Careers in Forensic Science

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Editor: Sara Constantakis
Date: 2016
World of Forensic Science
From: World of Forensic Science(Vol. 1. 2nd ed.)
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Careers in Forensic Science

A forensic scientist works in one of several scientific fields used in a court of law. He or she contributes to the criminal justice system by using scientific knowledge to contribute to a court proceeding and determine the facts in a given case. Thus, a career in forensic science combines science and public service. A forensic scientist may work for a law enforcement agency, uncovering evidence for the prosecution of a crime, or he or she may work for a law firm, detecting evidence for use in a criminal defense. The forensic scientist may also work for a crime lab that is not connected to a law enforcement agency, or as an independent consultant (many document examiners would be described as such).

However, it is important to note that not all forensics personnel are scientists. There are many careers in forensics that relate to nonscience careers such as administrative, legal (nonjurisprudence), and security related fields. Most forensic professionals find jobs with police agencies, government agencies, universities, federal agencies, armed forces, and law offices.

Forensics professionals have two main objectives, to detect physical evidence and to link this evidence to the crime scene and a suspect. (Though much of the work that is actually completed by those in the forensic field deal primarily with identification and quantitative analysis.) This requires the joint effort of many professionals with specific backgrounds. A crime has many as pects and several forensics professionals will often work on a case, each studying the aspect of the crime that relates to their particular specialty.


Physical evidence is usually handled by the criminalist, whose chief role is to identify the evidence, then coordinate the appropriate analysis of the evidence. Criminalistics involves the use of results from all analyses of physical evidence to recreate the details of a crime scene. Physical evidence can be very small, such as a drop of blood or a hair follicle. It can also include toolmarks, footprints, a piece of clothing, or a distinct odor. A criminalist, therefore, must exercise a broad range of skills with the ability to apply various scientific and analytical approaches to answer questions related to a criminal investigation. They must also be able to provide interpretations that nonscientists, such as members of the jury and court, can understand. Most criminalists have a strong scientific background with, minimally, a bachelor's of science degree in chemistry, forensic science, molecular biology, or physics.

Specific courses in forensic science targeted at preparing students for the American Board of Criminalistics certification test are also offered. Criminalists are usually employed by government forensics laboratories that are part of police departments or federal agencies, such as the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) or the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). They are also employed by medical examiner (ME) offices, private companies, and to a lesser extent, universities.

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Forensic Science

A criminalist will often require the expertise of a forensic engineer to help recreate details in a crime scene. A forensic engineer is responsible for applying fundamentals of engineering to help understand aspects in a court case, particularly for civil suits, but also for regulatory or criminal proceedings. Since engineering specialties can vary considerably, the expertise required in each case also varies. For example, forensics engineers are very useful in analyzing building collapses, and various construction issues, but would be unable to determine which gun was used during a crime or from where it was fired. This would be the routine work of a firearms examiner and a criminalist. Criminalists routinely estimate the shooting distance from the gunshot residue (GSR) surrounding a bullet hole in fabric or utilize probes and/or lasers, based on bullet holes through two or more objects to detect the direction from which a bullet was fired.

A broad-based repertoire of practical experiences and a strong engineering background is necessary for this type of position. Credentials for such a position are not yet systematic, and therefore, must be achieved separately with a moderate level training in legal and criminal coursework. Many of the engineers serve in forensics-related positions as consultants.

Biological Scientists

Many forensics specialties require strong backgrounds in the biological sciences. There is an increasing need for forensics scientists with molecular biology backgrounds. This is because DNA-based analyses have revolutionized the capacity to identify and convict criminals by linking suspects to the scene of the crime or to physical evidence. For example, in cold cases DNA matching has lead to reversing charges for wrongfully convicted individuals.

Experience in DNA extractions from all types of samples is very important in the training of a molecular biologist who wishes to specialize in forensics. Specialty training in nuclear DNA analysis and, to a lesser extent, mitochondrial genetics is helpful for understanding techniques to use for paternity testing, matching a sample to a suspect, or screening DNA samples from a database of criminals. These individuals usually work in or direct crime labs in conjunction with state, local, or federal organizations. They can also be employed by private companies that offer a service to federal or state investigations.

