How to Become a Forensic Scientist

Learn what it takes to land a job in forensic science

Forensic scientist at work
•••   Monty Rakusen / Getty Images 

Since before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle penned his first Sherlock Holmes story, people have been fascinated with how science and reason could be applied to solving crimes. As technology and methods advanced our ability to detect and analyze evidence, jobs in forensic science became viable careers.

The advent of popular television shows like "CSI" have gotten people even more interested in such careers, so more people than ever are wanting to know how to become a forensic scientist. That means forensic science has become a popular career field, and hard work is needed to make yourself marketable enough to land the job you want.

For those with an analytical mind, a desire to help others and a drive to succeed, a career in forensic science is a great opportunity to put your strengths to work for you.

What Forensic Scientists Do

Forensic scientist is a broad term covering crime scene investigators who collect evidence from the scenes of crimes and technicians who work mostly in a laboratory setting. Regardless of the specific role they play, forensic scientists need to be organized, detail-oriented, and possess high ethical standards. Their handling of evidence often is of utmost importance to gaining a conviction against a suspect.

Forensic scientists might work in disciplines from anthropology to toxicology and nearly everything in between.

It's also common for forensic scientists to testify in court about their findings. Much of their work needs to explained in a way those without a scientific background can understand, and defense attorney sometimes will question the methodology or conclusions of forensic scientists.

Education & Training

A bachelor's degree in forensic science or in physics, biology, or chemistry is the minimum starting point for success in the field. To advance further in the field, a master's degree or a doctorate in one of those fields will be necessary.

Because forensic scientists work with law enforcement, undergraduate degrees in criminal justice or criminology also are a good starting point for a career. Any combination of major and minor in a field of science along with another major or minor in an area of criminal justice is beneficial. However, postgraduate studies should focus on a relevant area of forensic science.

Experience

The best candidates in this competitive field are those who already have experience, so you need to build a resume that includes internships, volunteer work, and an educational background that shows you're well qualified for the job you want.

New forensic scientists often work as apprentices under experienced scientists. They may work as lab technicians or research assistants, learning more about the job and how best to apply the knowledge they've gained in school. Lab experience and research experience does not need to be specific to forensic science, but you should be able to show that you have experience in such a setting.

Familiarize yourself with the various fellowships and organizations that support forensic scientists and stay up to date on trends in the field. Read forensic science journals and stay abreast of the issues that are impacting the field today.

Finding Work

Job opportunities for forensic scientists are expected to grow at nearly three times the rate of all jobs during the decade ending in 2028, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The growth is attributable to a combination of scientific advances in collecting evidence along with heavy caseloads demanding additional forensic science technicians.

Opportunities are most likely to be found with federal or state agencies. Only the largest cities or counties have the financial resources to staff forensic science technicians. Most smaller municipalities work with state or federal crime labs when evidence needs to be processed.

Forensic scientists deal with confidential and sensitive information. Even those working as contractors or advisers must be vetted to ensure their backgrounds won't be problematic for a successful prosecution or show they're susceptible to unethical behavior. Expect a background check similar to what prospective police officers face. This means it is important to maintain a clean record and avoid anything that even hints at impropriety if pursuing a career as a forensic science technician.

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