Forensic science is the application of natural sciences to matters of the law. In practice, forensic science draws upon physics, chemistry, biology, and other scientific principles and methods. Forensic science is concerned with the recognition, identification, individualization, and evaluation of physical evidence. Forensic scientists present their findings as expert witnesses in the court of law.
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Career and Training Information
Physical evidence can be anything that tells you about the situation being investigated. It can be weather conditions, smells, or the position of doors and light switches. It can also be items such as footwear impressions, fingerprints, tire tracks, and blood spatter. Physical evidence can be marks left by weapons, patterns of tearing or breaking, gunshot residues, hairs, fibers, glass, paint chips, plastic, paper, typewriting, handwriting, computers, and marks left by printers and copiers. It can be blood samples or tissues examined for DNA typing or for the presence of alcohol or drugs. Physical evidence is used to link together the suspect, victim and scene.
Forensic scientists are often involved in the search for and examination of physical evidence. This physical evidence is useful for establishing or excluding an association between a suspect of a crime and the scene of the crime and/or the victim(s) or between the victim(s) and the crime scene. The scientist will sometimes visit the scene to determine the sequence of events, any indicators as to who the perpetrator might be, and to join in the search for evidence. The following is a general listing of sub-disciplines and associated examinations: Forensic Biologists analyze blood and other body fluids. Forensic Trace Evidence examiners analyze hairs and fibers, paint, soil, and glass. Forensic Chemists analyze flammable substances and evidence from a scene of a suspected arson. Forensic Drug Chemists analyze suspected drugs of abuse such as marihuana, cocaine, and heroin. Forensic Toxicologists analyze specimens from individuals such as blood and urine for alcohol, drugs, and poisons. Other Forensic Scientists specialize in footwear, tool mark, and tire impressions; fingerprints; firearms; explosives; questioned documents; odontology; and/or engineering. Forensic scientists can appear for the prosecution or defense in criminal matters, and plaintiff or defendant in civil ones. They present their findings and opinions in written form either as formal statements of evidence or reports. Most often, they are required to attend court to present their findings in person.
General forensic information can be found in several locations in your local library. There are also many Internet sites that have information about forensic science. Reddy's Forensic Home Page at www.forensicpage.com is an organized site for specific links. Informational links for common disciplines and careers in forensic science can also be found there.
A general search for forensic science books on sites such as Amazon.com will provide a long list of informational books. Criminalistics by Richard Saferstein and Henry Lee's Crime Scene Handbook by Henry Lee, Timothy Palmbach and Marilyn Miller are two of many textbooks used by colleges, which cover a broad range of forensic science topics, issues and procedures. Shorter, cheaper and more topic specific books can also be found according to your interests. For youths, a partial list of books about forensics can be found at http://www.mfrc.ameslab.gov/forensics-book-list-youth.htm.
A background in math and sciences including biology, chemistry, and physics will be helpful. A composition or writing course may also be helpful. A solid education will enable you to continue your studies in college and prepare you for a career in one of the many different forensic science fields.
The minimum acceptable training is a Bachelors degree in forensic science, biochemistry, biology, chemistry, medical technology, or in a closely related field which must have included or been supplemented by twenty credit hours in chemistry. Ideally, your coursework should include the following: microscopy, statistics, and laboratory work.
A Bachelor's degree is essential for a job in the following forensic disciplines: drug analysis, toxicology, trace evidence, and forensic biology including DNA analysis.
The following articles contain additional information about educational requirements for a career in Forensic Science:
- Furton, K., Hsu, Y-H., Cole, MD. What Educational Background do Crime Laboratory Directors Require From Applicants? J Forensic Sci, 1999;44(1):128-132.
- Higgins, LM, Selavka, CM. Do Forensic Science Graduate Programs Fulfill the Needs of the Forensic Science Community? J Forensic Sci, 1988;33:1015-21.
- Siegal, JA. The Appropriate Educational Background for Entry Level Forensic Scientists: A Survey of Practitioners. J Forensic Sci, 1988;33:1065-8.
- Gaensslen, RE, Lee HC. Regional Cooperation and Regional Centers Among Forensic Science Programs in the United States. J Forensic Sci, 1988;33:1069-70.
- Lee, HC, Gaensslen, RE. Forensic Science Laboratory/Forensic Science Program Cooperation and Relationships: The View From the Forensic Science Laboratory. J Forensic Sci, 1988;33:1071-3.
For a list and links to individual schools, please refer to the colleges and universities list on the American Academy of Forensic Science Web site, www.aafs.org, or Reddy's Forensic Home Page atwww.forensicpage.com. A list of some of the Midwestern schools is also available on the Midwest Forensic Resource Center's website at www.mfrc.ameslab.gov.
The majority of positions within a crime lab require a bachelor's degree in a physical science. Some universities offer a degree in Forensic Science. However, if the university you are attending does not offer such a program there are other majors you can consider. The major that you choose should reflect the forensic discipline in which you wish to work. For example, drug analysts should have a degree with a concentration in chemistry, while DNA analysts should have an emphasis on molecular biology. If you want to work in forensic DNA analysis, you must have coursework in molecular biology, statistics, genetics, and biochemistry. While Forensic Science degrees are not required, most provide a curriculum that includes ancillary courses that are helpful in the career. These include criminal law, courtroom procedures, and expert testimony courses.
