Forensic science has become part of popular culture via television, movies and books. As someone who is familiar with the field - and teaches forensics courses in college today - I enjoy watching the intrepid investigators in CSI, NCIS, Bones, and Law and Order as they apply highly advanced technologies -- and some version of the scientific method -- to solve mysteries and bring wrongdoers to justice.
Of course, the reality of a forensic science career is a wee bit different from the Hollywood version, where the demands of an entertaining, 60-minute-long TV show skew the real-life pace and tedious nature of criminal investigation work. While dramatic programs depict forensic scientists spending their days investigating crime scenes, most of the actual work is done in the laboratory, behind the scenes in the backrooms, performing slow and methodical physical and chemical analysis on evidence and preparing detailed reports for use in criminal or civil trials. To do the job well, a deep knowledge of biology, chemistry, math and statistical analysis is required, as is a solid background in criminalistics. Good communication skills are also important, since forensic science technicians work closely with law enforcement and other specialists and are frequently required to testify in court to provide expert testimony and explain their findings to a judge and jury.
A four-year degree in biology, chemistry, or forensic science from an accredited college or university is the minimum requirement for entry, and many forensic investigators also pursue advanced degrees or specialty certifications to enhance their career prospects. Some states require forensic scientists to have graduate degrees to handle criminal evidence. More advanced positions, such as lab managers and supervisors, require a master's degree. A Ph.D. is strongly preferred for advancement to senior positions such as lab director.
For people with the right college degree and training, forensic science offers the prospect of a rewarding and stable career. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports forensic science jobs are expected to increase by 19 percent by 2020. Over 80 percent of the positions are in federal, state and local government agencies and are connected to law enforcement. Forensic scientists can also be found in private industry in pharmaceutical and medical research laboratories, environmental testing companies, food safety, hospitals and consulting firms.
Given a college degree is the minimum starting requirement, what types of courses and experiences are required to become a forensic investigator? Students with an interest in this area should look for a program with a strong academic core in natural sciences and math combined with rigorous courses in biochemistry, toxicology, analytical chemistry, and instrumental analysis. A thorough grounding in laboratory procedure and the use of scientific instruments is absolutely essential before proceeding to forensic field and lab work. Students will also benefit greatly from taking courses in criminal justice, evidence handling, and ethics, so they build an understanding of the context for forensics work as well as the technical detail.
Forensic science is a rigorous and demanding subject. Students who wish to enter this field need to be ready to put the time into academic work and also seek internships that provide practical experience and a competitive edge when entering the job market. Those who do will have the potential for a rewarding career and an exciting opportunity to contribute to society in a direct and meaningful way.
Dr. Balwant Chohan is an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Centenary College in Hackettstown, N.J.