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How To Become A Forensic Scientist

Introduction

forensic science

Seeking out Forensic Science Courses is an exciting and ambitious choice. This is a rewarding career and one offering much opportunity for advancement and engagement. If you have got this far, reading this article, then you have some idea of what it might entail. Yet, it is possible this might be more informed by television shows and novels than anything else.

So, before we leap into telling you about the different routes into forensic science, we will give you some background to the career and the sort of day you can expect at work. It is always important to be fully informed before beginning the learning process, making sure the career will meet your expectations.

What Is A Forensic Scientist?

The forensic scientist is the collector and analyser of evidence from crime scenes. This is the bit you have seen on Crime Scene Investigations that likely appeals. This is where you will work in the field gathering the evidence, whether it is blood, fluids, hair, fibres, paint and glass fragments, tyre marks, or more. When not in the field you will be in the laboratory processing the findings and producing a written report. You will coordinate your work with the Crown Prosecution Service, making sure processes and procedures are followed so that convictions in court are secure. On rare occasions you may be expected to give evidence.

There are many specialisms in forensic science. You will take a route that follows your interest. You could be expected to process blood and DNA; you could be responsible for analysing handwriting, you could be involved in computer analysis and data recovery. Alternatively, you could stay in the field, collecting forensic evidence at crime scenes.

What Does A Forensic Scientist Do?

Your responsibilities as a general forensic scientist fall into three broad areas: chemistry, biology, or drugs and toxicology. You will need to be able to analyse samples and apply specific techniques used to uncover findings within the evidence. You will need to show close attention to detail, as the sifting and sorting of evidence could be at the minuscule level.

Attending the aftermath of crimes and accidents may at first seem glamorous – but as with all careers – the glamorous and exciting case is the exception. When you attend scenes, it could be a car accident or a robbery; it could be an assault, and occasionally it may be a murder.

You are not the investigator as such, you are the processor of findings – but you will be expected to liaise with other team members and other agencies – such as the police.

A lot of work will be done on a computer, analysing results and supervising the work of assistants. You will also be expected to keep up to date with new forensic techniques and be thoroughly prepared should you need to appear in court.

If the visiting of crime scenes is off-putting – it is worth knowing that some forensic scientists specialise in laboratory work – never leaving to enter the real world!

What Are The Working Hours For A Forensic Scientist?

Criminals are notoriously thoughtless and tend to fail to understand the need for them to be active between 9 am and 5 pm. Said more seriously, you could be called out to a crime scene at any time. You may be asked to work shifts, or you may be asked to be on call. You will more than likely work office hours – but you should expect to work some evenings and weekends – and maybe even be available in the middle of the night.

What Are The Different Types Of Forensic Scientist?

There are many types of forensic scientist, and your job role will depend on what you choose to specialise in. You could take a broad approach and specialise in one of three main areas: biology, which is the processing of blood, hair, DNA, etc.; chemistry usually connected to crimes against property such as burglary and arson; or drugs and toxicology, which is the testing for restricted drugs and poisons, examining tissues specimens and processing samples relating to alcohol.

There are also specific specialisms such as toxicology, forensic psychology, podiatry, odontology and more. It is likely that you would become an expert in your field if you chose one of these specific routes.

What Can A Forensic Scientist Expect To Experience On The Job?

The role of a forensic scientist is not one of day-to-day excitement. You are behind the scenes and undertaking painstaking and quiet analysis and report writing. You are a key part of the process of convicting criminals – but you are not out actively investigating and arresting these criminals single-handled – that is a job for detectives. You will liaise with detectives – passing on findings and analysis.

Only a few forensic scientists attend crime scenes – and technically their job title is pathologist. The work of the scientist is more often back at the lab identifying blood, DNA, and other fibres. Therefore, you will be given a case, a set of evidence and a list of tests to run – you will be expected to know how to complete these tests to standard procedures that can be upheld in court and then you will write a report. This is likely to be 95% of your role, day-in-day-out.

Being a forensic scientist is precise work – and often a lonely activity – even though you are part of a team and expected to work with other agencies. There are times when you will decide this is a tedious and repetitive role. There are other times when you decide it is too grim. However, largely speaking, forensic scientists find work rewarding because they are a crucial cog in achieving a conviction.

