Forensic Documents Examiner Career Profile

Learn About Document Examination and Handwriting Analysis

Forensic science
••• Science Photo Library - TEK IMAGE / Getty Images

If you have an eye for detail, a passion for analysis and problem solving, and an innate ability to identify subtle differences and nuances, then you may very well be interested in a career as a questioned documents examiner. QDE's, or forensic document examiners, help solve crimes by verifying the authenticity of handwritten or typed records.

Document Examination

Nearly every transaction of any consequence requires documentation of some sort, through contracts, checks, financial records and more. With this documentation comes a vast potential for fraud and deception through forgery and the production of false records. Forensic documents examiners help identify the veracity of those records when their authenticity comes into question.

The necessity for document examination has existed for centuries, though the specialized profession it has now become is a relatively new phenomenon. Prior to the early 20th century, attorneys would seek the expertise of handwriting - or penmanship - professors to help determine whether or not a document was genuine.

One such professor, Albert S. Osborn, became extremely well known and developed a reputation for his professionalism, expertise and objective pursuit of truth. Having established himself as a preeminent expert on the matter of fraud and forgeries, Mr. Cooper founded the American Society of Questioned Document Examiners and championed the application of scientific principles to the authentication of questioned documents. He is largely credited with establishing the field as the respected component of the forensic sciences that it has become.

Job Description

Questioned documents examiners are forensic scientists who work primarily in office settings and laboratories. They may work for a private investigative firm, an attorney's office or a government agency.

As science and technology have advanced, so too has the profession. Forensic document examiners make use of computers, microanalysis and other technology to assist in examining documents to determine their authenticity.

The Southeastern Association of Forensic Document Examiners defines a document as "anything that bears marks, signs, or symbols which have meaning or conveys a message to someone." It means that the types of items a document examiner may be called upon to analyze are virtually limitless. Some of the most common types of forgeries that fall under the purview of forensic document examiners include lottery tickets, wills, bank records and letters.

Forensic document examiners focus on three distinct questions when authenticating a document: identifying the individual who produced the document, determining the validity of signatures, and establishing the history and source of documents.

Questioned document examination is probably most popularly associated with handwriting analysis and the verification of signatures, but the field includes all manner of forgery including cut and paste jobs, typed and mechanically produced documents and even historically significant documents.

Included in the analysis is an examination of the materials on which the document is printed, such as paper or papyrus, as well as the ink used. Essentially any aspect of the document is subject to question and analysis.

Forensic document examiners are called upon to produce reports of their findings as well as provide courtroom testimony to back up their analysis. They assist attorneys and criminal investigators, and they may work closely with forensic accountants and agencies that investigative financial fraud, such as the United States Secret Service.

Some forensic document examiners specialize in determining the authenticity of ancient and historical texts. Historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists may call upon experts to identify the age or author of seemingly historically significant documents.


According to the American Society for Testing and Materials, which publishes the standards for questioned document examiners, potential candidates must have excellent analytical skills and the ability to discern and perceive subtle differences between items, such as handwriting samples, paper type, and inks.

There are no college programs or diplomas that will qualify an individual outright to become a document examiner. Instead, forensic document examiners must have earned at a minimum a bachelor's degree in one of the natural sciences and then complete a minimum of two years of training in an apprenticeship under an expert examiner.

Document examiners must have excellent eyesight and must undergo vision tests including the ability to distinguish forms, colors, and distances.

Job Growth

Forensic document examination continues to be a growing field, though the job market is tight. Finding work as a questioned document examiner is largely done through networking and building contacts, which can be accomplished during the apprenticeship period. To find opportunities and learn about the trade, you can visit the website of the American Society of Questioned Document Examiners and find experts near you who can help point you in the right direction. Earning potential can vary widely.

Is a Career Right for You?

It takes a lot of hard work and study to develop the unique and valuable skills of a forensic documents examiner. However, the work can be fascinating for the person with a sharp eye and an analytical mind. If this sounds like you, then a job as a questioned documents examiner may just be your perfect criminology career.