How to Become a Forensic Scientist

Forensic scientist looking at evidence under a microscope
Updated:
April 26, 2024
5 min read
Expert Reviewed
Contents

”Mary

Reviewed by:

Mary Banks

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 4/26/24

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 get involved in this field. 

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: 6 Steps to Take

Forensic scientists typically require a minimum of a bachelor's degree in a field related to physical science, biology, or forensic science. As part of their education, students have the option to specialize in various aspects of crime scene investigations, including but not limited to toxicology, drug analysis, or DNA examination. It can take up to 11 years to become a forensic scientist, so prepare for lots of schooling!

School Location Tuition Acceptance Rate
Texas A&M University College Station, TX $12,413 63%
Pennsylvania State University University Park, PA $19,835 55%
Indiana University and Purdue University Indianapolis, IN $10,449 83%
Columbia College Columbia, MO $24,326 73%
John Jay College of Criminal Justice New York, NY $7,470 51%
University of Central Florida Orlando, FL $6,368 41%
Loyola University Chicago Chicago, IL $51,706 79%

Step One: Graduate From High School

Graduating high school is your first step to pursuing your dream job. Remember, forensic science is not just what you see on TV, it’s an extremely difficult job with a lot of competition, but although it will be a grueling road, it’ll pay off eventually.

Before graduation, consider enrolling and specializing in AP science courses such as biology and chemistry. While not required for college admissions, the AP courses will provide you with a great foundation in science before you pursue your higher education.

You may also want to consider interning for a police department, fire department, or hospital to gain hands-on experience which will look even better on your college application.

Step Two: Acquire a Forensic Science Associate Degree (2 Years)

Before enrolling in a bachelor’s degree program, you may want to acquire an associate's degree in forensic science. This will allow you to apply to an entry-level forensic science position and apply your knowledge.

Miami Dade College (MDC) provides students with an associate degree in forensic science that also covers general science. This is a great chance to further develop your learning before applying to a bachelor’s program.

Getting into associate degree programs is not as difficult as bachelor's degree programs. For Miami Dade, all you need is a competitive GPA, a personal statement, and TOEFL test scores for non-native English speakers.

Step Three: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree (4 Years)

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 University of Tampa offers an excellent program in forensic science. Students will major in forensic science and focus on developing their hands-on skills. Graduates will earn a Bachelor of Science in Forensic Science which will provide ample opportunities for an excellent job in the field.

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 as well. 

Step Four: Gain Experience (1-3 Years)

Now that you have an education, it’s time to put that learning to the test! Find a job in forensic science either in a police department, hospital, or crime laboratory. 

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.

Make sure at this stage you understand the fundamental concepts of forensic science, learning from your mentors. As you’ll be working with industry professionals, this is a great opportunity to further develop your learning over the next 3 years.

Step Five: Gain Professional Certificates

The competition for forensic scientist jobs is fierce, so you must submit the best resume possible. To strengthen your resume, you should consider obtaining professional certifications to better your expertise.

These certificates typically require a combination of education and experience, which is why you must 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, one must be actively engaged in forensic toxicology to qualify for the 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 the 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!

Step Six: Get a Master’s Degree (2 Years)

As explained earlier, many forensic scientists have a master’s degree in their field. As such, acquiring a higher education is never a bad idea. This will likely put you ahead of the competition as you combine it with all your previously acquired skills.

Boston University has an excellent graduate program in Biomedical Forensic Science that offers students a chance to specialize their learning. This program can be taken either full-time or part-time and consists of just 2 years.

In this program, students will learn about the crime scene investigation discipline as well as evidence analysis skills that go deeper than a bachelor’s degree program. 

While a Master’s degree is not required to become a forensic scientist, this will certainly put you well above the competition as you pursue your career goals.

What Does a Forensic Scientist Do?

Forensic scientists play a crucial role in the criminal justice system by applying scientific principles and techniques to analyze evidence from crime scenes and other contexts. Their work involves a combination of field and laboratory activities, as well as participation in the prosecution of perpetrators of crime. 

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 catalog 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 specialties include:

Criminal Forensic Scientists

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 afterward.

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 who 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?

To be a successful forensic scientist, you must possess a blend of hard and soft skills tailored to the meticulous and analytical nature of the role. While not always required, professional certification can demonstrate a forensic scientist's expertise and commitment to the field.

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 analyze 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 judgments, no matter the crime!

Forensic Scientist Salary and Job Outlook

The median annual salary for forensic scientists in the United States is around $63,740 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The job outlook for forensic scientists is strong with the BLS projecting 13% employment growth from 2022 to 2032, much faster than average across all occupations.

Some key points about forensic scientist salary and job outlook in the US:

  • Median Annual Salary: $63,740 (BLS)
  • Projected Job Growth (2022-2032): 13%
  • Top Paying States: Alaska ($107,427 avg salary), North Dakota ($93,411), Utah ($95,125)
  • Top Industries: Government, Professional Services, Technology
  • Typical Entry-Level Education: Bachelor's degree in a natural science or forensic science
Position Job Level Salary Range (USD)
Biological Technicians Entry Level $49,650
Clinical Laboratory Technologists and Technicians Entry Level $57,380
Forensic Science Technicians Intermediate $63,740
Forensic Systems Analyst Senior $122,198
Forensic Document Analyst Senior $103,409

What Are the Requirements To Become a Forensic Scientist?

To become a forensic scientist, you’ll need to complete a bachelor's degree in a natural science such as biology, chemistry, or biochemistry. Some entry-level forensic science jobs require an associate degree. However, a master's degree or PhD is often needed for advanced positions.

Typical coursework includes:

  • Forensic science methods and analysis
  • Using lab equipment and instrumentation
  • Evaluating forensic evidence
  • Scientific writing and communication
  • Ethical and legal issues in forensics

Bachelor’s Degree in Forensic Science

These requirements vary on the school but on average, most colleges will want to see a copy of your academic transcripts with a focus on science and math classes. Additionally, they require a good GPA, test scores for SAT and ACT, a personal statement, letters of recommendation (usually around two), and TOEFL test scores (for non-native English speakers).

Master’s Degree in Forensic Science

Applicants must already have a bachelor’s degree in forensic science or a related field, GRE scores, a personal statement, three letters of recommendation, an up-to-date CV highlighting completed research (papers, essays, laboratories, etc), and TOEFL scores for non-native English speakers.

FAQs: Becoming a Forensic Scientist

Becoming a forensic scientist might sound difficult but the process is quite simple. If you still have questions about this topic, we aim to address them in the section below.

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?

Starting a career in forensic science 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 a 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 the path to becoming a forensic scientist and has hopefully answered your most pressing concerns about your future career in the field. While not quite what you see on television, forensic scientists play an essential role in the crime investigation field as they figure out what really happened.

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

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