How to Become a Forensic Scientist

Forensic scientist looking at evidence under a microscope
August 28, 2023


Reviewed by:

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 05/08/23

Are you passionate about law and order? Do you want to be part of the judicial system and solve crimes? If you do, read on to learn more about how to become a forensic scientist. 

The air is frigid and there’s a ceaseless drizzle. There was another murder in Chicago. That’s the fourth body this year, same MO: strangulation, in dark alleys, and the perp’s signature move, stolen shoes. You’re called to the scene for your expertise to examine the crime scene and help find the perpetrator before he strikes again.

While what you heard may sound like the beginning of an episode of Criminal Minds, it could also describe your future career as a forensic scientist! If you’re interested in learning more about this exciting profession, read on to learn everything you need to know about how to become a forensic scientist.

How to Become a Forensic Scientist: Steps to Take

Forensic science is intricate and difficult work. It requires a high-degree of training and knowledge. Criminal investigations, no matter how big or small, depend on forensic scientists to determine the facts and conduct the necessary analysis to solve cases.

As such, becoming a forensic scientist is a lengthy journey that will involve the following steps:

Step One: Gain an Education

You’ll be required to pursue at least some higher education to become a forensic scientist. It’s recommended students complete a four-year bachelor’s degree in a science major, such as biology, chemistry, or physics, to best prepare for the field. Get into your top college choice to meet your needs and ensure you maintain high grades.

Some schools also offer majors in forensic science, although these degrees tend to be more competitive as they have limited seats available. 

The majority of forensic scientists also have master’s degrees in forensic science or a related discipline like toxicology or biochemistry. Careers at higher-levels, such as working directly for the government, may require you to have a doctorate degree as well. 

Step Two: Gain Experience

You won’t be able to join the field as an independent forensic scientist right away. You’ll have to first complete extensive training under a senior forensic scientist. Apply to forensic trainee positions or in a police department to gain valuable on-the-job-training.

Step Three: Consider Gaining Professional Certificates

The competition for forensic scientist jobs is fierce, so it’s essential you submit the best resume possible. To strengthen your resume, you should consider obtaining professional certifications to hone your expertise.

These certificates typically require a combination of education and experience, which is why it’s critical you spend at least one year completing step two! The most popular certificates forensic scientists obtain are:

  • Certification of Qualification in Forensic Toxicology: through the American Board of Forensic Toxicology, must be actively engaged in forensic toxicology to qualify for exam
  • Board Certification in Medicolegal Death: through the American Board of Medicolegal Death, requires 4,000 hours of death investigation experience
  • Certification in Biological Evidence Screening, through the American Board of Criminalistics (ABC), must be currently working as a forensic scientist performing biological evidence screening and authorized to perform a full year of casework by an employer
  • Certification in Comprehensive Criminalistics: through ABC, requires at least two years of experience in field of criminalistics
  • Certification in Drug Analysis: through ABC, requires at least two years of experience in the forensic analysis of seized drugs
  • Certification in Forensic DNA: through ABC, must be currently working as a forensic scientist performing forensic DNA analysis and authorized to perform a full year of casework by an employer
  • Certification in Molecular Biology: through ABC, requires at least two years of experience in forensic biology
  • Certification in Forensic Scientist Engineering: through the International Board of Forensic Engineering Sciences, for professionals actively working in a forensic scientist capacity

While none of these certifications are necessary to become a forensic scientist, having them can open more doors for you and lead to higher-paying jobs!

What Does a Forensic Scientist Do?

Now that we’ve covered how to become a forensic scientist, you may be curious about what their day-to-day duties involve. Broadly, these professionals assist law enforcement in criminal investigations. This involves the following responsibilities:

  • Analyzing crime scenes and collecting evidence
  • Diligent documentation of all observations and information at crime scenes
  • Deciding which tests, analysis, or examinations are appropriate for each piece of evidence
  • Photographing crime scenes and evidence
  • Performing biological, microscopic, and chemical tests on evidence
  • Performing DNA analysis
  • Using databases to catalogue evidence
  • Testifying in courts as expert witnesses

Forensic science is a large field; the majority of professionals that enter it specialize in a particular area. The most common specialities include:

Criminal Forensic Scientist

These professionals tend to perform general duties such as reconstructing crime scenes, gathering evidence, analyzing evidence, and using scientific processes to come to conclusions. 

