Advice about a Career in Forensic Science

Comments by Dale Nute,
Adjunct Faculty,
School of Criminology & Criminal Justice,
Florida State University

Recognizing that free advice is worth what you pay for it, the following is provided free of charge. It is based on my experience and therefore is somewhat limited and even if it were more expansive, it all may change tomorrow anyway. With that said, let's get started.

A major caution before we begin.  Forensic scientists work in the justice system.  If you have a criminal record, you have virtually no chance of getting a job as a forensic scientist.  If you use drugs (and in Miami, even tobacco) you usually can forget it.  Life ain't fair!  There are lots of good jobs that overlook youthful indiscretions but the justice system does not.

It all begins with what you want to do. There are six general areas of practice (any I've left out I don't know enough about to give even free advice). If you know that you are interested in one of the areas, click on it and go directly to that discussion.
medical examiner,
crime laboratory analyst,
crime scene examiner,
forensic engineer
academic assistance - psychology (including psychological profilers) / social science / statistics
technical assistance - computer analyst, polygraph, composite drawing.

How do you decide what you want to do?  Read the following descriptions then go talk to someone who does the types of work you think you might like.  The following descriptions are obviously quite brief and probably even biased but they give you a starting point.  

Medical Examiner - The highest pay but you have to be able to handle cutting up dead bodies, 7+ years of college and uncertain work hours.  Although there are routine protocols, the ingenious ways people kill people create sufficient variety to combat boredom and provide a problem-solving challenge.  The medical examiner usually requires a medical degree. Select a residency that provides a forensic emphasis. A chemistry or biology degree at the undergraduate level is a good major. If at FSU, you should take the crime detection & investigation course as one of your undergraduate electives as you will not have an opportunity for this course at medical school. The Orange County Medical Examiner's web site gives more information on the services of the medical examiner

The forensic odontologist has similar educational requirements to the medical examiner except in dentistry. They generally are dentists who practice as consultants rather than as full-time forensic scientists.

Crime Laboratory Analyst -  Reasonably good pay and you generally work indoors with relatively stable work hours and relatively clean samples but the cases are often quite repetitive and routine. The microanalysis section probably provides the most variety but currently it is being phased out or scaled down in most crime laboratories.  It will come back but look for slim pickings during the current "bottom-line" management fad.  The crime laboratory usually requires a bachelor's degree in a natural science for any of the specialties. The best degree overall is chemistry. If you are interested in DNA testing, then biology with genetics and biochemistry is required. If you are interested in trace evidence examination, good electives for the chemistry degree include optical mineralogy, microbiology, botany and textile courses. You should, of course, take the crime detection & investigation course as one of your electives. See below for other specific courses available at FSU. Occasionally evidence is encountered that requires other specialties, such as entomology, anthropology, zoology and botany. These areas may be adequate to obtain employment but do not expect to work exclusively in the specialty as not even a large laboratory receives enough evidence in those areas to fill an individual's time.  One combination that would probably get you a job in a crime lab would be a major that contained sufficient background to do both forensic archeology and DNA on the samples recovered.  

I have not recommended taking a forensic science major at the undergraduate level for the past 25 years and have seen no reason to change my mind during that time. In fact, the trend appears to be in the graduate direction as Michigan State University, one of the premier traditional schools in forensic science, dropped its undergraduate degree a couple of years ago. There are two reasons for my opinion. One, the emphasis in forensic science is first on the science and then on the forensics. You hardly have time in four years to get a decent grounding in science, especially with the current legislative restrictions on how many hours you can take. Two, the undergraduate degree is not fair to the student. If the job market for forensic scientists is weak, you will have trouble getting a job with a chemical firm with a forensic science degree. On the other hand, if you have a traditional chemistry degree, you can always get a job in a crime laboratory if they are available. And, if none are available, you are more likely to get a decent job somewhere and can then move into a forensic science career when crime laboratory jobs are more plentiful.  This is not a criticism of undergraduate forensic science programs.  Most of them produce students better qualified to be chemists than a straight chemistry degree but personnel officers do not think, they only follow their hiring manual and forensic science is not in it while chemistry is.

I am not belittling the forensic aspects of the job. On the contrary, I believe that they are imperative but should be taken at the graduate level and should include rigorous studies in the scientific method, statistics and the logic of evidence as well as the traditional emphasis in court presentation. Courses at FSU useful as preparation for a career in forensic science are listed below.  If you are interested in a graduate degree in forensic science, there are a number of options available.  These can be investigated at sites maintained by the AAFS and  Forensic Science Education Resource.    