You will more than likely get your job satisfaction and interest from the science rather than the crimes. It is intense chemistry and biology – and the fascination will come from the ever-changing techniques and developments.

Saying this, you do need to take account of the fact that some of the work may be distressing. You are likely to see dead bodies and the consequences of some awful acts and accidents. Therefore, you should consider methods by which you can manage the stress and the distress.

Who Does A Forensic Scientist Work For?

Many companies in the private sector employ forensic scientists. These commercial companies in the UK include Cellmark Forensic Services, ESG and Eurofins Forensic services.

In Scotland, the processing of evidence such as DNA, fingerprints, etc. are done by the Scottish Police Authority Forensic Services.

It is also possible to be a specialist with the Metropolitan Police – become an SC&O – or a Specialist Crime and Operations Officer. There are also SC&O offices within local police forces. Alternatively, you could work for the government. There is DSTL (Defence Science and Technology Laboratory) and CAST (Centre for Applied Science and Technology).

It is also possible to be employed by universities and specialist laboratories – or in public health laboratories. The range of job contexts makes this an interesting career in itself, as it is possible to find your niche.

You are unlikely to find a single site where forensic scientists find jobs. Therefore, you are going to have to look at the relevant organisations who hire forensic scientists – as well as looking in industry publications such as New Scientist. You are likely to find a close link between industry and your university or your course provider. Therefore, once you are on a course you will be given a lot of guidance on how to progress into employment.

What Skills Foes A Forensic Scientist Need?

As well as a detailed understanding, knowledge and application of scientific principles and strong IT proficiency – there are many soft skills you will be expected to master. You should be an excellent communicator. Remember part of your role will be liaising and ensuring that someone can action your work. You will therefore need to be a team player – and show strong interpersonal skills.

As a lot of the work you do will be self-managed, you will need to be a strong organiser of your work and excellent at time management. A lot of your work will be time sensitive and people will be waiting on your results.

Most importantly, you will need attention to detail and patience. There will be a lot of scanning through small details – looking for a needle in a haystack amongst a field of haystacks. It could be that your efforts will be fruitless for a long time. You need resilience to keep going.

A final thought: can you remain independent and unbiased? Are you able to be methodical and logical and follow the science? You will be expected to analyse results as a scientist, removing the personal and the emotional and reporting only on what the evidence presents.

How Much Does A Forensic Scientist Earn?

You will likely begin as an assistant or an associate. These positions start at approximately £20,000 annual salary. The salary of a forensic scientist can rise to somewhere between £25,000 and £45,000. As with any career where expertise and level of qualification are valued, the more specialised and the more desired your knowledge, the more you will likely be paid.

The average salary for all forensic scientists in 2018 is reported to be £26832. With the hours you may work, this annual average wage comes out as approximately £10 per hour.

What Qualifications Do You Need To Become A Forensic Scientist?

The route into forensic science is academic. SC&O are often police officers who have retrained – so there is a higher than normal late entry into this area of forensic science.

It is likely that you will have taken A-levels in a combination of science-related subjects. As with any increasingly competitive sector of employment, it is a good idea to seek the highest grades in Biology and Chemistry at the very least. You will also benefit from taking Maths to a higher level.

The essential qualification is a Forensic Science Degree, or more likely a postgraduate degree in forensic science once you have gained your science degree. You are more than likely going to have to continue to study as you work. The area of forensic study is ever-evolving and there is an expectation you keep up with the latest techniques. It is usual for forensic scientists to continue study to a master’s degree and PhD.

As this is a competitive field, you will be expected to undertake work experience. Some forensic scientist work as a volunteer with police authorities to gain the necessary experience in the field. There is nothing wrong with sending out letters and CVs to agencies requesting experience or role shadowing. However, it is also possible to gain work experience placements in a hospital or research centre. It may be that you begin by working short-term contracts and agency work before being offered a full-time appointment.

