By Douglas P. Lyle

If you like science and law enforcement, you can probably find a career niche in the field of forensics. One caveat: By definition, forensics deals with law enforcement, meaning that if you have a criminal record, you may as well look for another line of work.

Criminalist

Criminalist is a modern term that encompasses workers in many fields of forensic science, but it most often refers to crime scene and crime lab workers. If you like law enforcement and laboratory work, this field is ideal for you. Your duties depend on your education, experience, and interests. As a criminalist, you can specialize in fingerprinting, firearms, tool marks, questioned documents, trace evidence, or crime-scene analysis. Many criminalists have experience in or come directly from law enforcement, a background that obviously is useful in any of these areas.

The only real requirement for becoming a basic criminalist is a bachelor’s degree in forensic science, biology, or one of the laboratory sciences, such as chemistry. Many colleges and universities offer a full forensic-science curriculum. Expect to face courses in chemistry, biology, microbiology, math, physics, pharmacology, and other scientific areas. After you have your degree, you can seek employment with a forensics lab. You don’t need an advanced degree to get the position of basic criminalist, and you get most of your knowledge and skills while on the job.

If, however, you want to specialize in a specific area, you need to pursue a postgraduate education or work as an apprentice in your particular area of interest.

Crime scene investigator

A crime scene investigator or crime scene technician (also called a criminalist in some jurisdictions) goes to the crime scene and collects the evidence. Entering this field, you can expect to work at odd hours because criminals don’t typically work on a 9-to-5 schedule. You also help police secure the scene and protect, preserve, and collect the evidence. You must know how to work a crime scene, recognize, collect, and transport evidence, and maintain the chain of custody of the evidence. More specifically, you need to know how to expose, photograph, and collect latent fingerprints, using specialized light and chemical techniques. In short, crime-scene technicians deal with all types of evidence at the scene.

You can typically come by this job by obtaining a degree in forensic science or becoming a police officer. Some jurisdictions hire only police officers as crime-scene specialists. You can enhance your employability in this area by joining the police force and obtaining a forensic-science degree.

Being proficient in crime-scene photography also helps. Remember, most jurisdictions can’t afford to hire someone for every job, so the more skills you have, the better.

Forensic investigator

In the same way that you can view a crime-scene investigator as the on-scene extension of the crime lab, you can view the forensic investigator, or coroner’s investigator, as an extension of the coroner or medical examiner (ME). By choosing this field, you can expect to work at all hours, too.

As a forensic investigator, you visit scenes where deaths occur, and you’re responsible for handling the body; the crime scene belongs to the police, but the body falls under the jurisdiction of the coroner. You identify the deceased whenever possible by collecting personal belongings and interviewing family members, friends, and witnesses. You examine and perhaps collect evidence from the body and prepare it for transport. You may also have to prepare reports about your activities and discoveries and testify in court regarding your findings and observations.

You need at least a high school diploma or equivalent, two or three years’ experience in law enforcement or investigative work, and a basic understanding of medical terminology and crime-scene investigation protocols, including the basics of evidence collection and preservation, chain of custody, and applicable laws. Becoming a police officer and obtaining a degree either in forensic science or one of the physical sciences is the best way to prepare for this job.

Forensic pathologist

The forensic pathologist is at the apex of the forensic system of investigation — the top dog, so to speak. But the work of the forensic pathologist isn’t for the faint of heart. Frankly, it’s dirty, smelly, and grotesque. But it’s also fascinating and rewarding.

As a forensic pathologist, you’re eligible to serve as ME or coroner or to work in the ME’s or coroner’s office, examine human bodies to assess the cause and manner of death, perform autopsies, supervise the pathology lab, perhaps supervise an entire crime lab, examine crime scenes, assist law enforcement officials with body search-and-recovery procedures, provide expert testimony in court, and represent the coroner’s office in various public and legal arenas. To perform these duties, you must possess a medical license and knowledge of anatomy, pathology, anthropology, dentistry, microscopy, X-ray and laboratory testing, evidence rules and court procedures, crime-scene evaluation, and federal, state, and local laws.

The educational track for this job is long and grueling. You have to go through (at minimum) college, followed by four years of medical school, a one-year medical internship, and a four-year pathology residency. Afterward, a one- or two-year forensic pathology fellowship can help you, although some locations accept one or two years of work experience in a forensic pathology lab. However, most leadership positions require board certification in anatomic pathology and forensic pathology. This certification requires an examination by the American Board of Pathology.

Forensic pathology technician

If being a forensic pathologist interests you, but medical school and years of specialty training don’t, you may want to consider being a forensic pathology technician. In that capacity, you work side by side with the forensic pathologist and assist with all of that person’s duties.

You help with and actually perform portions of the autopsy. You also may take X-rays and obtain samples from the body for toxicology (drugs and poisons), histology (tissue microscopic examination), serology (blood), microbiology (infectious materials), fingerprinting, and trace evidence analyses.

