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Careers in Forensic Science

Education Requirements

What educational background to crime laboratory directors require from applicants for position in forensic science?

The following is a summary of the results from an educational survey mailed to the members of the American Society of Crime Lab Directors where crime lab directors listed their educational requirements from applicants for the positions of drug chemist, trace/impression evidence examiner, serologist/DNA analyst, and firearms/document examiner/fingerprint examiner. Full details are available in reference 1. Crime lab directors generally expect applicants to have ‘hard’ science degrees with a preference for the B.S. in chemistry, followed by biology and forensic science degrees with significant chemistry components. The summary of degree required for all positions combined was 63% B.S., 27% B.A., 6% none, 3% M.S. and 1% Ph.D. The degree specialty required was 41% Chemistry (including Biochemistry), 24% Biology (including Genetics and Molecular Biology), 22% Forensic Science, 7% Medical Laboratory Science and 6% Other (including 2% Physics and 1% Criminal Justice).

More importantly, perhaps, are the specific courses suggested by respondents, as the department wherein forensic science programs are based may not adequately reflect the actual coursework students complete in that program. The majority of responders require 1 to 2 semesters of math/statistics, variable amounts of biological sciences courses and 3 to 8 semesters of chemistry courses depending on the position. On average, the drug chemist position required 1.1 semesters of biological sciences and 7.8 semesters of chemistry, the trace position required 1.5 semesters of biology and 7.2 semesters of chemistry, the serology/DNA position required 5.4 semesters of biology and 5.5 semesters of chemistry and the firearms/document/fingerprint examiner position required 1.4 semesters of biology and 3.3 semesters of chemistry.

In summary, the results of this recent survey indicate that the majority of crime lab directors responding require applicants to have B.S. degrees with a preference for chemistry/biochemistry, followed by biology and forensic science with a requirement for a substantial number of chemistry and other natural science courses. These results reinforce the conclusions from previous surveys (2,3) stressing lab directors preference for applicants to have a strong chemistry background. Based on this survey and others, students interested in careers in crime laboratories are advised to complete Bachelor of Science degrees with a substantial number of chemistry courses.

The American Academy of Forensic Scientists provides a plethora of resources to students and professionals in the field. Below is information provided by the AAFS on a career in forensic science.


What's A Forensic Scientist?
AAFS, "So You Want to Be A Forensic Scientist"

A forensic scientist is first a scientist. When he applies his scientific knowledge to assist juries, attorneys, and judges in understanding science, he is a forensic scientist.

Forensic scientists are thinkers, good with details, good with putting pieces of a puzzle together, and curious. Some scientists work in laboratories and some also go out to places where crimes are committed (crime scenes). Others teach in colleges and universities.

How Do I Become a Forensic Scientist?
Source: AAFS, "So You Want to Be A Forensic Scientist"

You will need:

How Much Money Will I Make?
Source: AAFS, "So You Want to Be A Forensic Scientist"

Income in the forensic sciences varies greatly depending upon your degree, your actual job, where you work, and how many hours you work. You may never "get rich" but you will have a good income. You will be satisfied with your job, knowing you are contributing to justice — keeping the good guys on the street and helping put the bad guys in jail. Forensic scientists work different hours, depending upon what they do. Some work in forensic laboratories and work 40 hours a week, Monday through Friday. Others work out in the field on digs and may work different hours. Still others are "on call" and work after their regular shift and receive overtime or compensatory (comp) time. Essentially every branch of forensic science offers opportunities for personal growth, career advancement, and increasing financial compensation.

Where Will I Work?
Source: AAFS, "So You Want to Be A Forensic Scientist"

Forensic scientists work in laboratories, at crime scenes, in offices, and in morgues. They may work for federal, state and local government, forensic laboratories, medical examiners offices, hospitals, universities, toxicology laboratories, police departments, medical examiner/coroner offices, or as independent forensic science consultants.

Disaster Mortuary Operations Response Team (DMORT) is a branch of the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA). Teams are sent on an "as needed" basis to mass disasters or large criminal cases. Members are sent for two weeks to any destination in the world and may extend their time as needed. DMORT is used to assist already existing forensic teams.