Although forensic scientists are glamorized on TV crime shows, there is much more to this rewarding profession than Hollywood drama. The daily responsibilities of a forensic scientist can be highly complex and diverse.
Forensic science is the application of various sciences, such as chemistry and biology, to legal matters. Typically, forensic scientists support criminal investigations through the collection and analysis of evidence to produce scientifically credible findings. With this primary purpose, forensic science can be a challenging, rigorous and highly rewarding career path for individuals looking to make a difference.
While those interested in pursuing a career in this field must have a passion for science, this is not solely a lab-based occupation. Forensic scientists may be asked to collect evidence at an active crime scene or participate in a criminal trial. Individuals should consider these unique requirements when evaluating if becoming a forensic scientist is the right fit for them. It helps to consider the following skills and personality traits that typically equip candidates to be successful in forensic science:
- Verbal communication skills — many positions require public speaking in criminal proceedings
- Written communication skills — producing scientific reports is often a key responsibility
- Critical thinking skills and the ability to apply research to complex problem-solving
- Qualitative and quantitative analysis skills
- Professional integrity and discretion when dealing with highly sensitive subject matter
- The ability to remain unbiased and impartial when looking at different situations and evidence
- Strong science and mathematical skills
What Does a Forensic Scientist Do?
Generally, a forensic scientist has the following daily duties:
- Visiting crime scenes to collect and categorize evidence
- Conducting scientific analysis of evidence
- Consulting with peers with different areas of expertise, such as toxicology
- Reporting the results by producing documentation
The exact responsibilities of a forensic scientist are dependent on his or her area of focus and the industry in which the individual is employed. Some of the areas of concentration include forensic crime scene investigation, digital evidence analysis, forensic biochemistry, forensic computer analysis and forensic pathology. Forensic scientists can work for the government, private laboratories, police departments, medical examiners’ offices, independent agencies and hospitals.
How to Become a Forensic Scientist
Individuals who find this field appealing should take a look at the following five steps in the process of becoming a forensic scientist.
1. Bachelor’s Degree in Science
The first step to becoming a forensic scientist is attaining a bachelor’s degree in science — the area of concentration could be biology, physics, chemistry or forensic science itself, if available. The American Academy of Forensic Sciences recommends that students add math, statistics and writing courses to their studies, as these disciplines are critical to the duties of a forensic scientist.
2. Master’s Degree
Although some graduates may go on to pursue a career as a forensic scientist with solely a bachelor’s degree, it is more common for professionals working in this competitive field to also have a graduate degree in forensic science. Master’s programs, such as the University of Central Florida’s online Master of Science in forensic science, offer curricula that focus on modern forensic topics, the cutting-edge technologies used in forensic investigations, and access to faculty members who truly know the field. “UCFs strength lies in the strong research background of faculty, who are mainly funded to carry out forensic science research by the departments of justice and defense,” says UCF Professor of Chemistry Jack Ballantyne. “Thus, all teaching builds upon the basics to include state-of-the-art technologies and approaches as well as keeping the student aware of current and future applied and blue skies research.” In addition, master’s programs often provide the opportunity to select an area of concentration, such as forensic analysis or forensic biochemistry, to further prepare graduates to find a position in the field.
3. Work Experience and On-the-Job Training
For junior forensic scientists without prior work experience, on-the-job training is often a requirement. This mentoring system ensures that professionals understand the proper processes and practices unique to a specific role before working independently.
With the continuous evolution of technology and science and the need to keep up to date on best practices, forensic scientists can expect to continue on-the-job training during the course of their careers.
4. Licensing and Certification
The final step in building a successful career as a forensic scientist is pursuing professional accreditation. Numerous accreditations are available throughout the United States, dependent on the local jurisdiction as well as the area of focus within the field of forensic science. One example is the American Board of Criminalistics, which offers testing and accreditation. Some other organizations that offer accreditation include the Board of Forensic Document Examiners and the International Board of Forensic Engineering Sciences.
The Role of Forensic Scientists in Healthcare
Forensic scientists who are employed in the medical field often specialize in forensic toxicology. Toxicology is an area of focus within forensic science that studies poisons and their effect on the human body. In a hospital setting, a forensic toxicologist may participate in investigations into employee substance abuse, athlete-doping allegations and other types of criminal investigations where drugs and alcohol are a factor. For example, a toxicologist may work with the medical examiner to determine cause of death and if drugs played a role.
The Future of Forensic Science Careers
Forensic science plays an integral part in most criminal investigations and prosecutions. Its role is to help establish facts that may be in question in any legal matter. Apart from linking an individual to a crime or crime scene it plays a role in eliminating persons of interest who might be suspects. It plays a role in public health in helping to prevent sexual predators and other recidivists from assaulting or otherwise causing harm to potential victims by helping ensure that such individuals are appropriately punished to the full extent of the law. As DNA methods become more sensitive and rapid, the use of point-of-use instrumentation (akin to point-of-care in the clinical setting) is expected to expand beyond the laboratory into booking stations, sites of mass disaster and border crossings.
Thus, the use of DNA forensics as a human identification aid is expected to be increasingly used in non-criminal investigations resulting in an increase in job opportunities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of forensic scientists is expected to grow by 17 percent from 2016 to 2026. Although this growth is higher than the average for all occupations, it is important to note the field of forensic science is relatively small, and this increase amounts to about 2,600 new jobs during this period. As of May 2018, the median annual salary for professionals in this field was $58,230, with the top 10 percent earning more than $97,200 and the bottom 10 percent earning less than $34,600. The outlook is promising for those pursuing a career in the field of forensic science.
It is clear forensic science is far from a Hollywood fantasy. In reality, it’s a specialized field that requires a meticulous attention to detail coupled with a passion for science. For those who seek the reward and thrill of making a difference, this fascinating career is a destination worth the academic journey.
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