Forensic Science Careers
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From the crime scene to the laboratory, forensic science applies several disciplines to help solve crimes. Students interested in forensic science careers can pursue degrees in forensic science, criminal justice, and legal studies. To find success, they must supplement their legal knowledge with an understanding of biology, chemistry, and computer programming.
Read on to learn about popular forensic science careers, degrees, and continuing education opportunities.
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Why Pursue a Career in Forensic Science?
Forensic science offers many fulfilling career opportunities across several industries. Forensic technicians, crime scene investigators, and digital forensic analysts help solve crimes, prosecute the guilty party, and provide comfort to families impacted by crime.
Graduates interested in pursuing a career with a forensic science degree should have strong observational skills and be well organized. Additionally, they need keen analytical skills to follow evidence and form conclusions. Many forensic scientists work independently, and some specialize in a particular type of evidence, including blood spatter analysis or DNA analysis.
Forensic technicians work in the field and in lab settings where they analyze evidence. Technicians typically work full time, and duties may require working nights or weekends.
Featured Programs in Forensic Science
Forensic Science Career Outlook
Forensic science technicians earn a median annual salary of $59,150, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). However, salaries vary by industry. For example, state government agencies offer forensic science technicians the highest median annual salary of $60,830, while medical and diagnostic labs pay a median annual salary of $38,380.
The BLS projects 14% job growth for forensic science technicians between 2018 and 2028. However, keep in mind that this specialized field employs less people than other careers.
Job seekers may face stiff competition for employment, especially at federal agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Increasing your level of education and professional experience can enhance your resume and increase your job opportunities.
The table below provides salary information for a few popular forensic science careers. It also illustrates how gaining professional experience can lead to higher salaries.
|Job Title||Entry-Level (0-12 months)||Early Career (1-4 Years)||Midcareer (5-9 Years)||Experienced (10-19 Years)|
|Forensic Computer Analyst||$63,140||$69,210||$88,050||$100,860|
Frequently Asked Questions About Forensic Science Degrees & Careers
Is forensic science a good career?
Many people find careers in forensic science rewarding and fulfilling, as they work with law enforcement to solve crimes. The BLS projects 14% job growth for forensic technicians between 2018 and 2028.
How do I get a job in forensic science?
Key skills for this field include observation, attention to detail, and meticulous organization and record-keeping. Many organizations require a degree in forensic science or a specialty area, such as chemistry, biology, or computer science. Prior work experience in law enforcement or the legal field may also benefit your resume.
What is the best major for forensic science?
Many schools offer degrees in forensic science, which cover the basics of evidence collection and testing. Students learn about the legal system and rules for evidence and testimony. If you wish to specialize in a criminalistics subfield, you may want to pursue a degree in that area and/or supplement your studies with a minor or second degree.
What qualifications do you need to be a forensic scientist?
In addition to your degree, you may need to pass certification exams to demonstrate your ability to properly collect and process evidence. The American Board of Criminalistics offers many of these certifications in conjunction with the National Institute of Justice.
What do forensic scientists earn?
The BLS reported a median annual salary of $59,150 for forensic science technicians in 2019. However, pay varies based on a worker's education, location, and industry. Forensic science technicians report the highest earnings in California, with an average annual salary of $87,200. The federal government offers the highest wages for forensic technicians, paying an average annual salary of $111,180.
Skills Gained With a Forensic Science Degree
While programs may vary in terms of their curricula and focus, all forensic science degrees teach similar core competencies.
Students examine the structures and operations of the U.S. criminal system. They also learn to conduct research, applying quantitative and qualitative analysis methods that abide by industry best practices and legal procedures for admissible evidence.
Forensic science students learn theories about crime, deviance, punishment, and rehabilitation. They draw on psychology, sociology, and other social sciences to identify and explain criminal behavior with regard to an individual's upbringing, education, socioeconomic status, and mental state. Criminological theory lays the foundation for research and practice-based occupations.
