Forensic Scientist

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Becoming a Forensic Science Technician

Forensic science technicians belong in the law enforcement community. They are trained to examine physical evidence by conducting scientific analyses on it. Their output is critical in solving crime because it provides leads and clues, and the processed data helps determine the guilt or innocence of suspects. Functions include DNA testing; gunshot-residue testing; confirming the presence of substances that are involved in the crime; analysis of fingerprints, bloodstain pattern, body fluids and tissues, hair, fiber, handwriting, or questioned document; and court appearance to testify as expert witnesses. They are generally grouped into the category of Criminologists (although there are technical differences between the job descriptions), and their tasks are highly similar to those of crime scene investigators.

In the United States, forensic science technicians may be employed by public institutions or private firms, on full-time or part-time basis. Federal, state, and local governments routinely require their services, and this constant demand is the reason why the larger organizations maintain in-house forensic divisions (such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Counter-Terrorism and Forensic Science Research Unit, or the Illinois State Police Forensic Sciences Command). When the need arises, the smaller agencies outsource work from private contractors or specialized offices like California's Bureau of Forensic Services. The US armed forces also maintain exclusive forensic units staffed by uniformed/organic personnel designated as forensic science technicians, and these sub-organizations primarily serve military justice and determine the value of any evidentiary items against hostile forces. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 14% increase in demand for these professionals in the ten-year period leading up to 2029.

If you are interested in working as a forensic science technician, start preparing for the recruitment process as early as possible. Take time out to study all the requirements and prospects, to see whether or not this profession is right for you.

Below is a five-step guide on how to become a forensic science technician:

Step 1- Meet the Minimum Requirements

Recruitment standards for forensic science technicians depend on the hiring organizations.

At the federal level, applicants for forensic science positions must fulfill the following basic requirements:

  • Be a US citizen and possess a valid drivers license.
  • Hold a bachelors degree from an accredited college or university in Forensic Science or a relevant area of study.
  • Be of strong moral character.
  • Be at least 21 years of age.
  • Be able to pass a drug test and have a clean criminal record.
  • Must pass a written exam, proficiency tests, and additional capability assessments.
  • Must demonstrate strong analytic, and problem solving skills.

Applicants to state and local institutions must fulfill the following basic requirements:

  • Be a US Citizen (or an eligible permanent resident alien in some states) and posses a valid drivers license.
  • Possess either a high school diploma or high school certificate of completion.
  • Must pass a background check and have a clean criminal record.
  • Must be a minimum of 21 years old.
  • Must demonstrate the ability to process information and problem solve.

Many public institutions will require applicants to pass the civil service exam, and there are many state law enforcement agencies and city police departments that strictly enforce residency and licensure requirements.

During recruitment, hiring agencies will always undertake a background investigation to verify the declarations made by individuals in their application. The process of investigating an individuals criminal and personal history is legal, as long as it follows guidelines on upholding civil rights, and consent has been provided by the applicant. The checks may include interviews with family members and neighbors, former employers and co-workers, and any other people who can offer helpful information; review of financial standing, criminal history, drug-abuse history, and so on; and a look into social-networking habits that may provide hiring agencies an indication of the applicants' character, personality, and work ethic.

Applicants who advance to the next round of the selection process will be subjected to further screening, including physical fitness testing, medical testing, psychological evaluation, polygraph testing, and other related assessments. Stringent personality and written assessments are likely to be administered in the later rounds of testing to further determine whether an applicant has the capabilities to succeed in the role of a forensic science technician.

Step 2- Obtain a Degree

Most organizations who are hiring forensic science technicians require candidates to hold a relevant degree from an accredited college or university. Bachelor's degrees are desired, although associate degrees are acceptable to many hiring units. Smaller, more remote organizations, such as rural law enforcement agencies, may hire entry-level employees who only possess a high school diploma (or GED certificate) on the condition that these individuals attend some type of academy-based or in-service training. In the case of the latter, however, the opportunities are few and far between.

"Relevant degrees" include degrees in the natural sciences (e.g. biology, chemistry, and physics) and degrees from highly specialized programs, such as forensic science, forensic education, justice administration, crime scene technology, IT security and forensics, forensic psychology, and forensic accounting. Most programs will include basic courses that include algebra, statistics, computer literacy, studies of criminal behavior, overview of criminal justice (law enforcement, courts, and corrections), criminal procedure, digital forensics, trace-evidence analysis, impression-evidence analysis, basic and applied research in criminal justice, and ethics in criminal justice. Electives include evidence photography, fire behavior and combustion, cyber-crime, white-collar crime, organized crime, and terrorism.

Each program will differ based on the curriculum designed by the school, but most coursework will include lectures, laboratory and clinical work, and field work. Apart from imparting technical skills, academic training develops a variety of soft skills, such as written and oral communications, observation, and interpersonal skills- all of which are important in any field of work. Public speaking is another important soft skill that may prove useful for forensic science technicians, because it prepares people with the skills to articulate findings and reports when testifying in court.

