If you have an enquiring mind and a methodical approach to work, a career as a forensic scientist may be for you
As a forensic scientist you'll provide scientific evidence for use in courts of law to support the prosecution or defence in criminal and civil investigations.
You'll be primarily concerned with searching for and examining contact trace material associated with crimes. This material can include:
- blood and other body fluids
- fibres from clothing
- paint and glass fragments
- tyre marks
- flammable substances used to start fires.
Although evidence is usually presented in writing as a formal statement of evidence or report, you may have to attend court to give your evidence in person.
Types of forensic scientist
Job activities depend on the area of forensics in which you work. The main areas are:
- chemistry - connected to crimes against property, such as burglary and arson
- biology - connected to crimes against people, such as murder, assault and rape
- drugs and toxicology.
Within these areas, the work usually involves:
- chemistry - the examination of substances such as paint or chemicals, including fire investigation and accident reconstruction
- biology - DNA testing and the examination of minute contact traces, such as blood, hair and clothing fibres
- drugs and toxicology - testing for restricted drugs, examining tissue specimens for poison detection, and the analysis of blood and urine samples for alcohol, for example in drink driving offences.
As a forensic scientist, you'll need to:
- analyse samples, such as hair, body fluids, glass, paint and drugs, in the laboratory
- apply techniques such as gas and high-performance liquid chromatography, scanning electron microscopy, mass spectrometry, infrared spectroscopy and genetic fingerprinting
- sift and sort evidence, often held in miniscule quantities
- record findings and collect trace evidence from scenes of crimes or accidents
- attend and examine scenes of crimes
- liaise with teams and coordinate with outside agencies, such as the police
- analyse and interpret results and computer data
- review and supervise the work of assistants
- present the results of your work in written form or by giving oral evidence
- justify findings under cross-examination in courts of law
- research and develop new forensic techniques.
Not all forensic scientists get involved with crime scene work or reporting. Some choose to stay in the laboratory.
- Salaries for forensic scientists typically start at £20,000.
- With experience, this can increase to between £25,000 and £35,000.
- Salaries at senior levels can exceed £45,000.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Although you'll typically work normal office hours, you may have to do shifts or be on call. Crimes may happen at any time, so you must be prepared to work evenings and weekends.
What to expect
- Although most of the work is laboratory-based, experienced forensic scientists may have to attend crime scenes. The balance of work in the laboratory, court and office varies between roles.
- The work may be stressful and distressing at times, particularly when attending scenes of crimes. You'll need to feel comfortable presenting and defending your evidence in court under cross-examination.
- If attending a crime scene, you'll need to wear protective clothing to prevent contamination of the scene and sometimes to protect yourself from hazardous materials.
- The work can be painstaking and time consuming so you'll need to have patience.
- Although there isn't generally much travel involved, you may need to travel to attend conferences and training courses.
To work as a forensic scientist you'll usually need either a degree in a scientific subject, such as biological sciences or chemistry, or a degree in forensic science. Degree subjects such as statistics and geology can be useful for entry into specialist areas of forensic science.
While there's been an increase in the number of forensic science undergraduate degree courses, they don't all provide the skills and knowledge required to work as a forensic scientist. Check details of accredited courses with The Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences (CSFS).
Competition for jobs is intense, so you may want to take an MSc or PhD in forensic science. A Masters in a forensic specialty, such as archaeology or anthropology, can also be useful. Search postgraduate courses in forensic science.
If you want to work as an assistant forensic scientist, you'll need at least four good GCSE passes, including English and either science (biology/chemistry) or maths, and at least one A-level or equivalent in a science subject. In practice, however, many assistant forensic scientists have at least a first degree.
You'll need to have:
- the capacity to undertake fine, analytical, painstaking work with exceptional attention to detail
- a logical, unbiased and methodical approach to problem solving
- a persistent approach and enquiring mind
- the ability to work well in a team, as well as independently
- strong written and oral communication skills and the ability to communicate scientific information to non-experts
- the ability to work to deadlines
- good colour vision.
You'll typically need experience working in a laboratory, for example in a hospital or a research centre. Work placements occasionally arise in biological research and development.
Entry remains competitive and you might find short-term contracts and agency work that could lead to full-time appointments. It may also be worth sending targeted speculative applications to ask about work experience or work shadowing opportunities with relevant organisations such as police forces.
Forensic scientists are employed by commercial companies such as Cellmark Forensic Services, SOCOTEC and eurofins Forensic Services, which provide forensic science services to the police and other agencies.
In Scotland, a national forensic service - which includes biology, chemistry, DNA, drugs analysis, scene investigation, fingerprints and specialist services (such as documents and handwriting) - is provided by the Scottish Police Authority Forensic Services.
Other employers include:
- forensic science units within local police forces, such as the Metropolitan Police Specialist Crime and Operations (SC&O)
- government departments such as the Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (Dstl) and the Centre For Applied Science and Technology (CAST)
- Forensic Science Northern Ireland (FSNI), an agency within the Department of Justice.
You might also be employed by medical schools, university research departments, public health laboratories and companies dealing in specialist areas such as fire investigation.
Look for job vacancies at:
- The Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences
- Forensic Science Northern Ireland (FSNI)
- New Scientist Jobs
- Scottish Police Authority
There's no one place where jobs are advertised, so check the websites of relevant professional bodies, police forces and key employers, as well as industry publications.
Strong links exist between some university departments and employers, so check with your university for potential contacts.
The training you receive will vary depending on your employer and area of specialty. However, you'll usually follow a programme of on-the-job training and development involving short courses and practical case work. Areas covered may include laboratory skills and proficiency tests, blood pattern analysis and statement writing. More generally, you may receive training in health and safety, court room and presentation skills, and project management.
The changing nature of forensic science means that it's vital that you keep up to date with the latest research and developments throughout your career. A series of qualifications, as well as other continuing professional development (CPD) opportunities such as conferences, seminars, lectures and workshops, are provided by the CSFS.
The CSFS also offers a range of professional postgraduate diplomas for experienced practitioners in crime scene investigation, document examination, identity documents, firearms examination and fire investigation.
It's also possible to study for a Masters or PhD in forensic science or in a forensic specialty such as archaeology or anthropology.
Although entry into the profession is competitive, career prospects are generally good. Promotion is based on experience, responsibility and appraisal reports. Being geographically mobile can be helpful when looking for new roles.
You'll usually need to get between two and five years' experience after entry in order to progress to the role of reporting officer. This involves taking on your own cases, dealing directly with the police and bringing together evidence into a statement. You may need to give evidence in court as an expert witness.
With further experience you could go on to become a casework examiner, responsible for coordinating work in your area of expertise. You would supervise the work of others, visit scenes of crime, attend conferences and may also carry out research and publish articles.
There's scope to move into a managerial position, but progression often depends on developing an area of expertise. Alternatively, you could follow a career in research.