Criminal Justice Administration
The criminal justice system is composed of legal codes and government regulations. Students learn to identify major steps in the judicial process, including the individuals and agencies involved. They also develop an understanding of the roles that forensic investigators play in the criminal justice system.
Students develop a theoretical understanding of forensic science practices, including DNA identification, trace evidence analysis, and microscopy. They learn to secure scenes of interest, identify potential evidence, and collect samples for laboratory testing. They also must learn about the chain of custody and evidence submission procedures.
Communication is a fundamental skill for many professionals because it enables them to convey ideas through oral, written, and multimedia formats. Students must develop the ability to clearly explain technical information to diverse audiences that include law enforcement officers, judges, and juries.
Forensic scientists often work in teams, which makes communication and collaborative skills vital.
In addition to understanding the criminal justice system's positive effects, forensic science students examine its many shortcomings as a structure of social organization and control. They learn to advocate for victims, families, and ex-offenders. They also learn the importance of maintaining ethical standards when leading teams and developing programs.
Forensic Science Career Paths
Forensic science students can align their academic experience with career objectives through diverse concentrations in both bachelor's and graduate programs. Options differ based on the school but often include criminology, criminal justice, legal studies, and information technology/cybersecurity.
Business administration and project management courses can lead to careers in the private sector. Below are a few career opportunities for students who earn a forensic science degree.
Forensic science students can work in the U.S. justice system as law enforcement officials, lawyers, policymakers, and criminal reform advocates.
Cybersecurity professionals identify and assess security gaps in a company's information systems. They learn to build multilayered protections and conduct penetration tests to evaluate computer network strength. They also develop the ability to maintain systems, track offenders, and recover stolen or destroyed data.
Individuals who pursue a forensic psychology career may serve as jury consultants, licensed professional clinical counselors, and expert witnesses.
Environmental forensics applies the scientific method to investigate contamination of natural areas and the misuse of resources. Professionals reconstruct events with regard to the source, timing, type, and amount of hazardous material that has been released. They use this information to inform legal and regulatory agencies and assist in remediation efforts.
How to Start Your Career in Forensic Science
Education plays a large role in a student's forensic science career opportunities and salary potential. This section explores the job opportunities available to professionals with associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees.
While these occupations are accessible by meeting minimum criteria, employers generally prefer applicants with advanced degrees and relevant experience.
At the associate level, students prepare for support positions like laboratory and legal assistants. They also train to perform specific tasks within the forensic science field, like print examination and fire inspection.
Bachelor's programs prepare students for forensic science technician and analytical chemist positions. Graduates can also work as teachers and technical writers.
Students who enroll in graduate programs build on their foundational skill set through specialized classes, leadership training, and research projects. They can pursue careers as information systems analysts and clinical practitioners. Additionally, professionals with doctoral degrees can qualify for tenured teaching positions at colleges and universities.
Associate Degree in Forensic Science
Higher education institutions rarely offer two-year forensic science degrees. However, associate programs in criminal justice, legal studies, and paralegal studies can provide you with relevant skills.
Most associate programs require 60 credits, which full-time students can complete in two years. Some schools offer accelerated online programs, enabling distance learners to graduate in about 18 months.
You can qualify for some entry-level positions with an associate degree. However, many popular careers, including police officer and paralegal, require additional training and state licensure. Students often use associate programs as a springboard, taking advantage of the lower tuition rates offered by community colleges before transferring into a bachelor's program.
What Can You Do With an Associate in Forensic Science?
Clinical Laboratory Technician
These forensic lab workers gather samples and analyze tissue samples, body fluids, and other substances. They operate complex laboratory equipment like cell counters and microscopes and catalog their results. Working under the guidance of experienced scientists and laboratory managers, medical laboratory technicians also create official reports for police and criminal investigators.
Police officers patrol assigned areas and answer emergency calls. They also conduct traffic stops and gather evidence for civil and criminal investigations. Some police officers specialize in divisions like narcotics or homicide.
Bachelor's Degree in Forensic Science
By completing a bachelor's program in forensic science, you can qualify for several law enforcement and scientific investigation occupations. Core classes include criminal procedure and evidence, criminalistics, and medical and legal investigations of death. Students learn to analyze fingerprints, firearms and toolmarks, and digital evidence.