Beyond Associates and Bachelor's degrees, there are graduate programs that can bring brighter prospects to students pursuing a career within the field of Forensics. Master's degrees and doctoral degrees are designed to develop individuals into sophisticated leaders within the field. Individuals who obtain a masters or doctoral degree often find employment as a directors of forensics departments, criminal justice experts, forensic scientists, and criminologists. It goes without saying that the higher the educational attainment, the brighter the prospects are for better-paying jobs in forensic science.

Step 3- Apply for a Position

The recruitment process followed by most organizations is on a rolling basis because needs arise at different times and for different reasons (such as when their forensic units expand or when employees retire). People who wish to apply must conduct thorough research on their own, make a list of prospective employers, and confirm the current need with the human resources department (where applicable). Usually, the organization's website will contain helpful information under the “Careers” or “Employment” section. Even if there are no job-opening announcements, interested applicants can call or write the concerned agencies for details, and ask whether or not they will accept applications for future open positions. It is also worthwhile to speak with a hiring manager or human resources contact about any known internship or volunteer positions that they will look favorably upon.

As explained in Step 1, minimum qualifications must be met as these are not commonly waived. The next step is to fill out application forms thoroughly and neatly, and attach all the documents required for submission. Unless they are disallowed, a well-written cover letter is recommended to give the staffing personnel a quick, yet impressive, overview of the applicant's purpose for applying and core competencies.

Step 4- Complete the Required Training

Qualified candidates are often required to complete training, after being hired, to familiarize themselves with institutional policy and procedure, and to hone their abilities in forensic disciplines (stain identification, latent prints, firearms and tool-marks, toxicology, microscopy, and the like). During this phase, trainees are given tasks to complete, such as processing mock crime scenes and assisting veteran technicians with the gathering of evidence. They are also educated about departmental standards for accuracy, competence, critical thinking, report writing, and evidentiary procedures. Much like a degree program, most training programs require applicants to pass a final test before "graduating" to full-time employment.

Successful trainees who pass the training program will advance to bona-fide employment, with full benefits that include competitive salaries, paid holidays, medical and dental insurance, and retirement. This does not mean, however, that the review process is over. Initial employment is typically on offered on a conditional or probationary basis, which means that the individual is still considered to be under review, and can be terminated for cause at any point in time.

Step 5- Get Sworn In

Forensic service technicians in civil service are either sworn or non-sworn. Sworn personnel are vested with full law enforcement powers (including making arrests and seizures), and are issued badges and firearms. Meanwhile, their non-sworn counterparts have little or no police powers.

Forensic Science Jobs & Job Description

Forensic scientists work in the civilian field of criminal investigation.  Forensic scientists teach, research, and work in the field to help ensure that justice is served when a crime has been committed.  While tasks do vary significantly from project to project, the scope of a forensic scientist job is listed below:

  • Develop and facilitate research methods and systems that are best fit for the crime scene that is being investigated
  • Use observations, samples, and specimens to collect data via physical measurement
  • Use digital means to record and reconstruct aspects of the crime scene
  • Review current scientific literature on an ongoing basis to stay current on developments in the forensics field
  • Record and store observations, samples and specimens collected in the lab and in fieldwork
  • Develop efficient systems to better analyze data and assist with hypotheses and visualization of events
  • Present evidence findings to internal and external stakeholders through a variety of media channels in an efficient manner
  • Provide reports for courtroom discovery and testimony
  • Communicate with senior forensic scientists, police investigators and law enforcement administrators through formal and informal reports

A senior forensic scientist or chief researcher may have the following or similar additional responsibilities, depending on the goals of the project.  These additional tasks tend to be focused on project management and budgetary management:

  • Outline project benchmarks and budgetary metrics
  • Ensure quality, integrity, project organization across departments and disciplines
  • Track field and lab data for efficient dispersal of information
  • Manage communications from the project team to stakeholders, senior law enforcement team and the public where applicable
  • Supervise field and lab work and overlapping project segments and workgroups
  • Train and supervise administrative support staff
  • Maintain quality control
  • Process and develop latent prints
  • Compare latent prints to known print database to support casework
  • Perform crime scene reconstruction at various sites
  • Monitor laboratory practices to verify compliance with departmental policies
  • Evaluate equipment calibration and maintenance
  • Perform technical casework review
  • Perform administrative casework review
  • Ensure the integrity and accuracy of technical procedures
  • Maintain personnel training records
  • Recommend professional development
  • Propose corrections and improvements in the quality system
  • Acts as a mentor in the training of new employees

Forensic Science Technician Salary Information

Forensic Science Salaries by State

United States$33,610$41,900$55,360$72,230$91,400
District of Columbia$47,170$54,720$74,710$89,970$119,620
New Hampshire$50,930$55,280$68,700$71,770$74,930
New Jersey$35,910$44,290$52,580$61,850$84,150
New Mexico$32,040$44,530$57,040$63,770$74,290
New York$43,300$51,460$62,110$74,960$87,460
North Carolina$32,540$35,200$41,670$51,230$60,990
South Carolina$27,650$32,990$39,170$46,880$58,530
South Dakota$31,020$36,640$44,730$54,750$63,670
West Virginia$25,760$30,920$40,510$52,790$65,090

Table data taken from 2014 BLS (