How to Become a Crime Scene Investigator: Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a crime scene investigator. Research the job description and the education requirements and find out how to start a career in crime scene investigation. View article »

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Should I Become a Crime Scene Investigator?

Crime scene investigators (CSI), also known as forensic science technicians, collect and examine evidence present at crime scenes. They typically walk the scene of a crime searching for useful evidence such as fingerprints, hairs, or fibers, for later analysis at a crime lab. Additionally, they may photograph a crime scene or take notes of their observations.

Crime scene investigators work on a full-time basis. Schedules may include night and/or weekend shifts, and overtime is possible. They may work in an office or laboratory setting, outside in all types of locations and conditions, or both. Although they will work usually in one district or city, travel to crime locations may be required. Crime scene techs will witness a range of crime scenes, including those that remain following violent crimes.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the median annual salary for forensic science technicians was $56,320 in May 2015.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's degree; graduate degree to advance
Degree Field Criminal justice, forensic science, biology or related field
Experience Law enforcement experience
Key Skills Critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, composure, attention to detail, speaking and writing skills
Median Annual Salary (2015) $56,320 (for forensic science technicians)

Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics

A bachelor's degree in criminal justice, forensic science, biology, or related field is required to work as a CSI. You'll also need experience in law enforcement, good critical thinking and problem solving skills, composure, attention to detail, and excellent speaking and writing skills.

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Steps to Becoming a Crime Scene Investigator

Here are five steps you can take to become a CSI.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Rural law enforcement agencies and smaller employers may hire crime scene investigators without a degree; however, most crime scene investigators hold a bachelor's degree. A degree is required to work directly in a crime lab. A Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice with a specialization in forensic science will provide a basic legal and scientific education. These programs typically involve coursework in criminal psychology, investigation, law, ethics, and research.

While pursuing an undergraduate degree, you can choose electives that will benefit your education and career goals. For example, if you major in criminal justice you can take science courses; or if you major in science you can take communications electives.

Step 2: Complete a Police Academy

According to the BLS, most crime scene investigators are sworn police officers. While this is not always required, some law enforcement agencies only hire from their current employee list while others may take applications from outside candidates. You can complete a police academy program before applying for an opening in the investigations unit of your agency of employment.

Step 3: Gain Work Experience

After being hired as a crime scene investigator, you'll work under direct supervision of a senior investigator and may receive on-the-job training. During this time, you can expect to learn about evidence collection, processing, and analysis. With time and experience you'll begin to work cases independently, but must report back to the supervisor for approval of your work. Job duties and assignments will become more detailed and independent as you gain more experience and prove your skills.

Step 4: Get Certified

After gaining work experience you can prove your skills and abilities through certification, which may lead to a promotion or possible advancement in your career. The International Association for Identification (IAI) offers a crime scene certification for interested individuals. The IAI program requires that a person have a minimum of one year experience working in an area related to crime scenes. The IAI certification test must be passed with at least a 75%, and certification is valid for five years.

Some individual states may offer certification based on their own requirements and standards. For example, to become certified in Indiana, a candidate must work as a crime scene investigator or in a similar position for an Indiana law enforcement agency. Candidates must also submit an application that provides specific information on their work experience and education. The candidate will complete an exam to become certified, which is valid for three years.

Step 5: Continue Education To Advance Career

To advance to a higher position, you need to further your education. Continuing education may also be necessary for certification renewal. You may continue your education by getting a master's or Ph.D. degree. Additionally, continuing education may be completed through short-term courses, online classes, workshops, or seminars.

A Master of Science (M.S.) degree program that focuses in forensic science will provide you with advanced education in the field. You may have the option to specialize in different areas such as DNA analysis, forensic chemistry, digital forensics, and crime scene investigation. With a master's degree you would be qualified for a supervisor position or as a specialist with a crime lab or forensics team.

A Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) with a forensic science emphasis focuses on research, allowing you to explore forensic science more in-depth and hands-on. You'll work on projects that could advance forensic science in the future. For this degree program, you must write a dissertation about the research project you were involved in. You also will take classes in subjects such as toxicology, DNA typing and biochemistry. A Ph.D. can prepare you to pursue lead positions with a crime lab or forensics team.

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