On TV, forensic science looks like a glamorous career. If you dream of analyzing evidence from a crime scene to help put the bad guys behind bars, life as a forensic officer may be for you. Forensic officers may serve as crime scene investigators or forensic scientists, with each of these two fields having its own unique requirements for entry.
Role of a Forensic Officer
The term “forensic officer” is often used by government agencies to define either the officers who are assigned to crime scenes to gather evidence or the scientists in the lab who process that evidence. Both of these careers can be rewarding, but they also are dramatically different positions requiring different skill sets and backgrounds.
A crime scene investigator is typically dispatched to a crime scene to collect evidence, which means he or she is often required to work unpredictable hours. Forensic scientists’ role is much more stable, as they spend their time in a lab, processing evidence. This makes the forensic scientist position a better fit for those who want to work steady hours every week, while CSI is better for those who don’t like the prospect of working in the same location day after day, week after week.
Skills of a Crime Scene Investigator
The term “forensic officer” may make you think immediately of a police officer who specifically handles forensics. This is known as crime scene investigation. As a crime scene investigator, you’ll travel to crime scenes in the immediate aftermath of a crime with the task of gathering and protecting evidence for later lab testing.
In the capacity of crime scene investigation, forensic officers may be required to deal with disturbing situations, including violence against children. A crime scene investigator is typically a sworn police officer, having graduated from the police academy and spent time on a police officer’s beat. You’ll need to be able to collect evidence while disturbing the scene as little as possible, as well as having the discretion not to discuss the cases you cover.
Skills of a Forensic Scientist
In the context of forensic science, a forensic officer has a completely different set of duties. Although some forensic scientists may help with crime scenes, many spend the majority of their time in the lab, processing evidence. It can be tedious work without immediate reward. Television may make it appear that DNA results are returned from the lab in a matter of minutes, but in truth, it usually takes months.
A forensic science technician needs a basic interest in and aptitude for science, as much of your education and training will relate to topics like chemistry, physics and biology. You’ll also need to hone your writing skills since recording detailed notes is an important part of the job. Lastly, you may be called upon to speak about the work you do, so public speaking skills can never hurt.
Education Requirements for Forensic Officers
One reason the line between crime scene investigators and forensic scientists often blurs is that many colleges don’t offer a specific major for “crime scene investigator.” That pushes some students toward a forensic science major, giving them the option of either pursuing crime scene investigation or a role as a forensic science technician.
Most crime scene investigators are required to have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, although this can vary by department. Since many crime scene investigators move into the position after working as a police officer for a while, you may decide to go that route. Education requirements vary from one department to another, but to be accepted, you’ll likely need a minimum number of college credit hours, as well as successfully passing the exam for entrance to the police academy and meeting the physical requirements.
The forensic science field typically has stricter education requirements. You’ll need a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in a scientific field, preferably in forensic science. In more specialized fields, such as DNA analysis and ballistics, a master’s degree may be required. Supervisory and leadership roles often also require master’s degrees.
Training for Forensic Officers
Once hired, both crime scene investigators and forensic science technicians get on-the-job training. For CSIs, that usually means shadowing more experienced investigators as they learn the ins and outs of the role. Each department will have its own procedures for collecting, transporting and documenting evidence, so a large part of this training will be unique to your jurisdiction.
A forensic science technician, on the other hand, will learn in a laboratory setting after meeting the minimum degree requirements to land the job. This training typically takes less than a year and gives the technician all the lab-specific procedures for handling evidence. Before beginning work, a technician may be required to pass a proficiency exam or otherwise meet requirements for acceptance as a permanent laboratory employee.
Licensing Requirements for Forensic Officers
Regulatory requirements comprise the biggest differences between the roles of crime scene investigator and forensic scientist. Although CSIs may choose to get some type of law enforcement-specific training and certification, they aren’t required in most locations. One exception is Indiana, where you’ll need to be certified by the Indiana Law Enforcement Agency.
A forensic science technician, on the other hand, typically performs certain duties that may be regulated. While the job itself doesn’t require certification, if you handle fingerprints, you may require NCIC certification. This also may mean you’ll need to undergo a criminal background check, but that can be expected of any job in the law enforcement field.
Forensic Officer Salaries
The Bureau of Labor Statistics groups detectives and criminal investigators together, assessing an overall average salary of $43,800, which is in line with PayScale’s average CSI salary of $45,816. An entry-level CSI can expect to earn about $41,512, while late-career investigators earn $52,830, on average.
The median pay for a forensic scientist is about $15,000 a year higher, at $58,230, on average. An entry-level forensic scientist can expect to make about $48,000, rising to $80,000 a year or more with some experience. The scientific nature of the job, along with the advanced degree expectations in some roles, can inflate salaries above that which CSIs typically make.
Job Outlook for Forensic Officers
Since the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts CSIs under the broader category of “detectives and criminal investigators,” it’s tough to say what the career outlook is for that specific occupation. However, the overall field of private detectives and investigators has a promising outlook, although BLS doesn't provide an outlook on the federal level.
As DNA evidence analysis has grown so much more sophisticated, the ever-increasing importance of the role of the forensic scientist in criminal investigations has grown with it. At 17 percent, forensic science technicians have a much faster-than-average expected job growth rate through 2026.
Getting a Forensic Officer Job
If you want to become a forensic officer of any type, you’ll be working for law enforcement. You may find employment at the local, state or federal level, but some universities employ forensic scientists for research purposes. Before you begin pursuing an education in the forensic sciences, check to make sure there’s job availability in the area you plan to live.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides data as to the areas where demand for forensic science technicians is heaviest. California, Florida, Texas, New York and Arizona have the highest employment rates. However, you’ll find forensic scientist jobs in additional locations throughout the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Kansas, Florida and West Virginia.