Forensic Odontologists

Forensic odontology is an important subspecialty in forensics that is usually associated with coroner's or medical examiner's offices, although many serve as specialized consultants. These professionals can use dental or cranial examinations to provide information regarding human remains including identification of missing persons, victims from catastrophic events (plane crashes, etc.), postmortem examination with searchable database record keeping, dental injury analysis in potential abuse cases, and examination of bite marks in assault or rape cases.

A forensic odontologist must obtain a doctor of dental science (DDS) degree and have considerable experience in the field of dentistry prior to transitioning or consulting in forensics applications. The American Society of Forensic Odontology is an organization that offers comprehensive courses to prepare dentists for a role in forensics specialization.

Forensic Anthropologists

For applications that involve tissue evaluation beyond the scope of odontology, forensic anthropologists are helpful. Their expertise is usually related to direct skeletal examinations. By using archaeological methods, bones and remains can be carefully extracted from precarious surroundings, without compromising the integrity of the sample.

If the skeletal sample is compromised, anthropologists can be helpful in recreating the skeletal configuration of the remains. They are also trained to examine the insect remains to determine the state of body decomposition, especially in cases that involve a considerable amount of decomposition. A forensic anthropologist should have a doctorate in anthropology and certification through the American Board of Forensic Anthropology.


Other medical professionals are also in demand in the field of forensics. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who, with specialized forensic training, can help the forensics team understand pathological and criminal behavior. They can help predict and prevent repetitious crimes by, for example, serial killers. They can also help explain complicated crimes or cases that involve psychiatric patients by using behavioral patterns to uncover concrete motives in a crime.


Pathology is another medical specialty that has forensic applications. Pathologists perform microscopic autopsy evaluations of tissues, body fluids (blood, urine, skin), and organs to discover the cause of death in cases that involve, for example, poisoning or unusual injuries of unclear origin. They can also help determine the time Page 123  |  Top of Articleof death by evaluating the extent of tissue deterioration or obtaining tissue samples.

Recently, forensic pathologists have been instrumental in coordinating medically related investigations of possible exposure to biological weapons such as anthrax. Pathologists require forensics specialty training and board certification. They are typically employed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as medical examiners offices and hospitals. All medical professionals that serve in forensics careers can also serve to provide the courts with expert testimonials.

Sometimes a pathologist needs to send tissue samples to a toxicologist for further study. A toxicologist specializes in the medical and scientific study of poisons. Toxicologists are often involved in forensics cases by evaluating tissue samples for possible chemical exposures such as illicit drug use. Toxicologists can have a MS or a PhD degree in toxicology with certification in both the American Board of Forensic Toxicology and the Forensic Toxicology Certification Board.


Because several popular television shows in 2010, 2011, and 2012 featured profilers, careers in pathological profiling became highly sought after. There are, however, a very limited number of jobs available in this and related fields at any given time. Furthermore, actual job descriptions are quite different than what is often depicted on TV.

Other Subspecialties

Not all forensics professionals are scientists or physicians. Trial lawyers that have forensics training can be valuable to criminal and civil court cases. Not only can forensic knowledge help lawyers determine the admissibility of evidence, but it can also help them review the credentials of expert witnesses, understand the techniques and analysis that the expert employs, and cross-examine the expert witness. A law degree is required and positions can be found in both private practice as well as in state and district offices.

The subspecialties discussed here represent only a portion of the career paths available in forensics. Clinical personnel, computer programmers, accountants, archaeologists, sculptors, coroners, ballistics and firearms examination experts, marine biologists, environmentalists, social workers, and nurses are all fields that can be useful in forensic science. All forensics professionals that have the appropriate credentials can serve as expert witnesses during court proceedings. The field of forensics is growing, and job vacancies in many areas of forensic science are expected to keep increasing into the future.

Professional Organizations

There are several professional organizations in forensic science. One such organization is the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS), a professional society that offers membership to a wide range of forensic specialties. The AAFS is dedicated to improving accuracy, precision, specificity, and sensitivity of forensic sciences by promoting educational resources in the form of meetings, training, and seminars.

As of 2015, there were over 7,000 members, which included (but were not limited to) physicians, attorneys, criminalists, engineers, toxicologists, dentists, and anthropologists. Representation spanned all 50 of the United States, Canada, and 70 additional countries worldwide. The AAFS hosted an annual scientific meeting, and produced an internationally recognized scientific journal (Journal of Forensic Sciences), which were both utilized by a wide variety of scientists and educators from various forensic specialties.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3630600104