grasping your proteome (sarahq) wrote,

So You Want To Be a Forensic Scientist...

Every week or so, someone in the lab will get a cold call from either a college student, a recent graduate, or someone looking to change careers. Invariably, they start off by asking if we have any job openings. When told no, they then ask how they can get a job in forensics.

The short answer goes like this: "What kind of forensics job to you want? If you want to work in a lab, take lots of lab science."

It might seem like this should go without saying. After all, if you want any sort of science career, forensic or no, you're going to want to rack up as many science courses as you can. Can't stand to suffer through a biochemistry lab? Well, maybe you won't be very happy working in one for the next thirty years. Want to do DNA testing? A genetics class or three would be a good place to start.

I'm being facetious, but to judge by the conversations I've had with people looking to get into this field, this desperately needs to be said. There are myriad ways to get a forensic science job, but a science degree is your best bet.

Does it depend on what sort of forensic job you're interested in? Absolutely! But you can't go wrong with a natural science background.



* The entry requirements for crime scene work are the most flexible. Crime scene work, like all of forensics, grew in an organic manner out of police work. In many agencies, crime scene techs are sworn officers with specialized training. In the past couple decades there's been an increasing move towards civilian crime scene techs. Civilians are, after all, cheaper than trained officers. They can't retire after twenty years of service; there are far fewer opportunities for them to transfer to another division within the police department. But many of the skills one needs are the same: observational skills, the ability to record events accurately, the ability to synthesize disparate facts and draw conclusions. Crime scene technicians are the gatekeepers to all other forensic specialties.

That said, the entry level requirements for a crime scene tech range from a high school diploma to a bachelor's degree. At its most basic, the job of the tech is to locate, collect, and package evidence for later processing by another individual. This isn't CSI; there'll be no interviewing of suspects or cutting-edge scientific breakthroughs. Some crime scene techs will seek further training in specialties like blood pattern analysis, shoe and tire print analysis, or digital image enhancement. This isn't the bread and butter of their daily work, however.


* A lot of firearm examiners are, or used to be, sworn officers. This makes sense, if you think about how firearms examination grew directly out of traditional police work. The people with the most firearms experience are typically those with military or law enforcement backgrounds. Again, however, there are an increasing number of openings in the firearms field for civilians.

What sort of background is required for an entry-level firearms tech position? As part of a push in the 90's to establish more consistent guidelines for how forensic examinations should be performed, the FBI sponsored the creation of scientific working groups -- or SWGs -- where current experts could discuss minimum training and protocol requirements. The recommendations from the SWGs have become standard in U.S. crime labs, whether local, state, or federal. SWGGUN recommends a bachelor’s degree in a natural or physical science for all new hires as a minimum requirement.


* Training to be a latent print examiner or a questioned documents examiner takes a long, long time. We're talking 18 to 36 months, minimum. Not coincidentally, many latent print and document examiners in the U.S. got their training at the FBI lab. The Feds are among the few agencies able to commit the kind of time and funding to such extensive training programs.

What makes latent print and questioned document examinations so special? Well, a lot of forensic disciplines are a mix of art and science, with a swirling mass of gray area in between. That's true of these two disciplines in particular. If you're going to be locking people up, you'd better have a shitload of experience under your belt before you're set loose on actual evidence. These sort of training programs should really be considered apprenticeships, rather than the jump-into-the-deep-end training that happens in a lot of workplaces.


* There aren't as many forensic anthropologists, forensic profilers, or forensic artists out there as you think there are. Seriously, y'all. There are maybe a dozen top-notch specialists in forensic anthropology, and most of them are PhDs who teach at the university level in addition to doing forensic work. Ditto for forensic profilers, but in the U.S., they almost all work for the FBI.

There's a reason why there aren't many jobs in a lot of these specialties: they're not needed. Seriously, folks. Finding skulls that need a full reconstruction isn't a daily occurrence. The vast, overwhelming majority of homicides, sex assaults, and property crimes don't require the services of a profiler.


* But let's get into the areas where I can speak from personal experience. The most common forensic science jobs by far are those in drug analysis or in DNA testing. If you want to work in a forensic chemistry or a forensic biology lab, you're going to want a degree in chemistry, biochemistry, or biology. A physics degree could work, too, but you'll want a hefty dose of coursework in one of the former.

More specifically, if you want to work in forensic chemistry, you're going to need general, organic, and analytical chemistry courses on your transcript. If you want forensic biology, you need classes in biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology, and statistics.

These requirements are particularly non-negotiable in forensic DNA labs in the U.S. You see, all local, state, and federal DNA labs belong to CODIS, the combined DNA index system. One of the requirement for playing in this FBI-organized sandbox is an agreement to play by the FBI's rules. Annual audits are required to make certain you're following said rules. And the rules say: coursework in biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology, and statistics.

