What Does a Career in Forensic Science Entail?

by Jeffrey Joyner

    In simple terms, forensic scientists use logical scientific principles to collect, analyze and interpret evidence in a manner acceptable to judicial system rules. It is therefore a blending of science and law. Under the umbrella of forensic science lie various occupations and job titles. Different occupations entail different requirements and duties. For example, a medical examiner is technically a forensic scientist, but one who has a medical degree. Most entry-level jobs, however, require no more than a bachelor's degree.

    Forensic science technicians normally spend most of their time in laboratories, conducting tests on evidence. They may, though, also act as crime-scene investigators, taking photographs and drawing sketches of the crime scene, making notes of their findings and observations, collecting evidence, dusting for fingerprints and cataloging evidence to be sent to the lab. Tool mark and firearms examiners match the characteristics between two pieces of evidence, such as the striations on a bullet recovered from a crime scene and the striations on a bullet fired from the suspected gun. Forensic document examiners analyze handwriting, typefaces and papers to determine the authenticity of a document or signature. Forensic toxicologists specialize in finding drugs in a tissue sample. Forensic chemists analyze the properties of a sample, such as paint or glass, to determine its origin or match it to a suspected source. Forensic biologists use tools, such as DNA, to analyze samples of blood, hair and other biological evidence. Forensic engineers are engineers who investigate structure failures, traffic accidents, material failures and similar events. Forensic artists create sculptures or sketches, normally involving facial reconstruction. Regardless of title, they must all be prepared to appear as witnesses in court hearings and substantiate their methods and results.

    The education and type of degree required depends on the desired forensics job. For example, a forensic odontologist must be a dentist, and forensic psychiatrists must have a medical license. Other jobs require a bachelor's degree, but the degree may be in biology, computer science, chemistry, forensic science or another relevant field. The coursework, however, should include both science and criminal-justice classes. Advancement may require additional education. In some small, rural law enforcement departments, candidates with as little as a high school diploma may receive training to collect evidence at a crime scene.

    As of 2010, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 13,000 forensic science technicians were employed. Thus, even though the BLS projected a 19 percent growth rate for the occupation between 2010 and 2020, the numeric change is expected to be approximately 2,400 jobs. Growth should be fueled by advances in technology and an increased use and acceptance of forensic evidence in court, but the BLS cautions that competition for vacancies will be stiff.

    As of May 2012, the BLS reported an annual average salary of $55,730 for forensic scientists. However, 10 percent earned $32,200 or less, and 10 percent earned $85,210 or more. The District of Columbia and California were the best-paying states, providing average annual salaries of $73,010 and $72,000, respectively. The two top-paying cities were the greater San Francisco and Los Angeles metropolitan divisions, where the average salary was, respectively, $87,210 and $79,220.

    About the Author

    Jeffrey Joyner has had numerous articles published on the Internet covering a wide range of topics. He studied electrical engineering after a tour of duty in the military, then became a freelance computer programmer for several years before settling on a career as a writer.

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