Forensic scientists provide impartial scientific evidence for use in courts of law to support the prosecution or defence in criminal and civil investigations.

They are primarily concerned with searching for and examining contact trace material associated with crimes. This material can include:

  • blood and other body fluids;
  • hairs;
  • 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, forensic scientists may have to attend court to give their evidence in person.

Types of forensic scientist

Job activities depend on the area of forensics in which you work. The main areas are:

  • chemistry, which is connected to crimes against property, such as burglary and arson;
  • biology, which is 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 paint, chemicals, etc., including fire investigation and accident reconstruction;
  • biology - DNA testing and the examination of minute contact traces, such as blood, hair, clothing fibres, etc.;
  • 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.

Responsibilities

There is a degree of cross-over and typical work activities are likely to include some or all of the following:

  • analysing samples, such as hair, body fluids, glass, paint and drugs, in the laboratory;
  • applying techniques such as gas and high performance liquid chromatography, scanning electron microscopy, mass spectrometry, infrared spectroscopy and genetic fingerprinting;
  • sifting and sorting evidence, often held in miniscule quantities;
  • attending and examining scenes of crimes;
  • recording findings and collecting trace evidence from scenes of crimes or accidents;
  • inputting relevant data into computer programs;
  • reviewing and supervising the work of assistants;
  • presenting results of work in written form or by giving oral evidence;
  • justifying findings under cross-examination in courts of law;
  • researching and developing new techniques;
  • liaising with team members;
  • coordinating with outside agencies and offering expert advice;
  • analysing and interpreting results and computer data;
  • liaising with police to establish forensic strategies;
  • writing detailed reports for court;
  • instructing on procedures for cases.

Salary

  • Salaries for forensic scientists typically start at around £20,000.
  • With experience, salaries 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.

Working hours

Working hours are typically 37 hours a week, Monday to Friday, although you may be required to work shifts or be on call. Crimes may happen at any time, so you need to be prepared to work evenings and weekends.

What to expect

  • Most of the work is laboratory-based, but experienced forensic scientists may have to attend crime scenes. The balance of work in the laboratory, court and office varies between roles.
  • Geographical availability of posts is restricted by the location of forensic science laboratories.
  • The work may be stressful and distressing at times, particularly when attending scenes of crimes. Considerable responsibility rests on the scientists presenting and defending their evidence in court under cross-examination.
  • If attending a crime scene, you will need to wear protective clothing to prevent contamination of the scene and sometimes to protect yourself from hazardous materials.
  • Travel within a working day and absence from home at night are occasionally needed. Evening and weekend call-outs to scenes of crime are also common.
  • Overseas work is uncommon but attendance at conferences is common.

Qualifications

To work as a forensic scientist you will usually need either a degree in a scientific subject, such as biological sciences or chemistry, or a degree in forensic science.

While there has been a major increase in the number of forensic science undergraduate degree courses, they do not all provide the skills and knowledge required to work as a forensic scientist, so check details with individual course providers.

A university course accreditation scheme with details of accredited courses is operated by The Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences.

Degrees in analytical and forensic chemistry and molecular biology may also be advantageous. Other degree subjects are useful for entry into specialist areas of forensic science, such as statistics and geology.

To become an assistant forensic scientist, (equivalent to a technical specialist), you will 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.

A pre-entry postgraduate qualification is increasingly desirable as competition is intense. A relevant PhD or MSc in forensic science may increase your chances of being shortlisted for interview. A Masters in a forensic specialty such as archaeology or anthropology is also useful. Search for postgraduate courses in forensic science.

Student membership of The Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences is useful for networking opportunities.

Skills

You will need to have:

  • a persistent approach and enquiring mind;
  • the capacity to undertake fine, analytical, painstaking work with exceptional attention to detail;
  • a logical, unbiased and methodical approach to problem solving;
  • 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 is generally required. A criminal record or history of drink/drug problems could result in exclusion.

Work experience

General experience working in a laboratory is usually required, for example in a hospital or a research centre. Work placements occasionally arise in biological research and development.

Whilst employment within forensic science has increased, entry remains extremely competitive. Short-term contracts and agency work are occasionally available and may result in full-time appointments.

Employers

Forensic scientists are employed by commercial companies, which specialise in providing forensic science services to the police and other agencies such as:

In Scotland a national forensic service, which includes biology, chemistry, DNA, Drugs analysis, crime scene investigation, fingerprints and specialist services (such as documents and handwriting) is provided by the Scottish Police Authority: Forensic Services.

Other employers of forensic scientists include:

Vacancies may arise in medical schools, university research departments, public health laboratories and companies dealing in specialist areas such as fire investigation.

Look for job vacancies at:

Assistant forensic scientists are recruited at a regional level by individual laboratories. These vacancies are usually advertised in the national or local press.

Opportunities can often be found by exploring the strong links between academic departments and employers, so if you are currently studying check with your university for potential contacts.

Get more tips on how to find a job, create a successful CV and cover letter, and prepare for interviews.

Professional development

Training varies according to the employer and area of specialty. However, most graduate entrants will undergo a programme of on-the-job training and development, which may involve short, residential courses in addition to practical case work. Employers provide a programme of training for each new intake of employees. Technical areas covered may include:

  • laboratory skills and proficiency tests;
  • blood pattern analysis;
  • statement writing.

More general skill areas in which new entrants may receive training include:

  • health and safety;
  • court room and presentation skills;
  • project management.

A series of qualifications, as well as other continuing professional development (CPD) opportunities such as conferences, seminars, lectures and workshops are all provided by The Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences.

They also offer a range of Professional Postgraduate Diplomas for experienced practitioners in crime scene investigation, document examination, identity documents, firearms examination and fire investigation.

You may choose to study for a Masters or PhD in forensic science or in a forensic specialty such as archaeology or anthropology if you don't already have one.

The changing nature of forensic science means that keeping up to date with research is a vital part of CPD at all levels.

Career prospects

New entrants to the profession generally need to gain between two and five years experience after their degree in order to progress to the role of reporting officer (an officer who can deliver reports in court).

With 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.

Promotion is based on experience, responsibility and appraisal reports. Geographic mobility may improve prospects. There is some flexibility as to your choice of area - some forensic scientists choose to stay in the laboratory rather than get involved with crime scene work or court reporting.

It is possible to move into a managerial position, but career development often depends on developing an area of expertise. Movement between disciplines is sometimes necessary but cross-disciplinary training is usually available to assist with this transition.