You recover bullets and other foreign objects from the corpse, photograph the body, remove specimens, and help maintain the chain of evidence. You may even be asked to discuss autopsy procedures and results with the victim’s family members, law enforcement officers, and mortuary personnel.

For this job, experience counts more than education. Most labs require only a high school diploma or equivalent, but having college-level experience in any of the laboratory sciences also helps. Moreover, one or two years of experience in a medical laboratory and, even better, a forensic pathology lab, give you a real leg up. The key is obtaining a working knowledge of general and medical laboratory procedures, medical tools and equipment, and an understanding of lab-safety and infection-control procedures.

Forensic anthropologist

If you like the biological sciences, history, anthropology, and archeology, forensic anthropology may be right for you. The major duties of this position are helping the ME or coroner with the recovery and identification of human remains. This work includes estimating biological profiles (age, sex, height, race, and so on) of skeletal remains and assessing the causes of skeletal trauma. You may have to visit an internment site, help excavate it, and examine tissue or skeletal remains for the purpose of identifying the deceased person and helping to determine the probable time and cause of death.

Being a forensic anthropologist requires a great deal of educational preparation. You need a bachelor’s degree in a subject such as chemistry, biology, anatomy, physiology, or anthropology, and a graduate degree, preferably a doctorate in anthropology or human biology. You need a PhD and at least three years of experience in forensic anthropology when seeking board certification in the field.

Although you may be able to work in the field with fewer credentials, having the postgraduate education makes you a more attractive candidate. Most forensic anthropologists work at universities and serve as consultants to MEs and the courts.

Forensic toxicologist

Toxicology combines chemistry, pharmacology, physiology, and biology. If you have an aptitude for science and an interest in chemistry, forensic toxicology may be of interest to you.

As a toxicologist, you deal with postmortem toxicological evaluations as they relate to causes of death and drug testing in criminal and workplace situations. You may examine seized materials (marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and other illicit drugs) to determine their chemical nature. To do this examination, you need to be familiar with sample collection and laboratory equipment and procedures used for analytical drug testing. Your actual duties may be those of either an assistant or supervisor, depending on your education and experience. Most forensic toxicologists work in crime, government, or private laboratories.

You need a bachelor’s degree in one of the laboratory sciences, such as chemistry, toxicology, or pharmacology, as a minimum, but the lab may prefer master’s and PhD degrees. You may enter the field with a lesser level of education, but you can enhance your chances for advancement with a postgraduate education in the field.

Fingerprint examiner

Fingerprint examiners are a critical component of most crime labs. If you enter this field, you compare fingerprint evidence obtained from crime scenes with similar evidence obtained from suspects and from large databases. You also visit crime scenes and help with exposing, photographing, and lifting prints, which means you must be familiar with all the light and chemical methods for exposing latent prints and all the procedures for protecting and collecting them.

Some jurisdictions hire you if you have a high school diploma or equivalent and you’ve taken a few college courses in chemistry, biology, or mathematics. Check with your potential employer to be sure. When following this route, you can expect to work for several years before achieving any advancement.

Forensic document examiner

If you love books and letters, the highly specialized work of a forensic document examiner may be for you. As a forensic document examiner, your primary duties are examining documents and other written and printed materials with an eye toward determining their authenticity, age, and authorship. You must have good eyesight, extreme patience, a dedication to detail, and the ability to pass many hours working alone. You also need some skills with language, photography, and laboratory testing procedures.

You don’t need to fulfill any specific educational requirements to enter this field, but if you expect to be certified by the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners (ABFDE), you must meet certain criteria, which include earning a college degree and amassing work experience in the field. As is true of other forensic areas, earning your degree in forensic science or one of the laboratory sciences, particularly chemistry, can really help you. Chemical testing is an integral part of the job of the document examiner.

Your work experience needs to be in a questioned-documents lab, where you can learn the trade as an apprentice. Several federal agencies maintain such labs, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (BATFE), the FBI, the CIA, the IRS, the U.S. Postal Service, the U.S. Secret Service, and any of the branches of the armed forces. Many state and local crime labs also have questioned-documents sections.

Forensic DNA analyst

If science is your interest, you might be drawn to the relatively new and exciting field of DNA analysis. DNA analysts work with biological materials obtained from suspects, victims, and crime scenes with an eye toward creating a DNA profile and matching it to other DNA evidence. This work requires patience, a meticulous attention to detail, and adherence to strict protocols if usable evidence is to be forthcoming.

To enter this field you will need at least a bachelor’s degree in biology, chemistry, genetics, forensic science, molecular biology, or biochemistry. Many employers require an advanced degree (masters or PhD) in one of these disciplines as well as at least two years of experience in full-time case work.