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Forensic Scientists Vs. Criminalists

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While the titles may differ, forensic scientists and criminalists perform the same job. They are both responsible for investigating crimes by examining crime scenes, collecting and analyzing physical evidence, identifying and classifying evidence and reconstructing a crime scene based on scientific findings. Forensic scientists and criminalists work at crime scenes and in laboratories to help solve crimes.

Examing a Crime Scene

Forensic scientists and criminalists view crime scenes and determine which evidence should be collected and how. Evidence can include trace substances, such as hair, blood, fibers or gunshot residue; controlled substances, such as street drugs; digital evidence, which includes computers, mobile phones and flash drives; pattern evidence, such as shoe soles or tire tracks; and forensic pathology, which is evidence gathered from human remains. Photographs are taken of the crime scene and evidence is collect and labeled. They may also either videotape or sketch diagrams of a crime scene to use as reference during the evidence analysis stage. Forensic scientists and criminalists also document their observations of a scene, noting the location, position or condition of a piece of evidence. All physical evidence is cataloged and preserved before it’s transferred to a crime lab.

Next Steps In the Crime Lab

At the crime lab, forensic scientists and criminalists identify and classify evidence using scientific means. Once identified, they study the evidence for answers. Fingerprints are run through databases to detect a match, blood and other bodily fluids are tested for DNA, toxic substances are identified, tire tracks are categorized and digital evidence is examined. By studying the evidence and photos of a crime scene, forensic scientists and criminalists attempt to reconstruct the scene to better understand what happened and how, and determine a motive for the crime. Photographs of blood splatter patterns, examinations of the victim and/or tests on weapons can help forensic scientists and criminalists determine how and where a victim was injured, the type of weapon used and even who may have used it.

Educational Requirements

Many forensic scientists and criminalists hold a bachelor’s degree in forensic science, natural science or criminal justice. Programs in forensic science and natural science provide students with a background in forensics, criminology, evidence collection and analysis, chemistry and molecular biology and crime scene investigation. Criminal justice programs focus on the various types of crime, such as domestic, computer or sexual crimes, understanding criminal behavior and the functions of the criminal justice system. Both types of program can prepare students for careers as forensic scientists and criminalists.

Career Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, careers for forensic scientists and criminalists are expected to grow by 16 percent by 2030. The increase in available jobs will be due to advancements in technological innovations and the increased use of forensic evidence in court proceedings.

2020 Salary Information for Forensic Science Technicians

Forensic science technicians earned a median annual salary of $60,590 ($29.13/hour) in 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, forensic science technicians earned a 10th percentile salary of $36,630, meaning 90 percent earned more than this amount. The 10th percentile salary is $100,910, meaning 10 percent earn more. In 2020, 17,200 people were employed in the U.S. as forensic science technicians.


Laura La Bella has worked as a marketing communications writer and editor in the fields of advertising, development and higher education for more than 15 years. She has authored more than two dozen nonfiction books for young adults, covering biographies of socially relevant people, timely social issues and career paths.

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