There is no general requirement for a Master's degree, although if you are interested in employment at a specific laboratory, you should contact the director of the laboratory to determine what they require. A Master's degree in forensic science, biochemistry, biology, chemistry, medical technology, or a closely related field may substitute for experience and are useful for career advancement. Again, contact the specific laboratory to inquire if this is their policy. Many examiners/analysts have a BS in chemistry or biology and an MS in forensic science. For specialty areas, advanced degrees are helpful but not required.
Some laboratories offer trainee positions that do not require prior training in the forensic science field. Trainee positions are not often available. It may be necessary to consider doing an internship in a crime laboratory to gain experience. Unfortunately, there is no official listing for these opportunities and you will need to contact the laboratory you are interested in. The internship may be easiest to do while you are a student. In fact, some universities give credit for and/or require an internship.
Jobs in forensic science can at times be somewhat difficult to obtain. If you have just graduated from college and cannot immediately find a job in forensic science, finding a laboratory job in one of the natural science fields (chemistry, biology, biochemistry, etc.) will give you valuable laboratory technique and instrumentation experience. A strong scientific job background will help make you a strong candidate when applying for forensic science jobs. Being flexible and willing to move may also help you find a job in forensic science. If you limit yourself to a certain city or state, you may wait a long time for job openings. You will have many more opportunities to find a job if you are willing to move to the job instead of waiting for a job to open in your area. Internships in forensic science are also hard to obtain. Many crime labs do not offer internships, or only offer them when they have a specific project to be completed. Call the crime lab you are interested in to see if they have internship opportunities. An applicant with a scientific job background will be better qualified when applying for an internship. If no crime lab internships are available in your area, keep doing other laboratory work, scientific experience will prepare you for your career.
Internships provide students with the opportunity to experience the "real world" of forensic science and the crime laboratory. They also provide recent graduates with the relevant experience that crime laboratory directors seek from applicants. Getting an internship in any laboratory and learning about the theory behind the techniques that are employed can be helpful. This will provide experience in general laboratory procedures as well as safety processes that are employed in laboratories. Be prepared to perform basic functions such as washing glassware or clerical duties.
The majority of forensic science laboratories in the U.S. are publicly operated. The laboratories may be part of the federal, state, county, or local government (Lee et al, 15). There are also a number of private laboratories that operate independently, are associated with universities, or are under contractual agreements with government agencies (Lee et al, 16). The starting salary is dependent on the above factors and individuals should contact the specific laboratory that they are interested in. Salaries for Crime Laboratory analysts vary from region as well as position. The starting salary is generally around $30,000. Analysts with many years of experience may make $60,000-$70,000.
Most analysts work in a laboratory setting for 8 hours per day. Some analysts may assist at crime scenes where the hours can vary throughout the day and night.
In addition to job listings on this site, there are other sites which may be helpful. Check out the American Society of Crime Lab Director's home page at www.ascld.org. ASCLD members are laboratory directors and if they have a job opening, they usually send the information to the web master for posting. Also, go to the American Academy of Forensic Science's home page at www.aafs.org and click on "job opportunities". The AAFS lists job openings according to title and receive postings from numerous laboratory locations.
Courtroom testimony is an essential job duty for a forensic analyst. Therefore public speaking and the ability to convey scientific concepts in understandable terms is vital. Most laboratories require applicants to undergo some sort of background evaluation prior to employment. This may include polygraphs, drug screens, or background investigations. Drug use, alcohol abuse, theft, and even excessive traffic violations are often causes for dismissal from the application process. While many professions may be willing to forgive youthful indiscretions, law enforcement will not. The credibility of a forensic scientist is highly scrutinized, therefore applicants with compromised credibility will most likely be disqualified from the application process.
Popular television shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigators, have increased the popularity of the forensic science field. However much work is done by creators to make the show as real as possible, the purpose is entertainment, and the depiction of forensic scientists can be far from accurate. Forensic scientists will not interrogate suspects and will not perform investigations. This is the job of police officers and investigators. Forensic crime scene analysts will arrive at the scene, process the scene, collect the evidence, and transport that evidence to the laboratory. Depending on the organization, crime scene analysts may continue with the case and process the evidence in the laboratory, or they may hand over the evidence to laboratory analysts. Due to backlogs and lack of personnel, it may take weeks for a piece of evidence to be processed. The job of a forensic scientist is often routine and repetitive; the majority of your time will be spent processing evidence and filling out paperwork, not running around town chasing down criminals. Another common misconception is that forensic scientists perform autopsies. Autopsies are performed by Medical Examiners who have gone to medical school and become doctors, in some areas of the country autopsies are also performed by coroners, who may not be doctors. Even though a forensic scientist does not perform autopsies, one must be prepared for being exposed to the gory nature of many crimes.