When a serious crime such as a murder occurs, the identity of the perpetrator may not be obvious. In whodunit scenarios, where it is unclear who is responsible for wrongdoing, forensic science often provides the key to solving the mystery.
What Is Forensic Science? A Definition
Forensic science is a practical academic discipline that involves solving puzzles. Forensic scientists use their knowledge of basic science fields like biology, chemistry and physics to investigate questions with legal implications, such as inquiries about who is at fault for a particular incident or what caused an injury.
For example, forensic science could clarify whether and when someone was poisoned, and it could indicate whether a particular gun had been used in a homicide.
“It’s all about traceable, detailed investigations to solve a problem or solve a crime,” says Catherine Jordan, who has a Ph.D. degree in organic chemistry and spent nine years working as a forensic scientist. Jordan previously worked for Minton, Treharne & Davies, an international scientific testing and inspection service provider.
Jennifer Shen — former director of the police department crime lab in San Diego, California — emphasizes that forensic science is “first and foremost, a science” and notes that a person needs some kind of scientific education in order to work as a forensic scientist.
Qualities Needed to Become a Forensic Scientist
A science degree is necessary, but not sufficient, for a career as a forensic scientist. The ability to pass a background check is critical, warns Daniele Podini, chair of the department of forensic sciences at George Washington University, where he is also an associate professor.
Podini also suggests that because forensic scientists often encounter disturbing imagery and hear troubling stories, they need to be able to emotionally detach themselves and keep a level head.
According to Jordan, analytical skills are necessary for success in forensic science. In addition, because forensic scientists often serve as expert witnesses in criminal and civil court cases and frequently testify before judges and juries, they must be eloquent enough to “present their findings well enough to stand up in court,” Jordan says.
Though associate and bachelor’s degrees are sufficient for certain basic forensic science jobs, high-level jobs in the field usually require a master’s degree, and some roles cannot be obtained without a doctorate, experts say.
Because the profession is one that many workers consider glamorous, competition for jobs tends to be fierce, Shen says. Anyone who hopes to gain employment in this sector ought to present themselves to employers in a polished way in order to maximize their chances of getting hired, she adds.
Anita Zannin, a forensic scientist who owns AZ Forensic Associates LLC, a forensic consulting firm in New York, notes that objectivity is essential within the forensic science field.
“Individuals should not get into this field to ‘put bad guys away’ — it should be just as rewarding to assist in exonerating someone who has been wrongfully accused,” Zannin, who earned a master’s degree in forensic science from Syracuse University, wrote in an email. “While we are all human, and may have opinions about an individual’s guilt or innocence, that opinion CANNOT play into a scientist’s evaluation of the evidence.”
What an Aspiring Forensic Scientist Should Study
Though it is possible for someone to become a forensic scientist if he or she has a degree in a related academic discipline, having a forensic science degree is helpful when competing for jobs in that field, according to experts. Graduate-level credentials can increase someone’s odds of advancement within the profession, since technical lead positions often require a master’s and some lab director jobs cannot be acquired without a Ph.D. degree, experts suggest.
Forensic science students can expect to take a combination of science classes, including courses in genetics, biochemistry and microscopy, and should anticipate spending a lot of time in the laboratory. They also typically learn how to follow lab protocols and write forensic reports. Graduate students in forensic science programs usually specialize within a particular area of forensic science, such as forensic biology or forensic chemistry.
Forensic Science Careers
Forensic scientists are often employed by federal, state, city or local governments. Many work for government-run crime laboratories, and some work for law enforcement agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
They sometimes work at private-sector labs and occasionally work independently, says Zannin, who also earned bachelor’s degrees in forensic chemistry and criminal justice. While forensic scientists typically focus on criminal matters, she explains, they can be involved with civil litigation, serving as expert witnesses in courtroom disputes over product liability and personal injuries.
The median annual salary among U.S. forensic science technicians was $59,150 as of May 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Technician positions typically require a bachelor’s degree, the bureau states.
Someone who advances from a technician position to a management role may earn significantly more money. According to the bureau, the median salary among natural sciences managers — people who supervise lab scientists — was $129,100 in May 2019.
Shen says one advantage of forensic science jobs, compared with other science positions, is that scientists in these roles often see immediate results from their labor — something that is rare in other branches of science such as biology. There is also something fulfilling about performing a public service by revealing the truth about what happened in a particular case, she adds.
Podini notes that forensic science jobs often involve significant pressure, since sometimes a backlog of evidence needs to be processed and accuracy is paramount.
“You don’t want to make mistakes, because these mistakes can then have an effect on people’s lives,” he says.
A significant benefit of being a forensic scientist, Podini says, is that “what you do benefits society and is very important for society.”
He adds that DNA analysis can lead to wonderful results. “A family can find closure, or a victim can find closure, or an innocent suspect is exonerated, or a person that might hurt others is apprehended and taken off the street.”
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What Forensic Science Is and How to Become a Forensic Scientist originally appeared on usnews.com