How to Become a Forensic Scientist in California

California ranks first in the nation for its employment of forensic scientists. Further, the Golden State ranks second in the nation, behind only the District of Columbia, in terms of pay for forensic scientists, where they earn an average of $72,000 a year.

California is home to the top-paying metropolitan area in the nation, San Francisco-San Mateo-Redwood City, which boasts an annual mean salary of $87,210 for forensic scientists. The second, third, and fourth metropolitan areas in the country with the highest level of pay for forensic scientists were also in California:

  • Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale ($79,220)
  • Santa Ana-Anaheim-Irvine ($77,610)
  • Oakland-Fremont-Hayward ($77,060)

California’s Bureau of Forensic Sciences (BFS), which is the scientific arm of the State Attorney General, is responsible for assisting the criminal justice system by collecting, analyzing, and comparing physical evidence from crime scenes or persons.  BFS Forensic scientists also provide a number of forensic information services to state and local law enforcement agencies, district attorneys, and the courts.

BFS regional laboratories are located in:

  • Chico
  • Eureka
  • Freedom
  • Fresno
  • Redding
  • Central Valley (Ripon)
  • Riverside
  • Sacramento
  • Santa Barbara
  • Santa Rosa

Forensic Science Colleges and Degree Granting Schools in California

The widely accepted minimum requirement for forensic scientist jobs is a bachelor’s degree in one of the natural sciences, such as chemistry or biology. However, given the increasing career opportunities for forensic scientists in California, a number of degree granting schools and colleges now offer bachelor and graduate degrees in forensic science.

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A graduate degree in California, for example, may include a Master of Science in Forensic Science.  A graduate program in forensic science incorporates coursework and research, thereby providing students with a strong foundation in science, as well as the legal system. In addition to examining the biological and physical sciences, a graduate program in forensic science includes work in the analysis and interpretation of evidence.

Coursework in a graduate program in forensic science may include the following:

  • Fundamental Concepts of Forensic Science
  • Microscopy and Microanalytical Methods in Forensic Science
  • Personal Identification Methods in Forensic Science
  • Forensic Evidence and Courtroom Testimony
  • Technical Writing in Forensic Science
  • Forensic Science Analytical Instrumentation
  • Analyses of Toxicants
  • Forensic Statistics
  • Molecular Techniques
  • Forensic DNA Analysis
  • Forensic Biology

Training to Become a Forensic Scientist in California

The BFS provides specialized forensic science training for forensic scientists (criminalists) through the California Criminalistics Institute (CCI). More than 700 students take courses at the CCI each year, including criminalists, evidence technicians, detectives, and crime scene investigators.

The mission of the CCI is to keep state and local forensic scientists abreast of trends and discoveries in the field of forensic science. As such, the CCI develops and delivers quality assurance support to the BFS criminalistics laboratories through training and procedure recommendation.

Preparing for Forensic Science Jobs in California

To qualify for the job of a forensic scientist/criminalist in California, candidates must possess a four-year college degree with a major in one of the physical or biological sciences, which must include at least 8 semester hours of general chemistry and 3 semester hours of quantitative analysis. A physical or biological science degree may include one of the following:

  • Physics
  • Pharmacology
  • Petrology
  • Mineralogy
  • Microbiology
  • Geology
  • Forensic Science
  • Entomology
  • Criminalistics
  • Chemistry (any type)
  • Chemical Engineering
  • Biology
  • Biological Science
  • Biochemistry

Further, all forensic scientist candidates must take a Training and Experience questionnaire and receive at least 70 percent to qualify for a position with the BFS. This examination is designed to evaluate a candidate’s quality and breadth of experience in the following areas:

  • Scientific method and techniques used in examining crime scenes
  • Tests for the identity and comparison of blood and physiological fluids
  • Tests for explosive and flammable materials
  • Toxicological analyses
  • Tests for hairs and fibers and similar materials
  • Modern methods and techniques for crime scene investigation
  • Trends in toxicology, general chemistry, and microchemistry
  • Modern types of small arms and techniques for conducting firearms, bullet and tool mark comparisons
  • Methods used in the examination of documents
  • Photographic and photo micrographic principles and practices
  • Chromatographic techniques

Bureau of Forensic Sciences Statistics

In FY2010-2011, the BFS completed the following requests:

  • Biology requests: 1,695
  • Blood and urine requests: 25,144
  • Breath alcohol tests: 32,941
  • Clandestine laboratory requests: 162
  • Controlled substances requests: 22,023
  • DNA requests: 2,577
  • Firearms requests: 1,393
  • Missing and unidentified persons requests: 898
  • Criminalistic requests: 537
  • Trace requests: 212
  • Latent print requests: 2,148
  • Questioned documents request: 94
  • Toxicology requests: 12,757

Total requests completed: 102,581

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