Crime Scene Investigator: Career Guide

Crime Scene Investigator: Career Guide

Amanda Push picture
Amanda Push Contributing Writer
Updated September 21, 2022 is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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If you’re trying to decide whether to enroll in a criminal justice program, some of the first questions you should ask yourself are, “What can you do with a criminal justice degree?” and “What jobs can you get with a criminal justice degree?” Having these answers will help you decide whether a degree in this field is the right fit for you.

While there are a number of different routes you can take with this type of degree, one of the interesting career paths is to become a crime scene investigator. Criminal justice degree jobs like crime scene investigators (CSIs) -- sometimes referred to as crime scene specialists, forensic science technicians, and crime laboratory analysts -- use critical thinking and analytical skills to collect physical evidence, such as hair, bodily fluids, and footprints, from crime scenes. They are responsible for processing and preserving evidence, as well as sharing written documentation and reports about their collections.

CSIs use their expertise to testify at criminal trials and help shed light onto the events that occurred during criminal activity. They work independently and collaboratively with diverse groups of people. A variety of organizations hire crime scene investigators, including government agencies, police departments, coroner's offices, and crime laboratories.

The median annual wage for forensic science technicians was $60,590 as of 2019, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects employment growth in this field of about 14% between 2018 and 2028. Detectives and criminal investigators, on the other hand, earn, on average, about $89,300 per year, and the job growth in this field is expected to increase by about 5% from 2018 to 2028.

If you’re interested in this degree or career path, this guide covers how you can become a crime scene investigator and gives you an overview of other similar criminal justice jobs.

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Crime Scene Investigator Job Duties

Crime scene investigators use specialized equipment and procedures to visually and physically examine crime scenes, such as traffic accidents, burglaries, and homicides. They may collect evidence and materials to help solve crimes, such as hair, biological fluids, gunshot residue, and footwear impressions.

CSIs use various scientific methods and preservation techniques to store and secure collected evidence. They use chemical and dusting techniques to develop and compare fingerprints and forensic photography to take pictures of victims, suspects, and key documents. Some CSIs possess expertise in blood spatter pattern analysis, while others possess specialized training in bullet trajectory paths.

CSIs must be flexible and capable of working in stressful and unpleasant environments, including environments with deceased individuals in various stages of decomposition. Many CSIs work closely with pathologists to collect evidence from cadavers during autopsies and postmortem examinations.

CSIs are responsible for taking thorough notes, completing forms, and preparing written reports to document important evidence and share key findings with others. As forensic evidence experts, CSIs often work closely with attorneys to provide comprehensive testimonies at criminal trials about the evidence collected at crime scenes. The results of their analysis may help solve crimes, prosecute offenders, and release the wrongly accused.

How to Become a Crime Scene Investigator

Ever wonder how to become a crime scene investigator? Many people think that all CSIs are police officers, but many CSIs come from other backgrounds, such as science or criminology.

CSI candidates must meet the minimum requirements of the agency to which they are applying. CSIs typically need a bachelor’s degree in either a natural or forensic science, such as chemistry or biology, or in a field such as criminal justice, crime scene technology, or criminology.

Some CSI positions do not require a baccalaureate degree, instead requiring specific college courses. For instance, some jobs may be a fit if you have completed lab-based chemistry courses from an accredited college or university. Most agencies require at least a high school diploma or GED and a valid driver’s license. Some positions require you to be between the ages of 21 and 37 years old.

Depending on the role, CSIs may need one or more years of work experience in a related role, such as law enforcement officer or fingerprint technician.

Crime Scene Investigator Job Training

Crime scene investigators and forensic science technicians typically receive on-the-job training. Many law enforcement agencies require new CSIs to complete extensive training programs before they take on cases independently. Newly hired crime scene investigators may work under experienced investigators for up to one year. Training typically explores proper procedures for collecting and documenting evidence, photography, fingerprint processing, death scene processing, and blood spatter analysis.

Additionally, investigators and technicians must keep up with continuing education throughout their careers to stay on top of the current trends and advancements in science and technology. As scientists continue to invent new methods and equipment for evidence collection, CSIs may need to pass regular proficiency exams to demonstrate their understanding of the latest tools and techniques.

Standards and credentials for investigators vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, so there are no common licensure requirements to become a CSI. However, professional organizations such as the International Association for Identification and the American Academy of Forensic Sciences offer various courses and certifications that can help CSIs advance their careers. These courses may cover topics like bloodstain pattern analysis, firearm identification, and latent fingerprinting.

Other Helpful Skills and Experience

In addition to a strong background in science and criminal justice, you will need several soft skills, such as attention to detail, which helps them search for and find key evidence at various crime scenes. You will also need critical thinking skills and superior judgment in order to recognize which materials may assist in solving crimes.

Additionally, you’ll need strong written and verbal communication skills to prepare documentation and share key findings with others. Since CSIs are responsible for testifying at trials, they must be able to draw conclusions and render opinions with a strong degree of professionalism.

As a CSI, you must also be flexible and willing to work variable hours in potentially stressful or unpleasant conditions. As CSIs are often considered “on call,” they may be expected to have 24-hour availability to respond to crime scenes. They must also possess technical skills and the ability to operate various tools, equipment, and technology, such as computers, telephones, two-way radios, and other electronic devices.

As a physically demanding job, work as a crime scene investigator also requires a degree of visual and muscular dexterity. CSIs must be able to move their hands and arms above their shoulders; bend, stoop, and pick up materials; and distinguish the full range of the color spectrum.

Salary and Career Outlook

Criminal justice careers can offer a solid, if not lucrative, wage. According to data from the BLS, crime scene investigators and forensic science technicians earn a median yearly salary of $60,590, with the top 10% of earners making more than $100,910. The BLS projects demand for forensic science technicians to grow by 14% between 2019 and 2029, resulting in approximately 2,400 new jobs over the next several years.

CareerAverage Annual Salary
Crime Scene Investigator$60,590
Criminal Investigator (Local Government)$77,120
Criminal Investigator (Federal Government)$111,880

There are plenty of other options for careers in criminal justice as well. Detectives and criminal investigators who work for local governments earn an average annual wage of $77,120, while those who work for the federal executive branch of the government earn $111,880 per year, on average.

Salary varies by factors like training, work experience, education, and geography. Salary also depends heavily on a professional's agency. For example, CSIs who are employed by state and local government agencies typically earn higher wages than technicians who work at testing laboratories and medical and diagnostic laboratories.

CSIs with police academy backgrounds often earn higher annual salaries than those without experience as a police officer. Individuals with advanced degrees and certifications often benefit from higher wages than those with fewer credentials. Due to cost of living adjustments, professionals who work in metropolitan cities tend to earn more money than those who work in rural areas.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What Type of Hours Do CSIs Typically Work?

Crime scene investigators and technicians typically work full-time 40-hour work weeks plus overtime hours. You may work a variety of shifts, including during daytime, evening, and night shifts on both weekdays and weekends. CSIs may be required to work on holidays and special occasions. As a CSI, you are often expected to be available 24/7 in order to respond to crimes that happen outside of normal business hours.

What Are the Most Important Qualities of a CSI?

CSIs play a crucial role in helping police officers and detectives determine the events that took place during a crime. You must be credible and trustworthy. You must possess the ability to draw key conclusions, render strong opinions, and communicate effectively. CSIs must also remain calm and collected in stressful, and otherwise unpleasant, work environments.

Who Do CSIs Work with Most Commonly?

CSIs work with diverse people at each stage of a crime scene investigation. You’ll have to work with police officers, detectives, and other law enforcement personnel at active crime scenes. You’ll work collaboratively with other investigators and technicians at laboratories. You will also work closely with lawyers and other experts during criminal trials. Additionally, you will have to cooperate with medical examiners, pathologists, and coroners during autopsies and postmortem examinations.

How much do crime scene investigators make?

According to the BLS, crime scene investigators earn, on average, about $60,590 annually. Those in the top 10% of the earnings range make more than $100,910 annually.

Do you need to be a police officer to become a CSI?

No, you do not need to become a police officer in order to become a crime scene investigator. Many crime scene investigators come from diverse backgrounds. A crime scene investigator typically needs to have a degree in a natural or forensic science field, like chemistry or biology, or a degree related to the study of crime, such as criminology or criminal justice.

What's the difference between a detective and a crime scene investigator?

In order to become a detective, you must first become a police officer. However, crime scene investigators do not have to be police officers prior to becoming crime scene investigators. Detectives gather evidence from the scene of the crime. This evidence is then processed by crime scene investigators, who analyze it in order to reach a scientific conclusion regarding that piece of evidence.

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