Forensic science is a competitive area to get into so make sure you have some lab experience and a related scientific degree
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
- restricted drugs.
Although evidence is usually presented in writing as a formal statement or report, you may have to attend court to give your evidence in person as an expert witness.
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. You'll be involved in the examination of substances such as paint or chemicals, including fire investigation and accident reconstruction.
- biology - connected to crimes against people, such as murder, assault and rape. You'll be carrying out DNA testing and the examination of minute contact traces, such as blood, hair and clothing fibres.
- drugs and toxicology - where you'll be testing for restricted drugs, examining tissue specimens for poison detection, and analysing 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. You may choose to stay in the laboratory.
- Salaries for forensic scientists typically start at around £20,000.
- With experience, this can increase to between £25,000 and £35,000.
- Salaries at senior levels can reach £50,000 or more.
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. As crimes may happen at any time, you must be prepared to work evenings and weekends to either process and investigate scenes of crimes or to examine the findings from them.
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.
- Job roles are available across the UK although opportunities are limited and competition is fierce.
To work as a forensic scientist you'll usually need either a degree in a scientific subject, such as biological sciences, chemistry or medical sciences, or a degree in forensic science. Degree subjects such as statistics and geology can be useful for entry into specialist areas of forensic science.
If you chose to complete a forensic science degree you should research thoroughly the content of the courses that you're considering. The Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences (CSFS) has a list of accredited courses and it is helpful to select one of these as they show the course has met certain quality standards. Having a degree from one of these universities will also show potential employers that you have the required skills and knowledge to carry out the work of a forensic scientist.
Competition for jobs is intense, and while taking an accredited first degree may help with this, you may also need to consider taking an MSc or PhD in forensic science to give you an edge. A Masters in a forensic specialty, such as archaeology or anthropology, can also be useful. Search postgraduate courses in forensic science.
It may also be possible to enter the career through a degree apprenticeship either as a research scientist or a laboratory scientist. You'll need to apply for an apprenticeship position directly with an employer and to make this specific to the role of a forensic scientist you should look at firms or police departments that provide forensic science services. Look for opportunities at Find an apprenticeship or directly with employers.
It may be possible to enter the career at a lower level without a degree if you hold certain GCSEs and A-levels (check with employers for requirements). This would be as an assistant forensic scientist and you’d need to take further qualifications to work your way up to becoming a forensic scientist. This route is still competitive however, with many assistants having 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. Forensic science laboratories tend not to offer work experience opportunities so you'll need to look in other related areas. For example in a hospital or a research centre, or in 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.
Joining the Chartered Society of Forensic Scientists (CSFS) as a student member can help with keeping up to date with developments in the sector and making valuable contacts. See CSFS student membership for more details.
Find out more about the different kinds of work experience and internships that are available.
You can find employment as a forensic scientist with commercial companies that provide forensic science services to the police and other agencies. Employers include:
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
- government departments such as the Defence Science and 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 events, as well as other continuing professional development (CPD) opportunities such as conferences, seminars, lectures and workshops, are provided by the CSFS. It also approves CPD courses offered by external providers and they can be on topics such as recognising, excavating and recording clandestine graves and human skeletal anatomy.
It's also possible to study for a Masters or PhD in forensic science or in a forensic specialty such as archaeology or anthropology, which may be helpful if you want to take your career in a certain direction.
As your career progresses you can move through the levels of membership offered by the CSFS. These include associate, member and fellow and each one requires a certain amount of experience and expertise. Once you have at least five years' experience you may want to consider applying for chartered status as a forensic practitioner (ChFP). This shows you have reached a certain level of excellence and experience in your chosen specialist area and that you have the competencies of an expert/professional witness.
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 to be able 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.