With the popularity of television shows like C.S.I., many people seem to be curious about careers in forensic science.
But those in the field say that TV doesn’t quite give the real picture.
“Those shows are pure fiction. They are a mixture of a number of careers,” says Ronald Singer. He is the director of a crime lab in Fort Worth, Texas.
“Crime scene investigators do not interview witnesses. Generally, they do not perform laboratory analyses. They rarely solve crimes by themselves. And they do not drive Hummers,” he says.
There are a number of different careers in this field:
- Crime scene technician — This job includes sketching and photographing the crime scene. Technicians also dust for fingerprints. They collect and package evidence found at the scene. In many places, crime scene investigators may be trained in blood pattern analysis. In the U.S., this person is usually a police officer.
- Criminalist — A criminalist analyzes the physical evidence from a crime scene. (They are not the same as criminologists, who study the cause of crime and society’s reaction to it.) They work in a lab. They also testify in court as experts. Criminalistics has a number of subdivisions. These include firearms examination and drug analysis.
- Criminal profiler — These psychologists specialize in predicting particular traits about an individual. The predictions are based on the type and circumstances of a crime.
- Fingerprint expert — This person is trained to examine materials for the presence of invisible fingerprints. They compare those developed fingerprints to known prints. Often, this is a specially trained police officer.
- Forensic anthropologist — This person gathers information about the victim from skeletal remains. This career requires a minimum of a master’s degree and, preferably, a PhD.
- Forensic serologist or biologist — This title is generally no longer in use. Today, most are called DNA analysts.
- Forensic entomologist — This person studies the insects present near or on a body. This is done to determine information about location, time of death, etc. Most forensic entomologists have PhDs. They are associated with a university or museum.
- Forensic pathologist — This person performs an autopsy on the body. They determine the cause of death and all other factors that relate to the body directly. They can attend crime scenes and testify in court. They must be medical doctors.
- Forensic odontologist — This person has a degree in dentistry. They analyze the teeth and bite marks in a criminal investigation. They can also study any other aspect that may involve dental evidence.
All of these careers require intense study in science. They may also require many years of police training.
“If a person wishes to become a forensic scientist, they must be a scientist first,” says Gail S. Anderson. She is an associate professor of criminology.
“A basic forensic scientist wishing to work in a lab does not need a graduate degree at the moment,” she adds. “It may become necessary as the field increases in popularity.”
But don’t hide away in the lab all through your education.
“Don’t forget the humanities in high school,” adds Singer. “You need to major in science. But you shouldn’t neglect English in college. Much of what you will do will involve both written and oral communication.”
You need a clean record to have a forensic science career. Most work is done in cooperation with law enforcement agencies. Background checks will be done on anyone attempting to enter the field.
You also need a strong stomach. Much of the work deals with blood, bodies and death.
“Most just ignore the ‘gross factor’,” says Anderson. “If it bothers them, they would not be in this field.”
Many people select the forensic field because of the popularity of current television shows. But both Singer and Anderson feel that viewers are given a romanticized view of what the field is really like.
“What we do is really nothing like what people see on TV,” Singer says. “When they find out you need at least a bachelor of science and the pay is not great, they lose interest.”
“However, forensic science is here to stay and the field is growing by leaps and bounds,” says Anderson.
Still, as of now, there appears to be more people interested in jobs in forensic science related careers than there are available spots.
“I get e-mails every day inquiring about work,” Singer says. “The number of jobs has not increased proportionally to the number of people looking for work in this field.”
How do you know if it’s for you?
Singer says students should first ask themselves the following questions:
- Do I like science?
- Do I have the patience to work through puzzles with lots of small details (example: jigsaw puzzles)?
- Am I a good communicator — do I like to stand in front of groups and explain how things work?
- Do I care if I’m rich?
If you answered “yes” to the first three questions and “no” to the last one, you may be suited to a career in forensic science.
“From my own point of view, the most important positive thing about forensic science is that you are providing a service to the community,” says Singer.
“You help get the criminals off the street. You help free the innocent. There can’t be anything, in my book at least, that’s more positive than that.”
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