What Are The Career Advancement Opportunities For A Forensic Scientist?

forensic science

Once you have entered forensic science, the career prospects are excellent. The competition for your first role will be intense – and it is a good idea to be geographically flexible and offer evidence of the breadth of skills you will be expected to demonstrate. These other skills can be shown through volunteer work or your social interests and hobbies.

Promotion within forensic science will be based on your experience, on your continuing acquisition of qualifications and learning, on your proof of levels of responsibility and your appraisal reports. You will likely work for approximately five years at an entry level before you should expect to progress to the role of reporting officer. Once you become a reporting officer you will be able to take on your own caseload and you will be expected to deal directly with the police. At this level, you can also be called as an expert witness in court cases.

The next level is casework examiner. Here you will coordinate an area of speciality. You will supervise the work of others, attend conferences and be expected to research and publish articles in your field. You will become increasingly specialised and expert – and will on occasion be expected to attend the scenes of crimes.

There is also a managerial route through forensic science, as in most other professions. It is important that you research these roles to ensure that the job specification continues to fulfil your expectation of your chosen profession.

Step By Step Guide To Become A Forensic Scientist

Step One: Is It The Job You Expect?

First, assess if a forensic scientist is the job you expect it to be. There is a lot of concern in forensic science organisations that television programmes such as Silent Witness, CSI and Prime Suspect have given a warped understanding of the role. Remember this is a scientist position – and not an investigators position. The day-to-day work could be a lot more repetitive than television suggests it might be.

Step Two: Study

You will need to gain A-levels in Biology and Chemistry, and ideally Maths and Computer Science. This range of A levels will give you the grounding needed for all aspects of forensic science. There are lots of other combinations of A-levels, based on science, that you can take that can lead to the same place. Therefore, if you have started your A-levels it is still possible for you to progress into forensic science, even if you have chosen different subjects. Even if you have taken a general science degree – there are still routes into forensic science from there.

Step Three: Study Some More

You will need a science degree and postgraduate forensic science qualification, or you will need a degree in forensic science. There are a lot of forensic science courses now – so it is possible to gain a specialised degree without having to gain a post-graduate qualification. It is a competitive field, therefore the more detailed your knowledge and understanding, the more desirable you will be as a candidate for a post.

Step Four: Work On Developing The Broader Skills

As with all competitive professions, you will need to demonstrate more than just academic ability. Therefore, you need to work hard on your CV and what it says about you. You should develop broad interests and hobbies that will show your commitment, your teamwork skills, your ability to balance work and life; your resilience and your levels of energy and enthusiasm.

Step Five: Seek Work Experience

You can get started as a forensic scientist straight from university and this will largely depend on the links between your course provider and employers. More likely, you will need to seek work experience and/or volunteer work. You can shadow someone in role or offer to do the work for free for a period, to gain the all-in-important in the field understanding of the profession. Another route could be through short-term contracts and agency work.

In short, you will also need to work on this element of your CV before applying. You need to shape yourself into the perfect candidate for the post – amongst potentially hundreds of others.

Step Six: Apply For An Entry Position

Jobs for forensic scientists are not collated onto a single website. It is likely that you will need to scour the specialist magazines such as New Scientist, and the websites of organisations who employ forensic scientists. Your first role is likely to be an assistant or an associate.

Step Seven: Learn Some More

Once in post, you will be expected to continue to learn. This is an explicit requirement of the job, as the technology and techniques are ever-changing. However, continued promotion in the field requires increasing specialism. It is more than likely that you will go onto further qualifications, whether it is a master’s degree or PhD in your specialist field.

Summary

Imagine you are watching Crimewatch or reading a newspaper and there is a conviction that was a result of the solid forensic work you have completed. Your work is responsible for people feeling safer and a victim being given a sense of justice served. This is the level of reward you could achieve as a forensic scientist.

There may be aspects of the role that are distressing – but largely the work is fine detail analysis of evidence – and the careful presentation of the results in a report.

This area of science is ever-changing and evolving and as such is fascinating for those interested in Biology and Chemistry in particular. You will be at the cutting edge of developments – and if you become specialised – you could be the person making these breakthroughs.

This is a well-paid profession that offers many opportunities for advancement and specialisation.