A typical undergraduate curriculum requires at least 120 credits, which full-time students can complete in four years. Some accelerated online programs allow learners to graduate in significantly less time.
What Can You Do With a Bachelor's in Forensic Science?
Forensic Science Technician
Forensic science technicians assist law enforcement by collecting evidence and performing microscopic, chemical, and biological analyses. Some technicians specialize in crime scene investigation, securing areas of interest and gathering samples.
Financial examiners ensure that business governance and transactions comply with government regulations. They review operating income, balance sheets, and expense accounts for financial soundness and safety. They also work with company leaders to develop policies and procedures that bolster financial growth. As government employees, financial examiners investigate fraud, identifying white-collar and corporate crimes.
Technical writers create developer guides, instruction manuals, and journal articles on complex or specialized information. They ensure that content is standardized across all of a company's platforms. In forensic science, these professionals may write medical and legal content for print publications and websites. Although technical writers often work as freelancers, some find employment with a single company.
Master's Degree in Forensic Science
Master's programs in forensic science usually require 30 credits and take about two years to complete. Core classes include forensic biology, chemistry and analysis of drugs, and organizational information systems. Accelerated options for distance learners offer students the ability to earn their degree within one year.
What Can You Do With a Master's in Forensic Science?
Laboratory managers oversee the daily operations of laboratories and establish standards of conduct for employees. They can work for medical facilities, manufacturers, and higher education institutions. Within forensic science, they ensure that evidence handling in a lab adheres to government standards and criminal justice procedures.
Working as freelancers or for consulting firms, security consultants help clients protect digital information. These cybersecurity professionals identify security gaps and recommend solutions through systems installation and software updates. They work with company leaders to establish IT standards and best practices. They also develop employee training programs.
Forensic DNA Analyst
Forensic DNA analysts conduct chemical and genetic tests of samples gathered by law enforcement officials and legal teams. After initial sample assessment, they create a genetic profile of the person in question by applying DNA markers and demographic data. They also create official reports and may testify as expert witnesses.
These forensic scientists discern how drugs and other chemicals affect the human body. They conduct tests on tissue samples and bodily fluids to determine the presence or absence of a specific substance, such as alcohol, toxins, or illicit and prescription drugs. Because forensic toxicologists often work within the criminal justice system, they must take care to follow and document the evidence chain of custody.
Doctoral Degree in Forensic Science
Doctoral programs in forensic science usually total at least 70 credits, which students usually finish in 5-7 years. Candidates spend the first 2-3 years completing required classes and gathering resources for their dissertation project. They spend the remaining time in the program researching and writing a dissertation.
Professionals with a doctorate can earn executive-level positions within private corporations, nonprofits, and government agencies. They can also pursue clinical forensic science occupations, which often require medical training and specialized certification or licensure.
What Can You Do With a Doctorate in Forensic Science?
Forensic psychologists synthesize their knowledge of law and psychology to analyze individuals involved in the criminal justice system. They assist law enforcement and legal teams by evaluating the mental state of victims and offenders. They need strong writing, interviewing, and clinical assessment skills. Forensic psychologists often act as expert witnesses, helping judges and juries understand concepts like memory, motivation, and perception.
College and university professors provide classroom instruction and laboratory training in their areas of expertise. They help students apply for internships, plan capstone projects, and prepare for career entry or additional education. Postsecondary teachers pursue their own research and publications. They also assist with curriculum design, student enrollment efforts, and other administrative duties.
Also known as medical examiners, forensic pathologists are licensed physicians who examine the deceased. They determine the ultimate cause of death and the manner in which a person died. They also help investigators by conducting crime scene evaluations and preparing official reports. Forensic pathologists often specialize in an area of study, like serotology, ballistics, or trace evidence.
Sources: BLS and PayScale
Top Online Schools with Forensic Science Degrees
- 1. Liberty University
- 2. University of Maryland Global Campus
- 3. Colorado State University-Global Campus
How to Advance Your Career in Forensic Science
The field of forensic science continues to change. Technological and scientific breakthroughs provide new techniques for evidence collection and preservation. As a result, successful forensic scientists never stop learning.
Many organizations require forensic technicians to undertake regular continuing education and professional training. This training can also lead to promotions as you gain new skills and knowledge.
In addition to earning an advanced degree in your area of specialization, you can demonstrate your expertise through professional certifications or licensure. Returning to school can also enhance your practical skills. A master's or doctorate in forensic science builds research, communication, and leadership proficiencies.
Certifications and/or Licensure
While most states do not require a license for forensic technicians, some positions may require special training and/or certification.
The National Institute of Justice and the American Board of Criminalistics offer certification in five forensic specialties: forensic biology, drug identification, fire debris analysis, hair and fiber analysis, and paint and polymer analysis. Certification requires passing general knowledge and specialty exams and completing ongoing training and professional development.
Additionally, the Global Information Assurance Certification program offers cybersecurity and computer forensic certifications. Other organizations that offer forensic certifications include the American Board of Forensic Toxicology, American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators, and American Board of Forensic Anthropology.
Forensic scientists can take advantage of several opportunities to continue their education, including earning an advanced degree, attending conferences, and taking web-based classes.
Many forensic science programs offer undergraduate and graduate certificate programs. These programs help students develop relevant knowledge but require less of a time commitment than a full degree. Additionally, students can often apply these credits toward a bachelor's degree or master's degree.
Many professional organizations host conferences throughout the year. These events offer the chance to share knowledge with other forensic professionals and earn continuing education credits by attending or giving presentations at seminars and workshops.
Schools, nonprofit organizations, and law enforcement agencies also strive to make training accessible to their forensic investigators. Online classes and open courseware help forensic scientists gain new knowledge and expand their skills.
You can advance your career in forensic science through ongoing training, networking, and professional development. Here are a few steps you can take:
- Join a professional organization to meet and network with new and veteran forensic scientists. These organizations also offer leadership opportunities, ongoing training, and access to the latest research.
- Subscribe to professional journals and magazines. You can learn about technological breakthroughs that may apply to your work.
- Take classes offered by colleges and universities in forensic science, chemistry, biology, and computer science.
- Seek out open courseware that can help you develop new skills.
- Work toward a professional certification.
Related Programs in Forensic Science
How to Switch Your Career to Forensic Science
Many forensic science careers welcome career-changers from other disciplines. When considering a career change to forensic science, evaluate your current skills and how they might assist criminal or civil investigations. For example, your organizational skills, analytical abilities, and communication experience can all enhance your career prospects in forensic science.
If you have a bachelor's degree in an unrelated subject, you should consider earning a master's degree or certificate in forensic science. Depending on your academic background, you may need to complete prerequisites before enrolling in graduate-level classes.
Where Can You Work as a Forensic Science Professional?
Due to its position at the intersection of criminal justice, scientific research, and information technology, forensic sciences provide many opportunities for career entry and advancement. This section examines how factors like industry and setting can affect your job prospects and pay. It also explores how location can affect your career outlook.
Forensic scientists work in several areas, including at local government agencies, labs, and hospitals. These industries generally operate law enforcement agencies or provide expert assistance in criminal investigations.
Local government includes local police departments, sheriffs' offices, municipal offices, and local jails. This industry provides services to residents in the community and receives funding from local taxes.
Average Salary: $63,560
State governments serve residents through administrative, law enforcement, and judicial services. Forensic technicians may work for a state investigative bureau or assist local governments with crime lab services.
Average Salary: $62,070
Medical and Diagnostic Laboratories
Companies in this industry provide laboratory and medical imaging services to hospitals, physicians' offices, and outpatient care centers. They process biological fluids, such as blood or urine, for contracted law enforcement agencies.
Average Salary: $45,750
Federal Executive Branch
The federal government operates multiple regulatory and law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Homeland Security, and Drug Enforcement Agency. It employs criminalists and forensic scientists.
Average Salary: $110,720
Scientific Research and Development Services
This industry includes companies developing new tools and technology for the scientific community. Organizations analyze and test new theories to determine reliability and provide information on best practices in forensic science.
Average Salary: $85,510
More than 15,000 people work in forensic science careers across the country. Job opportunities and earning potential vary from state to state.
California employs the most forensic scientists. These professionals work for local, state, and federal government agencies, as well as in other industries that require forensic expertise. Texas and Florida also employ a relatively large number of forensic scientists.
California reports the highest wages for forensic science careers, with an average annual salary of $87,200. Forensic scientists in Illinois also make more than $80,000 a year, on average.
Interview With a Professional in Forensic Science
Retired Police Detective
Cindy Murphy is a retired police detective with over 20 years of experience in cybercrime investigations and digital forensics. She joined the Madison Police Department in Wisconsin in 1991 and began investigating computer-related crimes in 1999.
Today, Cindy is president of Tetra Defense. She is an expert in the field due to her extensive experience, thirst for new and challenging problems to solve, and passion for her work.
Why did you decide to pursue a career in forensics and forensic science?
I almost literally fell into digital forensics. I started my career in the military and then became a law enforcement officer.
In 1998, I was involved in a high-speed chase where an armed man ran from a stolen vehicle after he crashed it. I chased him over a chain-link fence and caught him with the help of another officer. After we tackled and handcuffed him, the other officer kindly pointed out to me that the leg of my pants was torn and I was bleeding profusely.
I realized that I had not made it over the fence unscathed, but had messed up my lower back and lacerated my hamstring.
While on light duty, recovering from that injury, I caught the digital forensics bug. I worked with a now-retired detective on one of the first computer forensics cases our department did. A guy was cutting signatures out of historical books at the Wisconsin State Historical Library and selling them in newsgroups.
Many years later, in 2012, I learned that Eoghan Casey (a foundational figure in digital forensics) was working the other end of that case in Boston. We solved the case using DOS commands on a DD image (cloned hard drive) of the suspect's computer.
It was a new and fascinating set of problems to solve, involving some skills my dad showed me when I was a kid. I put in a training request to go to the NW3C's basic data recovery and analysis class and ended up attending in Helena, Montana, in 1999.
Several months later, I was back on the streets, healed from my injuries, and a new fan of digital forensics when I got into another foot chase and injured my right knee badly. Another trip to the ER, knee surgery, and another long stretch of PT later, I came out in relatively good shape.
I went back on light duty and was assigned to work on a new computer forensics case. After consultation with my family, I was promoted to detective in 2000 and became a financial crimes detective. I was also tasked to help with computer-related cases when they came in, and over the next several years, they took over more and more of my caseload.
In 2003, the department created a new position in the detective bureau for computer crimes, and I was assigned to working computer crimes and computer forensics full time.
What makes a degree and career in forensic science unique?
From the moment I got involved in digital forensics, I knew it was something I wanted to do for the long haul and the reason was simple: it's an industry that is always changing.
With the continued evolution and use of technology, digital forensics has had to adapt to meet the needs and answer the questions technology sparks. The constant change consistently opens doors for new research projects and specialization areas.
Some digital forensics professionals may focus their efforts on mobile forensics, IoT (internet of things), incident response, intellectual property theft investigations, flash memory, and a litany of other areas.
In addition to the fact that no two days are the same, digital forensics is a great way to actively help people.
In my career I have helped families find closure by answering crucial questions in unsolved murders. I have helped children who were victims of sexual abuse. I have helped businesses hold their competitors accountable when intellectual property was stolen. I have assisted countless small businesses in response and recovery from ransomware attacks so they can keep the doors open for their communities.
Now you can see why no two days are the same in this field.
Can graduates of forensic science programs find careers all over the country?
Finding a career in digital forensics anywhere in the nation is very likely, and candidates for digital forensics and incident response work are in high demand.
In fact, there is a staffing shortage in digital forensics, incident response, and many other areas of technology. This is partially due to the lack of awareness of digital forensics as a career path, but also to the sheer volume and variation of casework. Digital forensics as an industry needs more investigators to address the questions posed by technology.
One of my passions as a digital forensics professional is to build awareness of this industry as a viable and rewarding career path, especially for women and people of color.
I serve on the advisory panel for initiatives like The Cyber Sleuth Lab, which is an educational program designed to expose young women and underrepresented and underserved high school students to digital forensics through hands-on learning experiences.
These types of programs are eye-opening for many students when considering their career options and build awareness of issues of data privacy and how technology houses and displays personal information.
What did your career trajectory look like after you graduated? How did you end up in your current position?
As I mentioned earlier, I more or less fell into digital forensics prior to completing an academic program.
While some may not have pursued education after several years working in the field, I found that many of the available 40-hour training programs and certification tracks I participated in started to feel redundant and did not progress to the more advanced level I was seeking.
At that point, I decided to combine something I knew I needed to do with something I wanted to do. This led to traveling to Ireland to complete my master's degree in forensic computing and cybercrime investigation at University College Dublin in a blended online/on-site program in 2011.
After completing my degree, I continued to work in law enforcement as a detective investigating computer-related crimes.
In 2016, Scott Holewinski approached me with the idea of departing from law enforcement to build a digital forensics company. While I initially resisted, his persistence, clear vision of building something special, and my own ambition led to launching Gillware Digital Forensics in 2016.
Since then, we have grown into a successful digital forensics, incident response, and cyber risk management firm. With how my career has changed over the years, I am reminded that the decision to formalize my digital forensics education continues to open doors and create opportunities in my career.
Why did you decide to start your own company? Is this common for someone in the field?
As I said, Scott Holewinksi, Gillware's CEO, was very persistent and driven to build the digital forensics operation Gillware (now Tetra) is today. As with any career move, there was some hesitation and contemplation of whether or not it was the best decision.
However, ultimately, I realized I wanted to continue growing personally and in the field. I was ready for a new challenge and wanted to team up with the impressive data recovery engineers at Gillware. I never looked back and could not be happier.
What are the pros and cons of working in the industry?
It's funny, many of the pros can also be the cons in this career field. It's an ever-changing industry, requiring consistent professional development, which is something I yearn for.
The mind boggles when looking back to the beginning of digital forensics and how far the industry has come. When I started in the field, there were very few commercial tools and not many active practitioners. Keeping up with that progression and continuously learning and watching the network of professional peers grow is one of my favorite challenges I have faced.
On the other hand, a career in digital forensics and incident response work can pose a challenge in terms of avoiding burnout. I deliberately place value on my off time as much as on my work time.
I know that it often feels like, in order to get everything done that needs to be done at work, we need to be there for more and more hours, but burnout is a real and extremely damaging threat. I am conscious of and place limits on my work hours and attempt to work smarter, not harder.
I have found that allowing myself dedicated time to focus on my personal interests (playing music with my band; spending time with my family, friends, and dogs; and spending time outside) allows me to be fully present and invested in what I'm doing when I'm at work.
If I allow that balance to shift too far, I am far less productive at work because I am distracted by all of the other things in my life that I want and need to do, and I am less able to focus on the work in front of me.
All in all, one of the cons is also the best pro: there is no coasting in digital forensics. On any given day, something new and different is likely to turn up and present a new challenge.
That's part of what makes this work so compelling. We might be dealing with a corporate customer crippled by ransomware; attempting to extract and decode data from a point-of-sale card-swiping device, GPS device, or drone for a law enforcement agency; or working on a data theft case for a small business.
What advice would you give to graduates seeking a job after graduation?
Send a thoughtful thank you card or email after an interview. It shows that you value the time of the interviewer and the organization for their consideration.
In that same vein, prioritize and hone your soft skills just as much as your technical acumen. Performing the technical work and having technical knowledge is only part of the puzzle. Many digital forensics professionals can uncover the answers, but those answers are only valuable if you can clearly explain your methods and findings to technical and nontechnical audiences alike.