Becoming a Forensic Scientist: Job Description & Salary Info

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What are the pros and cons of a forensic science career? Get real job descriptions, career outlook and salary info to see if becoming a forensic scientist is right for you.
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A Forensic Science Career: Pros and Cons

As a forensic scientist, sometimes known as a forensic science technician, you'll work on scientific inquiries that contribute to legal cases, sometimes providing hard facts that can prove innocence or guilt. Read on to discover the pros and cons of becoming a forensic scientist.

Pros of Becoming a Forensic Scientist
Many different fields and specializations (toxicology, firearms, biology, etc.)*
Work contributes to legal justice*
The use of forensic evidence in criminal cases is expected to expand*
Can work for many employers (police departments, governments, labs, etc.)*

Cons of Becoming a Forensic Scientist
Can be exposed to harmful chemicals*
May need to work on disturbing legal cases*
Pressure to present accurate, detailed analysis for legal decisions*
Extensive experience and membership in professional organizations may be required to become an expert court witness**

Source: *The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

Essential Career Info

Job Description

While forensic science is a broad term, it contains many disciplines that involve supporting and resolving legal issues through scientific investigation. As a forensic scientist, you might work more on either criminal cases or civil cases, but your work will generally involve analyzing evidence and testifying in court. While it's possible to focus on general forensics, you might specialize in one area; for example, you could choose to focus your work on biology, toxicology, pathology or chemistry. Your expertise might be used to determine information such as a time or cause of death.

You might travel to crime scenes to collect and analyze evidence, or you might work primarily in a lab setting. Attorneys could rely on your evidence to make cases in court, so it's essential to be detailed and careful to maintain the integrity of your evidence. Your work could help determine a suspect's innocence or guilt, and it could even eliminate the need to hold a trial. You could find employment at police departments, morgues or government agencies, or you could work as an independent consultant.

Salary Info and Career Outlook

As a forensic scientist or forensic science technician, you can expect to make an average annual salary of about $59,000 per year according to May 2014 data presented by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The top-paying industry for this field was the federal executive branch of the government, which paid workers an average of around $97,000 per year. Arizona had the highest concentration of jobs, while Illinois paid the highest average salary out of any state in the nation at the time.

The BLS projects employment of forensic science technicians to grow 6% from 2012-2022, which is slower than the average for all occupations. While law enforcement agencies and courts will continue to look to forensic scientists for assistance in providing forensic information, competition is expected to be strong in the field.

What Are the Requirements?

You'll likely need a bachelor's degree to work as a forensic scientist, but a higher degree may be necessary depending on the duties of the particular job. For example, a pathologist or other type of medical forensic scientist position might require a medical degree and further licensing. You should be familiar with both your particular specialty and relevant local and state laws. You'll often need to work in conjunction with law enforcement agencies and other groups. If you provide testimony in court as an expert witness, you should have an in-depth knowledge of your field and be prepared to explain concepts to others who may not have the same background. All forensic scientists should have the following general skills, according to the BLS and American Academy of Forensic Sciences:

  • Oral and written communication skills
  • Attention to detail
  • Good public speaking and note-taking skills
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Personal integrity

Jobs from Real Employers

Job duties for a forensic scientist can range greatly, and they can depend on the employer and field of scientific inquiry. Job postings commonly specify required education levels, which is usually at least a bachelor's degree. While the following is not a complete list, it gives an idea of the job postings available on Careerbuilder.com and USAjobs.gov in March 2012:

  • A military branch sought a full-time engineer to serve as a subject matter expert and provide technical support for data services in South Carolina. Duties included using forensic tools to analyze digital media and preserve evidence during legal investigations pertaining to cyber incidents. Applicants could fill either an engineering or computer science position, each of which required a degree in a relevant field. Salary was listed at $69,000-$106,000 per year.
  • A government department advertised for an explosives research director for a position in Alabama. Candidates could expect to develop a scientific explosives research program and set up alliances with relevant outside organizations to share resources and information. Applicants needed to have at least a bachelor's degree in a relevant field or an equivalent combination of education and experience. One year of previous specialized work experience with explosives was a must.
  • A Cleveland chemical lab looked for an analytical chemist with a 4-year degree in chemistry or a related field to prepare and test samples. Pay was listed at $13.50-$15.00 per hour.
  • A California sheriff's department had an opening for a forensic pathologist to perform autopsies and collect medical evidence. The salary range for the position was listed as $154,000-$181,000 annually. Candidates needed to be eligible to be certified by the American Board of Pathology and hold a valid state medical license.

How to Stand out

Get Certified

Getting certified can show potential employers that you're an experienced professional. Various levels of certifications and credentials are available for a range of forensic professions; for example, the American College of Forensic Examiners International offers credentialing programs in accounting, social work, nursing and medical investigation, among other specialties. Other organizations that offer relevant certifications include the American Board of Criminalistics, the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners and the American Board of Forensic Toxicology. Exact requirements vary by program, but most certifications require the completion of an exam and specific professional qualifications. Some amount of continuing education may be required to maintain certification.

Alternative Career Paths

Clinical Laboratory Technologist or Technician

Maybe you know you'd like to go into scientific analysis, but you're more interested in working with diseases rather than working in the field with crimes. You could instead choose to work as a clinical laboratory technologist or technician and perform analyses to detect and prevent diseases. The BLS indicated that employment was projected to grow 13% from 2010-2020, which was as fast as average. Technicians earned an average of around $39,000 per year in May 2011, while technologists earned about $58,000 per year.

Police Officer or Detective

Perhaps you feel more pulled toward forensics and the law than science, in which case you could pursue a career as a police officer. You could investigate many of the same crimes that you would as a forensic scientist and spend much of your time gathering facts from various sources. The difference would be that you wouldn't have to perform scientific analyses and education requirements may be less. However, you may not enjoy as positive of an employment outlook as you would as a forensic scientist. Employment growth was predicted to be slower than average over the 2010-2020 decade, at a rate of 7%. Police and sheriff's patrol officers made an average of about $56,000 in May 2011.

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Kaplan University

  • Master: Criminal Justice
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Tulane University

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Regent University

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  • Master of Arts in Law - National Security
  • Bachelor of Arts in Leadership Studies - Criminal Justice
  • Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice

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Colorado State University Global

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  • Undergraduate Specialization - Criminal Forensics
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Penn Foster High School

  • HS Diploma

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CDI College

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