How to Become a Criminalist: Education and Career Roadmap

Should I Become a Criminalist?

A criminalist, sometimes referred to as a forensic science technician (FST), collects, identifies, and analyzes evidence related to criminal investigations. This evidence, which is examined both physically and chemically, can include dangerous substances, illegal drugs, blood, semen, and other bodily fluids. Some criminalists specialize in one particular area of forensic science such as ballistics, fingerprinting, handwriting, trace evidence, toxicology, DNA, or biochemistry.

Criminalists work at crime scenes and in laboratories. They often work irregular hours and might be called upon to give expert testimony in criminal trials. Such technicians may work in any time of weather and have to extract evidence from a range of environments including buildings, in the woods, cars, or anywhere else a crime may be committed. They are witness to disturbing crime scenes and must be able to stay emotionally neutral while working a case. Aspiring criminalists are required to complete a bachelor's degree program with a major in chemistry or a related physical or natural science. Most employers do not require a postgraduate degree for entry-level positions, but a number of chemistry courses often are required. Additional coursework can include advanced courses in chemical analysis.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's degree
Degree Field Chemistry, biology, physics, forensic science or a related scientific degree program
Certification Voluntary certification is available
Key/Computer Skills Strong oral and written communication skills; critical thinking and analytical skills; organizational skills; great attention to detail; knowledge of crime scene protocol and procedures, accurately use laboratory equipment and associated computer programs; operate a digital camera to record physical evidence
Additional Requirements Some state and federal positions require candidates to pass a standardized test for appointment to a criminalist position; valid driver's license
Salary (2014) $55,360 (Median salary for all forensic science technicians)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics- Occupational Employment Statistics: Forensic Science Technicians

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

All criminalists need a bachelor's degree. The degree should be in chemistry or a physical science, such as biology. Because this career is highly invested in the sciences, a minor in another area of chemistry, such as biochemistry, inorganic chemistry or nuclear chemistry, might help further one's career as a criminalist. A minor can also be from another branch of science, such as biology, physics or genetics.

Success Tips:

  • Consider taking a double major. Examples of double majors that would apply to this career include chemistry and forensic science or biochemistry and anthropology.
  • Take a few courses in anthropology. Courses in anthropology can teach direct skills that can help criminalists analyze evidence.

Step 2: Find Entry-Level Work as a Criminalist

Once a student graduates, he or she is considered ready for an entry-level position as a criminalist in many city, state, or federal offices. Some graduates might find nonprofit or corporate employment.

Success Tip:

  • Join your state's criminalist association. A state association can provide the opportunity to network with other criminalists, as well as provide additional training and job assistance.

Step 3: Get Certified and Consider an Advanced Degree to Build a Career

Although certification is not required, it can help criminalists stand out to employers. Certification is offered through the American Board of Criminalistics. A bachelor's degree and two years of full-time experience are needed to qualify to take the certification exam. Re-certification is required every five years. Earning this certification can help to increase employment prospects.

Success Tip:

  • Earn a Master's Degree. Earning a master's in forensic science can help accelerate one's career and may be necessary for certain positions within law enforcement. In addition, many FSTs have also completed police academy training and are therefore licensed to use firearms, make arrests, and spearhead investigations. Having both a technician's and police license can help individuals rise the ranks in their local or federal police department.
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