13
Forensic Psychologist

Man talking with therapist in therapy
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Forensic psychologists provide psychological services and analysis for nearly every facet of the criminal justice system. They perform important services to corrections, courts, and law enforcement, from jury consulting to prison counseling. The job also involves investigating allegations of child abuse, and they evaluate victims, witnesses, and suspects for veracity and competency. This helps judges determine whether a suspect can stand trial.

Forensic psychologists also perform the important work of evaluating law enforcement candidates during the hiring process. On average, forensic psychologists earn from about $40,000 to more than $120,000 a year, reports BLS. Salaries can vary greatly depending on the level of education, expertise, and the employer.

14
Forensic Pathologist

Pathologists Looking into Microscopes
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Forensic pathologists provide one of the most important components of any homicide investigation: They determine the cause of death. Also known as medical examiners, forensic pathologists employ their medical training to identify which, if any, injuries were fatal. They can also help investigators learn the type of weapon used and determine an approximate time of death. 

Pathologists play a crucial role in learning whether or not a crime even occurred. Forensic pathologists are medical doctors and can earn more than $200,000 per year. The average self-reported salary in the PayScale database is $102,751.

15
Arson Investigators

Fire raging in domestic kitchen at night
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An arson investigator uses residue, ash, and other substances left after a fire to pinpoint whether such an event was intentional arson or the result of an accident. They might be called on scene to analyze the behavior and characteristics of fires while they're still in progress. An arson investigator's science is flames.  

The education required for a career as an arson investigator is on par with that of police officers. You don't necessarily need a college degree, although it would certainly enhance your resume, particularly if you choose a criminal justice-related major or one in the field of fire science or chemistry. Mean pay is about $64,000 annually, according to BLS.

What Job Is Right for You?

Forensic science careers can be rewarding and challenging, and they're not limited to these profiles. As times change, investigative needs change, so this list is by no means encompassing.