A career in forensic science combines scientific study in the natural sciences and a working knowledge of the criminal justice system. Forensic scientists are highly educated and trained professionals who analyze physical evidence from crime scenes using scientific methods and a logical and analytical approach.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for a forensic science technician, as of May 2012, was $52,840, with the top 10 percent earning more than $85,210.
However, a forensic science salary, like most professions, is largely dependent upon experience, education, specialized knowledge, the industry, and geographic location:
Forensic scientists may work in local, state or federal government or law enforcement agencies. They may also work as independent consultants or for private forensic laboratories. As such, the salary ranges for these industries tend to vary.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the industries with the highest annual mean salary for forensic science technicians, as of May 2012, were:
- Federal Executive Branch: $94,800
- Medical and Diagnostic Laboratories: $66,390
- Architectural, Engineering and Related Services: $61,680
- Local Government: $55,950
- State Government: $51,100
Federal agencies, such as the FBI, for example, generally offer higher salaries, as the scope of these jobs is much broader and the expertise required is greater. For example, recent FBI job descriptions reveal the following salaries:
- Biologist, Forensic Science Research Unit: $27,431 – $44,176 for entry-level trainee positions, with a top salary of $50,287 – $129,517 for those with PhD degrees and advanced education and/or work experience
- Biologist, DNA Analysis Unit: $33,979 – $44,176 hiring salary, with a promotional potential to $60,274 – $78,355
- Biologist Forensic Examiner: $33,979 – $44,176 hiring salary, with a promotional potential to $84,697 – $110,104
- Biologist DNA Program Specialist: $33,979 – $44,176 hiring salary, with a promotional potential to $71,674 – $93,175
- Document Analyst Forensic Examiner: $33,979 – $54,028 for trainee/advanced trainee positions, $50,287 – $129,517 for full-performance/expert forensic examiner/supervisory examiner positions
- Geologist, Trace Evidence Unit: $33,979 – $44,176 for new hires, with a promotional potential to $60,274 – $78,355
- Program Manager, Forensic System: $84,679 – $110,104, based on previous experience
- Research Biologist, Forensic Science Research Unit: $60,274 – $110,104, based on previous experience
Forensic science salaries often reflect the size of the geographic region in which they are located. This comes as no surprise, as larger cities and more populated states have more law enforcement agencies, likely more crime, and therefore a greater need for forensic scientists.
The District of Columbia, for example, ranks first in the nation for its pay of forensic scientists, according to the BLS, likely because of its large number of federal agencies and the size of the Washington D.C. /Arlington/Alexandria metropolis.
- District of Columbia: $73,010
- California: $72,000
- Michigan: $70,650
- Massachusetts: $69,360
- Virginia: $66,360
Given the sheer size of California and the large cities located there, it also comes as no surprise that the metropolitan areas with the highest salaries for forensic scientists are located there:
- San Francisco-San Mateo-Redwood City: $87,210
- Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale: $79,200
- Santa Ana-Anaheim-Irvine: $77,160
- Oakland-Fremont-Hayward: $77,060
With a framework in the biological sciences, a career in forensic science, and the earning potential, is often linked to the education level of the candidate. The widely accepted minimum educational requirement for most forensic science jobs is a bachelor’s degree in one of the natural sciences or in forensic science. Further, many employers require forensic scientists to meet specific educational goals before advancement can take place.
For example, ammunition specialists in the firearms/toolmarks unit of the FBI may achieve a pay grade of $43,563 – $54,028 if they possess at least two years of progressively higher-level graduate education or a master’s degree. However, they may achieve a pay grade of $50,287 – $65,371 if they possess at least three years of progressively higher-level graduate education or a doctorate degree.
Biologists in the FBI’s DNA Analysis Unit may have similar salary increases based on their education level. For example, to be eligible for an entry-level biologist position with a pay range of $33,979 – $44,176, candidates must have at least one full year of graduate-level experience, while candidates eligible for a salary range of $41,563 – $54,028 must possess a master’s degree.
Salary ranges for forensic scientists are clearly commensurate with experience. For example, a forensic scientist in the Ventura County, California, Sheriff’s Office has three positions, with each one earning more and requiring more experience. A forensic scientist I is an entry-level trainee position, which requires no previous experience.
However, to achieve the position of Forensic Scientist II and an annual salary of $61,812, individuals must have at least 3 years of professional forensic scientist work. To achieve the position of Forensic Scientist III and an annual pay of $93,949, individuals must have at least 5 years of professional forensic scientist work experience.
Forensic scientists with specialized knowledge (often achieved through the completion of comprehensive training programs and specific coursework) in specialized areas of forensic science are often in greater demand and therefore can command higher salaries. For example, forensic scientists skilled in ballistics, trace evidence, or DNA may be able to earn more than their counterparts without this specialized knowledge.
A job posting for a forensic scientist in latent prints for the Virginia Department of Forensic Science reveals a salary range of $50,139 – $83,880 for candidates who, in addition to a bachelor’s degree, have completed a documented forensic scientist latent print training program or possess experience in latent print examination through an accredited forensic science laboratory.
Likewise, a job posting for a DNA analyst in Montgomery County, Maryland, reveals that, in addition to a bachelor’s degree or higher in one of the natural sciences, candidates must possess training specific to DNA analysis, along with coursework in human genetics, molecular biology, biochemistry, and statistics/population genetics to qualify for this position, which has an annual salary range of $58,471 – $96,998.