A forensic scientist, sometimes known as a forensic science technician or a criminalist, works as a science expert for a law enforcement agency or a private firm in collaboration with law enforcement. These individuals examine evidence gathered by crime scene examiners, FBI agents, police detectives, and other law enforcement officers. Forensic scientists administer polygraph examinations (also known as psychophysical detection of deception exams) and conduct ballistics tests, blood tests, DNA tests, hair and fiber tests, and other tests to link evidence to potential suspects. In addition, they examine crime scenes, examine documents to track suspects or link suspects to a crime, and explain evidence to law enforcement professionals, prosecutors, and similar individuals. Forensic scientists also may testify in court and perform a variety of other tasks. Some forensic scientists may specialize in a specific type of forensic examination, and in some cases these scientists may work for a specialized law enforcement unit. Some of the areas in which a forensic scientist may specialize include biology, chemistry, controlled substances and toxicology (drugs and poisons), document and handwriting analysis, fingerprinting, firearms and toolmarks (identifying weapons and tools used in a crime), forensic accounting, psychophysical deception detection (polygraph), and other areas of the science field.
A forensic scientist typically earns between $30,000 and $85,000 a year, but some forensic scientists may earn more or less than this amount depending on the area in which they work. In fact, in some areas a forensic scientist may make as little as $20,000 or as much as $100,000 a year. It is important to note, however, that the specific amount a forensic scientist can earn is based not only on the area in which the scientist works, but also on the individual’s education, employer, experience, position, and specialty. As a result, a forensic scientist with specialized skills, additional education (especially in a scientific field related to a forensic specialty such as biology or chemistry), or additional experience can make significantly more money than a typical forensic scientist can. Working as a supervisor or the head of a lab or who working for a large federal agency such as the FBI also can increase a forensic scientist’s earning potential.
Specific requirements necessary to become a forensic scientist vary according to state and agency. However, most agencies require a bachelor’s degree in biology, chemistry, forensic science, physics, or physical anthropology. While it may sound strange, most agencies prefer a degree in a specific scientific field rather than a forensic science degree because a forensic science program provides broad overview of all of the scientific disciplines you may need to know as a forensic scientist. In addition, in order to become a forensic scientist, you likely will have to complete an internship or training program and obtain the appropriate certifications for the forensic specialty in which you plan to work, if you have a specialty. Some agencies may require you to obtain a master’s degree or doctoral degree (Ph.D.) in forensic science, complete a series of courses related to specific areas of the forensics field, or meet other requirements in order to obtain a position.