Blood Spatter Analyst

Blood spatter analysts assess the shape and diameter of blood spatter to gain more insight into what happened during the crime. Through their analysis they can learn more about the victims’ movement at the time of the assault and afterwards.

Firearms Examiner

These professionals analyze any guns or weapons that may have been used to commit crimes. 

Digital Forensic Investigator

These forensic scientists focus on cyber crimes, which are becoming increasingly popular in our digital age. They work with evidence from computers, phones, electronic storage, and cloud computing. They may also work within IT systems to extract data that can be helpful in crime investigations.

Forensic Anthropologist

Forensic anthropologists study human bones and skeletal remains to better identify victims. Through their examinations they are usually able to determine age, race, gender, and other important characteristics.

Forensic Toxicologist

Forensic toxicologists analyze bodily fluids, nails, and hair using chemistry processes to aid in investigations related to poisoning and drug use.

Forensic Psychologist

This profession focuses on creating profiles and studying patterns of persons involved in crimes to help determine motives. They typically assess a criminal's mental state as well to determine their competence to stand trial and level of involvement in the given crimes.

Forensic Engineering

Forensic engineering involves investigating products, materials, components, or structures that failed or resulted in personal injury or property damage.

Forensic Pathology

Forensic pathologists are trained doctors that perform autopsies, assist with postmortem identification, and help determine a cause of death. These professionals are required to go to medical school and complete residencies in forensic pathology.

Depending on your skills, education, and interests, you can decide which specialty is right for you!

What Skills Do You Need to Be a Forensic Scientist?

Considering forensic scientists are integral parts of crime investigations, they are required to be meticulous and thorough in their work so that they do not miss anything. 

Aside from being meticulous, forensic scientists must also possess these traits:

  • Communication: to testify in courtrooms and provide their expert opinion
  • Attention to detail: to analyse all relevant evidence appropriately 
  • Analytical skills: to study evidence and make relevant comparisons Collaboration: to work with lawyers, witnesses, potential perpetrators, law enforcement, and other experts 
  • Rationality: to be able to view disturbing imagery and violent crimes and still practice unbiased investigation

While you may be interested in joining this field to help put bad guys away, you must remain impartial and level-headed throughout your investigations to ensure the most accurate analysis is conducted. You cannot let your own opinions or feelings towards the victims or perpetrators sway your judgements, no matter the crime!

Forensic Scientist Salary and Job Outlook

Another important factor to consider when deciding if you should become a forensic scientist is their career outlook. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, these professionals are in high-demand and can expect the field to grow by around 11% in the next few years. 

Forensic scientists make an average of $61,930 a year, but may make more depending on their location, education, and experience. There is the most opportunity for forensic scientists in California, and the most pay potential, with their mean annual salary being $90,300.

FAQs: Becoming a Forensic Scientist

Below, you’ll find the answers to frequently asked questions about how to become a forensic scientist.

1. How Long Does It Take to Become a Forensic Scientist?

At the minimum, it will take five years to become an independent forensic scientist: four years to complete a bachelor’s degree in the natural sciences or forensic science, and at least one year of experience within the field. 

However, most forensic scientists pursue master’s and doctorate degrees to gain the expertise required to join higher-level jobs. 

2. Is It Hard to Become a Forensic Scientist?

Becoming a forensic scientist will be challenging. You will be required to complete a difficult bachelor’s degree in a science discipline at the minimum, and gain experience in the field before you can become an independent forensic scientist.

While there is high demand for these professionals, there is also high competition for the available positions, especially government roles! 

3. What Do I Need to Become a Forensic Scientist?

You will need a bachelor’s degree and a few years of work experience either as a trainee forensic scientist or in the police force. It is recommended students obtain master’s in forensic science to qualify for more positions. 

4. Do Forensic Scientists Make a Lot of Money?

Forensic scientists are considered to be well-paid. Depending on their location and experience, they can make a six-figure salary. However, the average salary of these professionals is just over $60,000 a year. 

5. Where Do Forensic Scientists Work?

Forensic scientists usually work for local, state, or government law enforcement agencies but may also work in laboratories, hospitals, and universities or colleges.

Final Thoughts

This guide has covered the basics of how to become a forensic scientist and has hopefully answered your most pressing concerns, such as “how long does it take to become a forensic scientist?” and “how much are forensic scientists paid?”

With this information, you should be able to decide if this fulfilling, necessary, and exciting career is perfect for you!

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