Forensic Science HQ

Investigate the forensic science world

Educational Requirements for a Forensic Scientist

Forensic Scientists are considered experts in their field and often must testify in court to explain their analysis and the significance of their findings. To become a forensic scientist requires continual learning, however for those just starting a career in forensic science, a Bachelor’s Degree in any field is often acceptable. An advanced degree or an emphasis in science classes is beneficial to the initial hiring process.

Forensic Science Educational Requirements

Image: Andy Newson / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Due to the rising popularity of forensic science brought about by several successful television series, several colleges and universities are now offering courses specializing in forensics and legal studies. These courses can certainly help you when you look for a job as a forensic scientist but they are not required. Certain specialties in forensic science require specific classes, for example, Genetics, Biochemistry and Organic Chemistry are required for DNA analyis. If you are interested in a becoming a forensic scientist, it is best to check with nearby forensic laboratories before applying to see if they have any advice for you that may be unique. Laboratory experience is also helpful in addition to a degree, even if it’s not in a forensic lab. Some agencies offer internships which is an excellent way to get started.

A “discipline” refers to a specialized area of expertise in forensic science. Examples of disciplines are question documents, fingerprint analysis, DNA analysis, and drug chemistry. Most forensic laboratories enroll scientist in their own training program designed for their discipline immediately after hiring. Everything about the forensic specialties is taught to the trainee after they are hired. Laboratories strive to have a certain number of scientists with advance degrees. For example, laboratories accredited with ASCLD require that a lead DNA analyst have a minimum of a master’s degree. So while it’s possible to be hired with only a Bachelor’s degree, those with a Master’s or phD do have an advantage.

If you are interested in becoming a forensic scientist, the first thing you need to do is learn about the various disciplines and descide which one intests you. Contact the forensic laborartory in your area and ask about their requirements and hiring opportunities. Forensic labs are found in nearly all states and privately owned laboratories exist as well. On a national level in the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) operates a forensic science laboratory and hires trainees as well.

A good education is required to become a forensic scientist and it’s crucial to take your studies seriously if you want to succeed. A career in Forensic Science is highly competitive and very demanding. Not only are good grades important, but you must also be willing to continue your education throughout your career.

Forensic Chemistry


Forensic Chemistry, or “Drug Chemistry” is the forensic discipline of identifying evidence thought to be a controlled substance. Most often, the types of evidence the forensic drug chemist examines are pills, capsules, plant materials, tables, powder, drug paraphernalia and residues.

drug chemistry

Drug Chemistry

When an individual is prosecuted for possession or distribution of a controlled substance, the degree of the punishment and offense is often directly related to the amount of drugs identified in the case. It is the job of the drug chemist to accurately weigh the amount of substance, using a balance and then positively identify the drug in question.

The evidence is inventoried, often times photographed, and tested with a one or more techniques, including traditional spot tests, thin layer chromatography (TLC) and extraction, as well as instrumental techniques such as ultraviolet (UV) spectroscopy and gas chromatography (GC).

Forensic Drug Chemistry

Marijuana is frequently examined.


Advanced techniques such as Infrared spectroscopy (IR) or mass spectrometry (MS) are used to confirm the identity of questioned substances. Microscopy is also available for examining case material, such as marijuana. A report is issued to the investigative agency identifying any controlled substances amount detected. The Forensic Chemist is often required to testify as an expert in court to describe the methods used and the conclusions that were reached.

Microscopy


A Microscopist is a forensic scientist who specializes in the analysis of hairs, fibers and debris. Most commonly, a microscopist will examine hairs and fibers to determine their possible origin.

When a hair is examined, the scientist is often asked to answer the following questions:

  • Is it human?
  • Is it scalp hair or pubic hair?
  • What is the race of the individual it originated from?
  • If it is not human, what species is it from?
  • Was the hair dyed or treated?
  • Is genetic material present for DNA testing?
Hair under a microscope

Microscopic view of a hair

Fibers are also commonly examined, with the goal of answering similar questions:

  • What type of fiber is it?
  • Is it man made or natural?
  • What kind of material is the fiber from?  (Carpet, blanket, sweater, etc.)

In addition to hairs and fibers, the microscopist may be asked to examine such things as:

  • Building materials
  • Safe insulation
  • Wood
  • Soil and rock

Microscopy is a very labor intensive and lengthy process.  Forensic microscopists must be patient and enjoy looking in a microscope and working with very tiny materials.

Forensic Biology


Forensic Biology is the analysis of body fluids, stains and other bodily materials to help solve a crime. Typically, this involves the positive identification of blood, semen, or saliva and further genetic testing (DNA) to determine who the material may have originated from, typically the alleged victim, suspect or other involved party.

Some laboratory systems expect the Forensic Biologist to handle all evidence in their area from a given case from “cradle to grave”, i.e from initial detection to identification and DNA testing and prosecution. Some use an “assembly line” approach, where one scientist may do only evidence screening, which means they only look for the body fluids, another would do tests to determine what the fluids are, and yet another would do DNA analysis. This approach allows the scientist to focus on a single area of expertise, although the “cradle to grave” approach gives a better overall understanding of the case and what may or may not be important based on related factors.

Depending on the agency or company you work for, you therefore may be trained in a variety of biological techniques or possibly just a single specialty, like DNA analysis. Some agencies also expect their scientists to go to the crime scene and collect evidence Most, however have crime Scene Technicians dedicated to this task. The evidence is then transported to the laboratory for analysis.

A Forensic Biologist usually begins their analysis by examining a piece of evidence for the presence of hairs, fibers and stains. Any collected hairs or fibers of evidential value are most often transferred to a Forensic Microscopist for further analysis. However, it is usually the job of the Forensic Biologist to collect and preserve the hairs and fibers initially.

Many times an alternate light source, such as a laser is used to find stains on articles such as bed sheets or clothing. A portion of the stain is removed and tested for identification. The most common types of test are those for blood and semen, although at times it is necessary to test for other body fluids or tissues such as urine or saliva. A forensic scientist must know not only how to perform the appropriate test, but also how to interpret the results. Some tests can provide absolute answers, for instance, if a stain is in fact blood. Others can only provide a “likely” answer, like in the case of saliva, where there is no absolute conclusion. A positive analysis for this type of test means only that a substance is indicated (probable), not conclusively identified. Overstating conclusions is always a risk for the poorly trained or over confident Forensic Biologist.

Once a stain is identified, the scientist is often asked to determine who it could or could not have originated from. For example, if blood is found in a car, it may be beneficial to the case to find out if it originated from a people thought to be involved in the case, usually a victim and suspect. In this scenario, DNA analysis would be conducted on the blood in the “questioned stain” to develop a DNA profile. The questioned profile would then be compared to the known DNA profiles of the victim and suspect. If the profiles are the same, the are considered a “match” and the next step is to figure out what that match means. How many other people could be expected to have the same profile? Depending on amount of detail discovered in the DNA profile, this could range from a lot of people, to one in several billion, or essentially only a single person. With this type of strong match, DNA analysis if very similar to a fingerprint, and the analyst is able to testify in court that the blood originated from specific individual.