General Forensic Information

What Is Forensic Science
Forensic science is the application of scientific knowledge and methodology to legal problems and criminal investigations. Forensic science encompasses criminalistics (crime scene investigation, biological evidence, trace evidence, impression evidence, controlled substances, ballistics); digital & multimedia sciences; engineering sciences; odontology; pathology; anthropology; questioned documents; toxicology; et cetera.

Television shows such as "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" have made the field particularly popular while grossly misrepresenting what forensic personnel actually do. Such television shows project images of well-dressed investigators handling an entire police investigation, from examining crime scenes to interviewing involved individuals, performing laboratory work, arresting the guilty party, and testifying in court.

The reality is that forensic personnel are typically responsible for one aspect of a police investigation. They deal only with physical evidence. Physical evidence consists of actual physical objects that can be examined and evaluated. As an example, in a law enforcement setting: crime scene technicians typically perform the actual crime scene processing, scientists/criminalists analyze and interpret the evidence in a laboratory while police interact with witnesses, victims, suspects and the media. The combination of the work done by all personnel will ultimately be presented to attorneys and may culminate in a trial in a court of law.

Most forensic laboratories are funded through local, state or federal budgets.

General Qualifications for Careers in Forensic Science
Specific requirements for forensic positions vary from one agency to another and are dependent upon a variety of requirements.

Typically, a BA or BS degree in a physical science is preferred when hiring civilian crime scene technicians. Some preferred degrees include the sciences such as chemistry, biology, physics or a non-science such as criminal justice or sociology. Specialized training in crime scene work may be preferred, but is available through many organizations. Individuals pursuing this field of work should be prepared for on-call duty, shift work, weekend availability, long hours with little rest time, and some heavy lifting. The typical pay range for crime scene technicians is often lower than police officers and laboratory employees.

Laboratory employees typically specialize in one particular area of forensic science. Some examples of specialty areas include: latent print unit, chemistry unit, firearms unit, and biology unit. Generally, BS degrees are required; however each lab has its own educational/training requirements for each unit. An education with a strong scientific background will be the most beneficial for laboratory employees. Recommended courses include, but are not limited to: general chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, genetics, statistics, anatomy and physiology, molecular biology, and criminalistics/investigation courses.

Along with specified course work, basic laboratory experience is beneficial to gaining entry into a forensic laboratory. This experience should include: proper handling of chemicals and reagents; basic operation of equipment (i.e. microscopes, pipettes, balances, centrifuges, cameras, et cetera); understanding of quality assurance and quality control practices; ability to follow standard operating procedures; and a general knowledge of word processing programs and spreadsheets.

Also, communication is key in a forensic science career. Good communication skills involve the ability to write clear and concise reports and testify in a court of law regarding the examinations and analyses performed. All casework ends when the analyst summarizes their analytical findings in a written report for each case. These reports may be used for investigative purposes or as part of the adjudication process. Analysts are required to testify as a witness regarding their analysis and report.

Almost every laboratory will require applicants to pass an extensive background investigation. These typically involve a check of personal references, credit check, polygraph examination, and drug screen. It should be noted that these same requirements are often required to obtain an internship as well. New hires with no previous experience will undergo an intense training process which may take several years to complete prior to assuming unsupervised casework responsibilities.

Useful websites for more information on forensic science and career preparation:
American Academy of Forensic Sciences:
International Association for Identification:
Mid-Atlantic Association of Forensic Scientists:
Midwestern Association of Forensic Scientists:
Northeastern Association of Forensic Scientists:
Northwest Association of Forensic Scientists:
Southern Association of Forensic Scientists:
Southwestern Association of Forensic Scientists: