Forensic science has become an integral part of the justice system, with forensic laboratory scientists working to uncover details of matters related to civil, criminal, and regulatory matters. Their work is based solely on scientific investigation, thereby assisting law enforcement personnel and facilitating judicial matters involving the investigation of crimes and the resolution of legal issues.
Forensic scientists work as part of an evidence team and often confer with members of law enforcement and crime scene investigators. Engaged primarily in forensic laboratory work, forensic scientists use their knowledge of scientific principles and analytical methods when examining physical evidence gathered at a crime scene. The scope of their job also includes writing detailed reports based upon their findings, and they may be called to testify as expert witnesses in a court of law.
Forensic scientists must have a solid foundation in the natural sciences (biology, chemistry, and physics), and they must also understand the workings of the criminal justice system and the law. To prepare to become a forensic scientist, individuals should expect to complete a number of steps:
Step 1: Complete a Comprehensive Degree Program
Individuals learning how to become a forensic laboratory scientist must first pursue a degree program, preferably in one of the natural sciences or in forensic science specifically. Although requirements for entry-level or trainee work in one of the forensic science disciplines often vary according to the law enforcement of governmental agency, the majority of employers require, at a minimum, a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university.
Although the path to a degree in this field is fairly straightforward, the course of study may vary based on an institution’s offerings or the area of study being pursued. Individuals who want to learn how to become a forensic scientist may pursue:
- Certificate (graduate or undergraduate)
- Bachelor’s degree
- Master’s degree
- Doctorate degree
Certificate (Graduate or Undergraduate)
A graduate or undergraduate certificate is an ideal addition to a forensic science, biology, or chemistry degree.
Undergraduate certificates in forensic science are often pursued by individuals who want to supplement their main degree program, while graduate certificates in forensic science are ideal for those who already possess a bachelor’s degree in a natural science or for professionals already employed in the forensic science field and are interested in focusing their career on a specific area of forensic science.
Bachelor’s degrees in forensic science may be in the form of a bachelor of science in biology or chemistry, or they may be forensic science degrees with concentrations in biology or chemistry. Further, some forensics science bachelor’s degrees allow students to focus their degree on a specific area of forensic science, such as DNA, trace evidence, or ballistics, for example.
Just a few of the programs available in forensic science include:
- Bachelor of Science with a concentration in Forensic Science
- Bachelor of Science in Chemistry with a concentration in Forensic Science
- Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry with a concentration in Forensic Science
- Bachelor of Science in Biology with a concentration in Forensic Science
- Bachelor of Science in Genetic Engineering with a concentration in Forensic Science
- Bachelor of Science in Forensic Chemistry
- Bachelor of Science in Forensic Biology
Master’s degree programs in forensic science are reserved for those individuals who already have a solid background in forensic science or the natural sciences through an undergraduate program. In addition to providing students with the opportunity to focus their forensic science careers on a specific area of forensic science, many individuals seek master’s degrees as to advance their career.
Common master’s degree programs in forensic science include:
- Master of Science in Forensic Science
- Master of Science in Criminalistics
- Master of Science in Forensic Biology
- Master of Science in Biomedical Forensic Science
Doctorate degrees in forensic science include
- Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
- Doctor of Medicine (MD)
- Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD)
PhD programs are generally reserved for advanced study in forensic chemistry, forensic biology, and forensic biochemistry, thereby making them ideal for individuals interested in pursuing scholar work or teaching opportunities.
Forensic pathologists are doctors of medicine; therefore, this forensic science field requires an MD to practice in the field of pathology or as a medical examiner.
DDS or DMD programs are reserved for the dental practice. Therefore, individuals pursuing forensic odontology (dentistry) must possess this professional degree.
Step 2. Pursue a Training Program or Apprenticeship
Upon the completion of a degree program in forensic science, many individuals pursue technician or trainee positions under the supervision of a senior forensic scientist. Many employers have training programs in place for new graduates, while others have specific probationary periods.
Step 3. Pursue Professional Certification
In addition to completing a degree program in forensic science and a training period or program, many forensic scientists seek professional certification through a forensic specialty board. Some employers require their forensic scientists to achieve certification, while some forensic scientists pursue certification as to achieve professional recognition or advance into a supervisory role.
Professional certification is a clear indication of an individual’s expertise in a specific area of forensic science, as most certification programs require the completion of specific education and experience requirements and, often times, the completion of a comprehensive exam.
The Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board, which was created with support from the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, the National Forensic Science Technology Center, and the National Institute of Justice, serves as a forensic community where organizations or professional boards that certify individual forensic scientists or forensic specialists are assessed, recognized, and monitored. A list of accredited organizations can be found here.