Forensic scientists are a critically important part of the criminal justice system. The most important qualifications for being a forensic scientist are a love of science, insatiable curiosity, and an interest in both crime and solving mysteries.
The evidence collected by crime scene investigators is usually brought to a laboratory where it is sorted, examined, classified, tested and analyzed by forensic scientists who may have to testify about the evidence in a court of law. Physical evidence is often the critical factor that sways a jury to find a defendant guilty or innocent.
Most beginning forensic scientists work as generalists but after gaining t few years experience many of them opt for a specialization in one of the following areas:
- Anthropology – skeletal remains
- Odontology – teeth
- Entomology – insects
- Toxicology –drugs
- Serology/DNA – Blood
- Trace evidence – hair, fibers, paint, glass, etc.
- Firearms/ballistics – firearms/ammunition
- Questioned documents – paper/handwriting/ink, etc.
Required Qualifications for Becoming a Forensic Scientist in Virginia
The requirements for a forensic science job with the Virginia Department of Forensic Science include:
- Bachelor’s degree in forensic science, chemistry or another natural science
- Several years experience working in a forensic laboratory
- Ability to work independently
- Ability to set priorities
- Ability to keep accurate records
- Ability to analyze and interpret data and arrive at conclusions
- Ability to explain and defend those conclusions orally and in writing
- Knowledge of lab safety
- Valid driver’s license
- Complete an oral interview that may include oral and practical exams
Preference is given to individuals with either general certification from the American Board of Criminalists or a specialized certification from the appropriate group such as the American Board of Toxicology or the Association of Firearms and Toolmark Examiners. If an experienced individual cannot be found for a particular opening, the job may be offered to a qualified individual without direct experience who will be expected to participate in a 24-month training period.
The Commonwealth of Virginia has five schools with degree-granting programs in forensic science which graduate an average of 90 students with forensic science credentials every year. The largest of these schools is located in Richmond; it graduates approximately 84 percent of all students with a forensic science degree.
Virginia Department of Forensic Science
The Virginia Department of Forensic Science (DFS) provides forensic laboratory services to more than 400 local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, including police departments, sheriff offices, fire departments, commonwealth attorneys and state agencies. Headed by Director Linda C. Jackson, the DFS has a budget of $36 million, with approximately 270 employees in labs located in Richmond (central lab), Norfolk, Manassas and Roanoke. It was the first forensic laboratory in the nation to offer DNA analysis and a pilot state for both CODIS (national fingerprint database) and the FBI automatic firearms comparison databank. The Department completed work on an overwhelming 58,017 cases in 2012!
In addition to evaluating and analyzing all kinds of evidence, interpreting results and providing expert testimonies in courts of law, scientists at the DFS provide technical assistance to law enforcement agencies across the Commonwealth. They offer a three-day refresher course to law enforcement personnel in the proper handling and submission of crime-scene evidence as well as specific courses in subjects like:
- Breath Alcohol Analysis
- Handling Homicide Scenes
- Advanced Photographic Techniques
- Role of Forensic Science in Hit-and-Run Investigations
The DFS was one of the nation’s first forensic laboratories to be accredited by the American Academy of Crime Lab Directors Lab Accreditation Board. The Breath Alcohol Calibration Lab also accredits the DFS.
Forensic Science Job Outlook and Salaries in Virginia
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states the job outlook for forensic scientists is good with a predicted 24 percent growth in jobs by 2018. There are 470 forensic scientists working in Virginia and that number is expected to increase to 590 by 2018.
According to the BLS, the annual mean wage for forensic scientists in Virginia is $66,360; salaries in specific areas are:
- Norfolk/Virginia Beach – $54,070
- Richmond – $62,660
- Arlington/Washington D.C. – $74,500
A recent ad for a Firearms specialist with the Virginia Department of Forensic Science listed the salary as $50,139 to $83,880. DFS trainees earn $39,175 while in training. Open positions with the DLS are listed on their website.