How to Become a Forensic Scientist

Kate Onissiphorou

by Kate Onissiphorou

29th December 2021

When you were a child, you may have dreamt of becoming a scientist or a police detective. Well, you can actually become both if you pursue a career in forensics. Becoming a forensic scientist allows you to help in solving crimes by using scientific methodologies and laboratory techniques.

A forensic scientist examines physical evidence and clues that can reconstruct the events of a crime and its surrounding circumstances. A crime scene usually has multiple types of evidence that must be examined. For example, in a murder scene, there could be a wide range of clues like DNA, footprints, clothing fibres, different types of blood spatters, and bullet casings.

Various fields of expertise are needed to examine all this evidence, with each type requiring a specialised field of discipline or even multiple fields of discipline. For instance, in the case of the murder scene, a forensic pathologist, a geneticist, a toxicologist, and a profiler would all be needed to examine the unidentified body. If the body is in an advanced state of decomposition, an entomologist would also be needed.

If you’re planning to become a forensic scientist, you should pick an area of specialisation in which you can hone your expertise and experience. At the same time, you should also be functionally knowledgeable about all the different fields in forensics. One career path that you can follow is forensic chemistry.

What Does a Forensic Scientist Do?

No single field of forensic science is totally independent from others. Since no individual has all the expertise and knowledge necessary to solve all crimes, forensic scientists must collaborate with other experts to examine various types of evidence.

While forensic scientists follow the scientific method, they are usually limited to a narrow aspect of a case; and although they have access to all the pertinent information about a case, they are usually limited to their own field of expertise and tools. A graphic showing the steps of the scientific method

Regardless of the field of specialisation, a forensic scientist generally does the following on a regular basis:

  • Identifies the pertinent issues or problems of a case: Forensic scientists must know how to ask the right questions. For example, a forensic geneticist may want to establish the presence of a suspect in the crime scene by comparing the genetic markers of the foreign human biological samples on the victim, such as semen, blood, or hair, with that of the suspect. 
  • Collects and examines various types of evidence: A piece of evidence could be any physical or documentary evidence like videos, written letters, blood samples, tissue samples, fingerprints, track prints, and trace chemicals in the crime scene. It usually requires more than one expert to examine various types of evidence. Forensic scientists examining a burnt out car
  • Forms a hypothesis about the case and the evidence: The hypothesis is an educated guess that tentatively answers the question or questions related to the case. Based on the evidence, a forensic scientist may construct a hypothesis and test it to determine the possible solution to a crime mystery.
  • Tests and compares the evidence against other data based on the hypothesis: This includes doing chemical tests, genetic analysis, fingerprinting, and digital retrieval of data from computer devices.
  • Makes a conclusion based on the evidence: The conclusion is usually limited to a piece of evidence itself and the area of expertise of a forensic scientist who examined the evidence. A conclusion about a piece of evidence may support the case or rule-out certain assumptions. In some rare cases, the conclusion made in one piece of evidence may be decisive in determining the outcome of the investigation or trial.

Depending on the field of specialisation, forensic scientists vary in specific methodologies, equipment, and focus. For example, a forensic anthropologist focuses on bones and other burial artefacts of victims. Meanwhile, a ballistic expert focuses on bullets, explosives, and other projectiles used in a crime, while a forensic chemist focuses on toxicology and other chemical traces that are related to a crime scene. The list goes on.

How Many Forensic Scientists Are There in the UK?

Since forensic scientists come from various fields of expertise, it’s challenging to definitively enumerate how many there are in the UK. However, one estimate puts the total number of forensic scientists in the UK to around 3,400.

Most of the opportunities available to forensic scientists are in the law enforcement sector. Some private companies also offer career opportunities for forensic scientists, but they are still connected to law enforcement.

Aside from performing crime investigation, field data collection, profiling, and laboratory work, forensic scientists also serve as expert witnesses in court hearings. They may also work as professors or lecturers. A forensic scientist analysing a skull in a lab

How Long Does it Take to Become a Forensic Scientist?

Just like in other sciences, you need at least a bachelor’s degree in forensics to start a career in forensic science. Even then, you may only land a job as a forensic technician. You will need additional training, certifications, and advanced degrees to become a true expert in forensics. 