Forensic Engineer -  You will deal with traffic accidents, fire investigations, and a variety of wrongful injury cases. The work is much like that of the crime scene examiner but with fewer bodies and better hours and generally much higher pay.  You earn that pay by the degree you obtain.  The forensic engineer requires an engineering degree. The usual specialties include electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, civil engineering, materials engineering and traffic engineering. The web site for a local company gives more information as well as the FSU/FAMU School of Engineering.

Crime Scene Examiner - You will work whenever and wherever crime occurs, indoors or outdoors, day or night, and have to be able to deal with dead bodies and other messy situations but there certainly is a lot less routine.  The pay is not great but few folk voluntarily leave a crime scene section for other duties.  The intellectual challenge is still there and the scientific basis of the field is developing.  Some tasks will become more routine and more sophisticated but overall it could be an exciting time for the next decade.  The crime scene examiner should have a bachelor's degree either in a natural science with emphasis in law enforcement and crime scene processing or a criminal justice degree with emphasis in natural science. Currently some state agencies have such a requirement and I believe that most agencies soon will. Forensic archeology would be excellent preparation. A listing below (following the Table of Courses) outlines a suggested approach for someone interested in doing more than just picking up stuff at a crime scene. Another approach is to combine crime scene investigation and psychology for the job now known as psychological profiling.  (See below.)

The psychologist, social scientist and statistician generally are in some academic setting and apply their specialty to an investigation or trial on a part-time basis. Psychological profilers, however, are becoming more involved with investigations on a full-time basis. Technical analysts usually are attached to an investigative unit and generally work in a lab-like environment but respond similarly to crime scene personnel. Additional information on forensic science careers is at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences webpage. Check it out, they are the principal forensic science organization in the United States. Another site for information about forensic science careers are: Forensic DNA Consulting.  

If you are interested in psychological profiling, my understanding is that those agencies hiring profilers actually want an investigator / crime scene analyst / psychologist. This means almost a double major in psychology and criminal justice and experience as an investigator.  Although the academic part could be accomplished with a major in psychology and a minor in criminology, it could better be accomplished with a psychology undergraduate degree and a criminology master's with electives in psychology. Electives at the undergraduate level should include crime scene processing and the crime detection and investigation course as these are not available at the graduate level. The criminology emphasis should be in law enforcement and forensic science.  
    Recognize that there are a very, very limited number of jobs available in profiling and none of them involve visions as portrayed on TV.  Rather they include science and statistics.  Right now you either better like straight criminal investigation &/or crime scene analysis and use your knowledge of psychology to enhance them, or look for another career. One school that you might check out for more information about a graduate degree is John Jay University in New York City. 

Table of Courses

Currently Florida State University does not have a formal program in forensic science at either the graduate or undergraduate level.  However, FSU students in a science major who wish to enhance their credentials can take courses from the following table.  (Some of the courses listed are available at Florida A & M University, and Tallahassee Community College.) The table is organized according to academic specialty. Also listed in that table are professors who either have an interest in forensic science, or are consultants in their field. They may be contacted for more specific information about their specialty. 

FSU students with a criminology major who have an interest in crime scene examination should consult the second table for courses to enhance their capabilities in that area. 

Only undergraduate courses are listed. A number of courses also are available at the graduate level to persons wishing to enhance a graduate degree in chemistry, biology, engineering, etc. These are not listed.

If, after reviewing all of this and the AAFS website, you are still interested and have questions about the specifics, e-mail me at hdnute@mailer.fsu.edu.  One word of caution, if you find that you are shying away from some of the courses because they sound like too much work, do yourself a favor and find an occupation.  You do not have the aptitude to be a professional.  You need to like to study and like to work in order to be a forensic scientist.  

Happy scientific sleuthing!!! 

Forensic Science at FSU

Specialties

Courses

Professors / Resources

Criminology CJT 4100 Crime Detection and Investigation
CCJ 3200 The Courts
CCJ 3101 Law Enforcement
CCJ 4204 Substantive Criminal Law
CCJ 4280 Legal Aspects of Law Enforcement
CCJ 4661 Human Behavior
CCJ 4610 Criminal and Delinquent Behavior
CCJ 4700 Introduction to Research Methods in Criminology
CCJ 4663 Female Crime and Delinquency
CCJ 4664 Minorities, Crime and Social Policy
H. Dale Nute

 

Chemistry Chemical science degree
Chemistry degree, or
ACS approved chemistry degree

Emphasize analytical courses for either drug or trace evidence.  Environmental Chemistry is an area of forensic science.

