Criminalist Career Guide
“Criminalist” is a broad term that includes several jobs within the forensic science field. Criminalists examine physical evidence to create links between scenes, victims, and offenders. Criminalists are sometimes referred to as lab techs or crime scene investigators (CSI).
Criminalist Career Description, Duties, and Common Tasks
- 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 answers to the “who, what, where, when, and how” questions about specific crimes
How to Become a Criminalist: Requirements and Qualifications
The minimum education 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 within state or federal agencies toward requiring a minimum of a master’s degree in the natural sciences. Criminalists must also attend continuing training and coursework to stay current on investigation trends, procedures, and methods. Criminalists may apply for certification from the American Board of Criminalists after successfully passing a comprehensive exam.
Criminalist Job Training
After earning a bachelor’s or master’s degree in a related field, criminalists typically complete additional 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 length of training depend on the hiring organization.
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. 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 with fewer forensic resources may send evidence to a state crime lab for evaluation. Forensic technicians with experience may be promoted to supervisory roles. Criminalists with experience and/or a master’s degree may advance to administrative positions.
Criminalist Salary and Outlook
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that forensic science technicians earned a median annual salary of $56,320 as of 2015; the top 10% earned more than $94,410 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 27% from 2014 to 2024, 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 to day, evening, or night shifts. Prospective criminalists should be willing to be on call, as they may be needed any time of the day or the night.
What are the typical working conditions for criminalists?
Physical fitness is a must. Forensic scientists must be able to sit or stand, sometimes for hours at a time, while analyzing and documenting evidence. Criminalists must also have the flexibility to reach and bend frequently, as well as the strength to lift heavy items repetitively.
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 as part of an investigative team.
- 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
1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Forensic Science Technicians: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/forensic-science-technicians.htm