Forensic Scientist: How Do I Start a Career in Forensic Science?

Jan 16, 2020

A career in forensic science requires a bachelor's degree at a minimum. Learn about education, job responsibilities, areas of specialization and certification options to see if this is the right career for you.

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Essential Information

Degree Level Bachelor's degree
Degree Field(s) Forensic science, criminology, or related field
Licensure/Certification Voluntary certification available
Experience Field experience required for certification
Key Skills Problem-solving, analytical, investigative, research, organization, and communications skills; persistence and patience
Job Outlook (2018-2028) 18% growth
Median Annual Salary (2018) $62,490

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Television and movies may portray forensic science as merely a part of murder investigations. However, it's a broad field applied to numerous facets of the justice system. Forensic scientists may specialize in a wide range of scientific disciplines and their findings are often used in investigations and trials for both the prosecution and defense of criminals. Let's take a look at the steps it takes to become a forensic scientist.

Step 1: Choose a Discipline

Your first step is to choose a discipline. Forensic science is a broad field, integrating various disciplines of science in the pursuit of civil justice. Professionals in this field may specialize in toxicology, pathology, physical anthropology, behavioral science and general forensics, among other specialties.

Step 2: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Step 2 is to earn a bachelor's degree. You must have at least bachelor's degrees to find employment in this occupation. Depending on the chosen discipline, students may focus their studies on the natural or biological sciences. For example, students interested in a career in toxicology may focus on microbiology, while those looking to begin a career in forensic ballistics may choose to focus on physics.

Some colleges and universities offer Bachelor of Science in Forensic Science programs. Employing classroom and laboratory instruction, these 4-year degree programs combine various sciences applicable to forensic science. Courses may include:

  • Microbiology
  • Genetics
  • Human anatomy
  • Organic chemistry
  • Toxicology
  • Physics
  • Evidence analysis
  • Forensic anthropology
  • Public speaking

Step 3: Consider an Advanced Degree

According to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, some disciplines require only bachelor's degrees, while others may require advanced degrees in applicable fields of science or medicine. So the third step is to consider an advanced degree. Forensic anthropologists typically have Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degrees in anthropology with focuses on human osteology and anatomy. Forensic ondontologists must have at least Doctor of Dental Science (DDS) degrees. Forensic pathologists must obtain medical licensure from the American Board of Pathology, which requires four years of medical school and five years of combined residency and fellowship training.

Step 4: Gain Experience

Step 4 is to gain experience. Forensic scientists typically work in laboratories, hospitals, morgues, government facilities and police departments. Specific job duties vary according to discipline, but forensic scientists generally conduct scientific investigations and analyze findings to reveal details about occurrences, such as deaths, car accidents, and non-violent crimes. They work closely beside crime scene investigators, officers, deputies, and attorneys. Forensic scientists may serve as expert witnesses in criminal trials, where they present their findings to juries and judges.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the projected job growth for forensic science technicians was 14% from 2018-2028 and the average annual salary was $62,490.

Step 5: Obtain Certification

The last step is to obtain certification. Earning a voluntary professional certification may help you demonstrate your competence in your specialty. The American Board of Criminalistics (ABC) offers two levels of certification for practicing forensic scientists. Candidates for diplomate certification must hold bachelor's degrees in an applicable science, have two years of experience in criminology and pass a 220-question certification examination. Candidates for fellow certification must meet all diplomate requirements, complete a proficiency testing program and pass a comprehensive exam.

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