Forensic lab technicians, chemists, and scientists apply their knowledge and background in scientific analysis to the justice system. They use microscopes and other instruments to analyze and interpret samples of physical evidence found at a crime scene. By using scientific principles and the latest laboratory techniques, these professionals help to solve crimes and successfully prosecute criminal offenders. Some forensic scientists are generalists; others specialize in a particular area of laboratory analysis. Most crime lab professionals work in one or more of the following disciplines:
- Evidence Processing – Involves the chemical processing and photographing of latent prints and / or the examination of forensic evidence for the presence of biological materials including blood, saliva, cells, urine, and fecal material.
- Forensic Biology/DNA – Involves the extraction, quantitation, analysis, and interpretation of forensic DNA samples isolated from the materials listed above. