The emergence of sophisticated technology and the advance of scientific knowledge continue to bring immense benefits to law enforcement agencies. In the area of crime scene analysis, for example, modern investigators do much more than dust for fingerprints and photograph evidence.
From collecting DNA samples to reconstructing the trajectory of bullets, forensic science professionals perform a range of complicated duties vital to the successful investigation and prosecution of crimes.
The American Academy of Forensic Sciences defines forensic science as any science that is used for purposes of law. As such, a medical examiner, fingerprint examiner, crime lab biologist and crime scene investigator each can be considered to be a forensic scientist, even though they may have differing job responsibilities and educational backgrounds.
Crime scene analysts or technicians determine which evidence should be collected at crime scenes and how that collection should occur. They take photographs, make sketches of the scene, compile reports, and document and catalog evidence. In lab settings, meanwhile, forensic science technicians may conduct tests on DNA, examine and compare fingerprints, conduct autopsies or reconstruct crime scenes.
Forensic science and crime scene technicians are often required to testify about their findings in criminal cases and their work can be a determining factor in a jury’s verdict.
There are numerous career paths available within forensic science, including with law enforcement agencies, crime labs, hospitals and medical examiners. Other forensic science professionals may be self-employed consultants who are retained by prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers to examine evidence and offer an expert opinion at trial.
As of 2010, an estimated 90% of forensic science technicians were employed by local or state government agencies, such as police departments and crime labs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
The job outlook for forensic science professionals is solid, with the BLS projecting 19% employment growth between 2010 and 2020. The increasing use of forensic evidence is driving demand for skilled and qualified professionals. With TV shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation spurring interest in the field of forensic science, job prospects may be stronger for candidates with a bachelor’s degree in forensic science or a related field.
As of May 2012, there were more than 12,000 forensic science technicians employed nationwide, with a median annual salary of $52,840, according to the BLS.
Qualifications for employment in forensic science vary, with some crime scene investigation positions requiring specialized training. Forensic science technicians who work in laboratories generally have at least a bachelor’s degree in forensic science or in a natural science such as biology or chemistry, the BLS reports.
Crime scene investigators and forensic science techs also receive on-the-job training. For example, training for a DNA analyst can last from six to 12 months, while a firearms analyst can spend up to three years in training, according to the BLS. A master’s degree or PhD is usually necessary for career advancement to administrative and leadership positions, such as lab director, or in order to become an instructor at the postsecondary level.
The changing nature of forensic science, including the tools used and the applicable laws, means it is imperative for these professionals to continually update their skills and knowledge.