How to Begin a Professional Career as a Forensic Scientist

How to Begin a Professional Career as a Forensic Scientist
Forensic Scientists: A Quick Look
Median Salary $52,840 per annum
Entry-level education Bachelor’s degree
On-the-job training No
Primary employers Forensic Laboratories, Police Departments
Number of positions (U.S.) 12,900
Job Growth (2012-2022) 6% (Much slower than national average)
New positions (2012-2022) 700

How to Begin a Professional Career as a Forensic ScientistWhat Does A Forensic Scientist Do?

Forensic scientists bring scientific knowledge and methods to bear on criminal investigations and legal puzzles. They work as general criminalist technicians and analysts, chemists, biologists, document and toolmark examiners, serologists, educators, and more. Read more.


The U.S. government estimated the average salary in 2012 for a forensic science technician was $52,840 a year. Read more.

Becoming A Forensic Scientist

Any forensic scientist that works in a lab and handles biohazardous substances will need a postsecondary degree, preferably in the intended lab specialty. Many forensic biologists, for instance, earn an undergraduate degree in biology. Read more.

Job Outlook

The BLS estimates forensic science jobs will grow by only 6% percent over the next seven years. The actual number of jobs will depend on the availability of local and state government funding. Read more.

Forensic Scientist Salary

Forensic scientist salary earnings vary widely by specialty and employer. In 2012, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS, found the average yearly salary for a forensic science technician was $52,840. New lab technicians often begin as ‘bench scientists’ and gradually work their way up to the forensic laboratory director's position. Educated, entry-level technicians earn around $40,000 a year, whereas top level supervisor scientists are paid as much as $100,000 a year. At the top of the pay scale are forensic pathologists qualified at the doctoral level. Pathologists and medical examiners may earn up to $200,000 a year. In general, the best compensation can be found in federal jobs.

How To Become A Forensic Scientist

Qualified criminalists are expected to have at least a bachelor's degree in chemistry, biology, or forensic science. However, graduate degree requirements for job applicants are becoming more common. More forensic professionals have master and doctoral degrees than ever before. How long does it take to become a Forensic Scientist? It takes at least four years of undergraduate training to become a forensic scientist. Employers look for at least 24 semester hours in either biology or chemistry, plus some mathematics.

Educational Requirements

The minimum, entry level of education for a forensic scientist is a bachelor's degree in either biology, chemistry, forensic science or criminal justice. The American Academy of Forensic Sciences says the specific degree is not as important as the course content, which should include a strong dose of biological and physical sciences. Forensic science students learn the fundamentals of biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics, while gaining a foundation in law enforcement and criminal justice investigations. Some students even attend a police academy before heading to the lab. The purpose of this background is to empower students to resolve complex criminal and civil investigations with the dispassionate objectivity of a scientist and the informed insight of a public servant. While a four-year degree is the minimum requirement, the realities of the job market increasingly privilege those with a graduate level of education. Moreover, experts in the field are predicting a master's degree will be required in the future. Many graduate and sometimes undergraduate students pursue specialized degrees in one of numerous subdisciplines. Major subdisciplinary sections include: Criminalistics Digital & Multimedia Sciences Engineering Sciences General Jurisprudence Odontology Pathology/Biology Physical Anthropology Psychiatry & Behavioral Science Questioned Documents Toxicology


The American Board of Criminalistics, ABC, issues professional certification to forensic scientists in the form of a “comprehensive” criminalistics certificate. ABC certification is valid for five years at a time. Continuing education is a career-long requirement. The group also offers specialty certifications in molecular biology, drug chemistry, debris analysis, trace evidence, and paints and polymers. The ABC is not the only certifying board, however. There are a variety of generalist and specialty organizations new scientists can join to earn professional recognition.


Forensic analysts do not generally need to be licensed—although this is expected to change in the near future as the science becomes more important in criminal justice and law enforcement. Presently, national certification with a recognized forensics board like the ABC is an important qualifier where governmental oversight is absent.

Forensic Scientist Job Description

Today, forensic science has earned a reputation as an exciting and glamorous profession, partly because of popular television shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. In reality, though, this field isn't for everyone. Forensic officers often encounter truly horrific and obscene acts. They must tolerate the sight of blood spatters, bodily fluids and the aftermath of violence. Forensic science is not for the squeamish. What does a forensic scientist really do? Forensic scientists apply scientific knowledge and techniques to the investigation of crimes. They are responsible for analyzing the evidence found at crime scenes and often show up in court to explain their findings. Forensic science technicians work in drug analysis, crime scene reconstruction, firearms and toolmarks, DNA testing, fire and explosives detection, forensic photography, trace evidence analysis, and more. While the term ‘forensic science’ usually refers to criminal lab analysis, there are other applications as well. Forensic methods have, for example, been used to unveil nuclear weapons programs and detect smuggled goods. However, ‘forensic science’ classically references the application of science to criminal justice. Most criminalist forensic scientists work in state and local crime labs, police agencies, courts and other criminal justice settings. There are more than 4,000 forensic crime laboratories in the United States, variously owned by governments and private companies. The largest crime labs in the country are run by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI.


Forensic scientists are mostly creatures of the lab, spending their days analyzing evidence and writing scientific reports. They may also obtain samples and help reconstruct events at crime scenes. Many regularly appear in court to present expert testimony. Daily duties, however, vary widely by specialty and work setting. Some of the most common functions include: Sample analysis Evidence sorting Biomedical imaging Experimental research Data entry and analysis Supervising assistants and teams Preparation and presentation of scientific reports Interfacing with agencies, experts, courts and police Collection and examination of evidence at crime scenes Court appearances to give expert testimony, demonstrate evidence or undergo cross-examination

Alternative Job Titles

  • Criminalist
  • Crime scene investigator
  • Forensic analyst
  • Forensic science technician

Job Outlook Forensic science jobs are expected to increase by about 6 percent between now and 2022. That rate is far below the national average of growth for all occupations (11%). The government says there were 12,900 technician jobs in 2012; by 2022, that number should rise by about 700 new jobs. Employment opportunities will slowly increase as advanced forensic techniques and technologies become more common in criminal justice settings. However, increased technology may begin to subsidize some of the work of traditional Forensic Scientists. This decline in work responsibility will lead to less demand for employees at this position. Most forensic scientists are public sector workers. As a result, the number of available job openings tends to fluctuate with the funding of the public agency and its laboratory.

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