 William T. Cooper
Biology Biological Science degree

Emphasize Genetics, Immunology & Biochemistry for DNA
Emphasize Botany, Microbiology, Zoology & Physiology for trace evidence

Anthropology ANT 3100 Introduction to Archaeology
ANT 4124 Anthropological fieldwork: Archaeology
ANT 4135 Anthropological Fieldwork: Underwater Archaeology
 Glen H. Doran
Geology GLY 2010C Physical Geology
GLY 3200C Mineralogy and Crystallography
GLY 3220C Optical Mineralogy
GLY 5231C X-ray Crystallography
Textiles CTE 1401 Basic Textiles
CTE 3440 Textile Evaluation
CTE 4421 Advanced Textiles
Kaye Grise
Psychology Psychology degree

Emphasize abnormal psychology for profiling

James B. Meyer
John Carl Brigham
Statistics STA 1013 Statistics through Example
STA 4512 Statistical Procedures for the Natural Sciences
STA 4502 Nonparametric Methods
Douglas A. Zahn

James Kenneth Brewer

Philosophy PHI 2100 Reasoning and Critical Thinking
PHI 3400 Introduction to the Philosophy of Science
Engineering  A major is offered in environmental engineering, one area of forensic science  Danuta Leszczynska
Communication  SPC 4516 Evidence
Crime Scene Tallahassee Community College
CJT 2120 Crime Scene Investigation
Larry Hensel
Soil Science Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University
SOS 3022C Nature & Properties of Soil
SOS 4732C Soil Survey

 

Crime Scene Analysis

A structured degree program does not exist. However, an undergraduate degree in criminology with selected electives in natural science would be advantageous. The following are suggestions. All courses are not of the same rigor. A little investigation is suggested before signing up for any electives.

Required Criminology Courses
CCJ 3011 Criminology (3)
CCJ 3101 Law Enforcement (3)
CCJ 3200 Courts (3)
CCJ 3301 Corrections (3)
CCJ 4700 Research Methods in Criminology (3)

Recommended Criminology Courses
CJT 4100 Crime Detection and Investigation (3)
CJT 2120 Crime Scene Investigation (3) (Take at TCC before senior year)
CCJ 4280 Legal Aspects of Law Enforcement (3)
CCJ 4940 Internship in Criminology (15) (Intern in a crime scene unit for a semester)

Elective Criminology Courses (2 of the following courses)
CCJ 4601 Human Behavior
CCJ 4610 Criminal and Delinquent Behavior
CCJ 4663 Female Crime and Delinquency
CCJ 4664 Minorities, Crime and Social Policy
CCJ 4204 Substantive Criminal Law
CCJ 4131 Individual Rights and the Criminal Justice System
CCJ 4110 Police Problems and Practices

Recommended Mathematics and Science Courses (Some of these may be used as requirements for Liberal Studies)
MAC 1141 or MAC 1140 Precalculus Algebra
STA 1013 Statistics through Example
CHM 1020 & 1020L or CHM 1045, 1045L, 1046, 1046L or CHM 1030 General Chemistry
APB 1150 & 1150L or PCB 2010 & BSC 2012 Introductory Biology
PHY 1020 & 1020L or PHY 3053C & 3054C Introductory Physics
ANT 3100 Introduction to Archaeology
PHI 2100 Reasoning and Critical Thinking
EGS 1111C Engineering Graphics ( at TCC)
ETD 1320 Computer-Aided Engineering Graphics (at TCC)
ETD 2375C 3D Modeling, Rendering and Animation (at TCC)

Elective Mathematics and Science Courses
MAX 1113 Analytic Trigonometry (2)
PHI 3400 Introduction to Philosophy of Science (3)
GLY 2010C Physical Geology (lab) (4)
BOT 2013C Plant Diversity (2)
ZOO 2011C Animal Diversity (2)
APB 2040 Human Physiology (3)
MCB 3013 & 3013L Microbiology(5)
BCH 3023C Introduction to Biochemistry (lab) (3)
CHM 2200C Survey Organic Chemistry (lab) (4)
CHM 3400 General Physical Chemistry (4)
ANT 4124 Anthropological Fieldwork: Archaeology (9)
ANT 4135 Anthropological Fieldwork: Underwater Archaeology (6)
SOS 3022C Nature & Properties of Soil (3) (at FAMU)