Criminalist Career Guide

Criminalist is a broad term that includes several jobs within the forensic science field. Criminalists examine physical evidence from a crime scene to create a link from the victim to the scene to the offender. Criminalists are sometimes referred to as lab techs or crime scene investigators (CSI).

Criminalist Career Description, Duties, and Common Tasks

Criminalists:

  • Consult with experts (DNA or medical experts, for example)
  • Examine and analyze crime scene evidence, including fingerprints, hair, fibers, skin, blood, dirt, spent ammunition casings, bullets, and insects.
  • Offer expert testimony in court
  • Use physical evidence to determine who, what, where, when, and how a crime was committed.

How to Become a Criminalist: Requirements and Qualifications

The minimum educational requirement for prospective forensic science technicians is a bachelor’s degree with concentrated coursework in biology, forensics, or crime scene investigation. However, there is a growing trend toward requiring a minimum of a master’s degree to work for most state or federal agencies. Criminalists must also attend continuing training and coursework to stay current on trends, new procedures, and methods. Criminalists may apply for certification from the American Board of Criminalists after successfully passing a comprehensive exam.

Criminalist Job Training

Criminalists typically complete on-the-job training upon hire. Under the watchful eye of an experienced crime scene investigator, novices will get hands-on experience in collecting, documenting, and analyzing evidence. The specifics and the length of training depend on the hiring organization. Upon successful completion of training, crime scene investigators usually begin to work independently.

Other Helpful Skills and Experience

Prospective forensic science technicians must be detail-oriented, possess strong communication skills, be prepared to testify in court when necessary, and have the ability to maintain a professional attitude in stressful situations. Those candidates with law enforcement experience may have an advantage during the hiring process.

Possible Job Titles for this Career

  • Crime scene investigator
  • Forensic science technician

Career Opportunities and Employers

Criminalists work in labs in local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies throughout the United States. In rural areas, law enforcement agencies usually send evidence to the state crime lab for evaluation. Those forensic technicians with experience may be promoted to supervisor or a lead position. Criminalists, with both experience and a master’s degree, may advance to administrative positions.

Criminalist Salary and Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that forensic science technicians earn a median annual salary of $52,840 in the United States as of 2012 while the top 10% earn more than $85,210 per year.1 With increased emphasis being placed on forensic evidence in the conviction of offenders, career opportunities for criminalists are expected to increase. Jobs for forensic science technicians are expected to grow 6% from 2012 to 2022, according to the BLS.1

Frequently Asked Questions About This Career

Are internships helpful?
Yes. The more experience a new criminalist has when looking for a position, the better. Completing an internship during college can provide students with valuable real world experience, help them develop contacts in the professional community, and may even lead to a job offer upon graduation.

What kind of hours do criminalists generally work?
Forensic science technicians often work full-time and may be assigned the day, evening, or night shift. Prospective criminalists should be willing to be on call as they may be needed any time of the day or the night due to an emergency.

What are the typical working conditions for criminalists?
Successful forensic scientists must be able to sit or stand, sometimes for hours at a time, while analyzing and documenting evidence. Strong physical fitness is also necessary as criminalists may be required to travel to and from crime scenes.

Do criminalists work alone?
While they may work independently, criminalists must also have strong people skills as they will also communicate with and work alongside law enforcement and other forensics experts.

Additional Resources

American Academy of Forensic Sciences – A professional organization whose members represent all careers in forensic science and is dedicated to advancing and promoting the field.

American Board of Criminalists – A professional association comprised of forensic science organizations.

Evidence Technology Magazine – A magazine that delves into the technology used in forensic science, offering resources, newsletters, and a training calendar.

Forensic Magazine – A professional publication that covers forensics and includes articles, videos, webinars, and resources for criminalists.

Schools with Criminal Justice Programs

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University of Phoenix
Campuses: 1Online
Popular Degrees:

  • A.A. in Criminal Justice
  • B.S. in Environmental Science
  • B.S. in Biological Science

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Capella University
Campuses: 1Online
Popular Degrees:

  • MS - Criminal Justice
  • PhD - Criminal Justice
  • BS - Criminal Justice

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Kent State University
Campuses: 1Online
Popular Degrees:

  • Master's - Criminology & Criminal Justice - Victimology
  • Master's - Criminology & Criminal Justice - Corrections
  • Master's - Criminology & Criminal Justice - Police

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Liberty University
Campuses: 1Online
Popular Degrees:

  • BS in Criminal Justice
  • AA in Criminal Justice
  • Masters in Criminal Justice: Command College

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Post University
Campuses: 1Online
Popular Degrees:

  • B.S. in Human Services / Criminal Justice
  • B.S. in Criminal Justice - Law Enforcement
  • B.S. in Criminal Justice

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American InterContinental University Online
Campuses: 1Online
Popular Degrees:

  • Bachelor's (BSCJ) - Forensic Science
  • Bachelor's (BSCJ) - Generalist
  • Associate of Science in Criminal Justice

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Grand Canyon University
Campuses: 1Online
Popular Degrees:

  • M.S. in Criminal Justice: Legal Studies
  • B.S. in Justice Studies
  • M.S. in Criminal Justice: Law Enforcement


References:
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/forensic-science-technicians.htm
2. Illinois Pathways Work Net Center: http://www.illinoisworknet.com/

Page Edited by Charles Sipe.