You may also need to specialise in a particular field in forensic science, such as DNA profiling or forensic pathology. This would mean additional years of formal schooling. Therefore, it may take four to six years of formal schooling before you can become a fully-fledged forensic scientist. 

Some of the forensic specialisations that would require additional years of formal schooling include the following:

  • Forensic psychology: Aside from an MD, you will need a PhD to be a fully qualified forensic psychologist or psychiatrist.
  • Forensic odontology: This will require you to study dentistry as you’ll need a good grasp on how teeth can identify a person, like fingerprints.
  • Forensic entomology: You’ll have to earn a graduate-level degree in entomology to become an expert in this field. This is because you’ll need to be well-versed about the different species of insects, their life cycles, and behaviours.
  • Forensic anthropology: You will need at least a PhD in anthropology to become a qualified expert in examining skeletal remains.

How Much Does a Forensic Scientist Make?

The income of forensic scientists vary across the different fields of expertise. Forensic chemistry, however, is among the highest paid fields in the UK. Just like in other jobs, the pay rate varies depending on several factors such as location, employer, level of education, experience or seniority, and specific forensic field.

Based on educated estimates, the average salary range of a forensic scientist can be broken down into the following categories:

  • £20,000 per annum – starting or entry-level salary
  • £25,000 and £35,000 – for experienced scientists
  • £45,000 and above – for senior-level scientists

What Qualifications Do You Need to Become a Forensic Scientist?

A forensic scientist is typically a specialist in an applied science related to forensics. There are several disciplines that are related to forensic science, including chemistry, computer science, and accountancy. People who work in these fields are considered ‘on-call’ whenever there is a case that needs to be solved.

A crime could be a white collar financial crime, cybercrime (e.g. identity theft), or crime against a person such as an assault or murder. The multidisciplinary nature of forensic science makes it hard to comprehensively include all possible related qualifications to become a forensic scientist.

A data scientist analysing data on a computer

Forensic scientists may work in the field of data science

However, the basic qualification to be employed in the field of forensics include the following:

  • Education: A bachelor’s degree in science majoring in forensics or in a field that is related to forensics, such as medical technology. For more senior positions, a master’s degree or even a PhD is required such as in the case of forensic psychology.
  • On-the-job training: Some employers may require apprenticeship or internship experience. Other employers may provide direct training while the employee is on probationary status.
  • Certification: In some countries, official government certification is required to be considered a forensic scientist. This is usually earned by passing a standardised examination related to a forensic field of specialisation. 
  • Professional membership: Although membership in a professional forensic science association is not an absolute requirement, it can help boost your credentials. It will also help you in your career advancement through networks and continued professional education. In the UK, for instance, one of the most prestigious organisations for forensic science professionals is the British Academy of Forensic Sciences.

Can You Become a Forensic Scientist With a Biology Degree?

Having a degree in biology is relevant to forensic science, especially when it comes to DNA testing and examining biological evidence. However, it is not enough to qualify as a forensic specialist. You may need to bolster your biology degree with additional undergraduate units in forensic science.

5 Reasons to Become a Forensic Scientist

Forensic science may not be as action-packed, as exciting, or as easy as literature, movies, and TV series portray it to be, but it’s a rewarding career in chemistry in many aspects.

If you are passionate about science and you are also interested in solving crimes, then it is sufficient justification to pursue a career as a forensic scientist. Other reasons include the following:

  1. Sense of fulfillment: If you love your job, you will find a sense of fulfillment in it. The financial compensation may only be secondary.
  2. Need for challenge: You will feel challenged by many cases that you will handle. It could be an exciting and interesting job for you. You will always be intellectually stimulated.
  3. Social significance: The job of a forensic scientist is important in delivering justice and keeping the public safe. You will have a higher purpose or calling.
  4. State-of-the-art laboratories: If you are a ‘science geek’, you will probably love working in a laboratory with advanced equipment.
  5. Good compensation: On top of it all is the good compensation package. Forensic scientists are among the top paid professionals.

Disclaimer

All content published on the ReAgent.co.uk blog is for information only. The blog, its authors, and affiliates cannot be held responsible for any accident, injury or damage caused in part or directly from using the information provided. Additionally, we do not recommend using any chemical without reading the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), which can be obtained from the manufacturer. You should also follow any safety advice and precautions listed on the product label. If you have health and safety related questions, visit HSE.gov.uk.

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