Is it a deal-breaker if you don't have those classes on your transcript? If you didn't make time for a genetics class during your undergraduate years, are you forever barred from the hallowed and malodorous halls of the DNA lab? No, of course not. But you're going to have to get that coursework one way or another.

We can use me as an example, since I happen to be handy. I was a chemistry major, with a minor in physics. I had a couple semesters of introductory biology, and a couple of biochem. Otherwise, I turned up my nose at everything else in the bio department. I had no particular interest in forensics; I did have an amorphous love for science.

After a few dead-ends and a year or two of meandering, I landed an entry-level job in a local police department's drug analysis lab. I had the educational background, but I also had a bit of luck: the first choice for the job failed his background exam. I was the backup, but I was in the right place at the right time. I also did a sufficiently noteworthy job over the next two years that, when a position opened in the DNA lab across the hallway, I was offered a lateral transfer.

Score! Except wait: I was missing three of the four required classes. Fortunately, there's a mandatory six-month training period for all new DNA analysis (see section 5.3 for the nitty-gritty). Given how busy most DNA labs are, that six month minimum usually stretches into a good year. I had plenty of time to take a genetics class at the local university during the spring, a statistics workshop at a professional conference, and a graduate-level molecular biology class online the following autumn. I was good to go before my training period was up.

I've met a lot of people in the past seven years. I can safely say that the majority are science-nerd types who stumbled into forensics, liked what they saw, and stayed. If you've got a strong foundation in the basic principles of science, you're starting on the right foot. That foundation's going to be key as the field changes over the years.


How about I major in forensic science? you ask. Wouldn't that be my best route?

In a word? No. In another word? Don't.

The quality of forensic science degree programs varies wildly. There are certainly some excellent programs out there: programs that consist predominantly of natural science courses, heavy on the labwork, with supporting courses in public speaking, writing, and a forensic survey class.

Unfortunately, there are also a boatload of programs that claim to prepare you for a career in forensic science, but will do nothing of the sort. There's very little science in these programs: perhaps a few introductory bio and chem classes. Primarily, they consist of forensic survey, "criminalistics", and criminal justice classes. That's just fine for the student looking for a criminal justice degree, or for the individual already in law enforcement who's going back to school and wants to learn more about the potential of forensics without ever intending to work in a laboratory.

But that's not what's happening. Instead, you're getting students who want to work in a forensic lab -- who want to do the things they've seen on Forensic Files or The New Detectives -- who see these forensic programs as a way to achieve that without having to major in science. In the past few years, with these science-lite majors cropping up all over, the problem's become so widespread that the FBI got together another working group to address the issue: TWGED. The idea is to have the community define what an optimal forensic science program should include. You can read the .pdf and see what they came up with. Eventually, the working group will be able to give their stamp of approval to those good programs out there, not only to help students separate the wheat from the chaff, but also to help universities who honestly want to offer a good program, but don't know where to start.

Let's take a look at how TWGED describes the ideal undergraduate program:

"Undergraduate forensic science degree programs are expected to deliver a strong and credible science foundation that emphasizes the scientific method and problem-solving skills. Exemplary programs would be interdisciplinary and include substantial laboratory work, as most employment opportunities occur in laboratory settings. Natural sciences should dominate undergraduate curriculums and be supported by coursework in specialized, forensic, and laboratory sciences and other classes that complement the student’s area of concentration."


And if you look further into that .pdf, you'll find a table describing the ideal program: 46 to 50 hours of natural science courses, 15 hours devoted explicitly to forensic science (and half of that should be done in a laboratory), and 19 hours of advanced hard science, public speaking, and criminal justice.

Gee! Sounds like a biology or chemistry major, with a minor in criminal justice! So why not major in a natural science after all?

You absolutely should. If you major in forensic science, you (may) prepare yourself for a career in forensic science. If you major in a natural science, you'll prepare yourself for a career in forensic science, or a career in medicine, or a career in research, or a career in education, or a career in... you see where I'm going with this?

When I happen to be the one in the lab who picks up the phone to talk to one of those students, I tell them to get a science degree. Be a generalist: load up on public speaking, literature, and humanities for your electives.

Don't end up like the woman who currently volunteers where I work. She's eager to get into forensics: more specifically, she wants to be a DNA analyst. She's not interested in crime scene work or a criminal justice job, but specifically DNA. She went back to finish her degree at a local university, majoring in criminal justice with a concentration in forensic science. She's currently in her junior year.

When I asked her about her coursework, she said, "I took two semesters of biology, and one of chemistry." I asked if there were any other lab science classes in the program. "No," she said, very hesitantly. "But my advisor told me that as long as I kept a B average in the rest of my classes, I wouldn't have any problem getting a job in forensics."

How do you tell someone they've been suckered by the system? At this point, if she's set on DNA, I think her best bet is to finish out her bachelor's degree, to get that piece of paper, and to find a graduate program where she can catch up on her science. And I told her that. But I wish she'd known two years ago that she wasn't heading for the job she wanted.
Tags: forensics, work stories
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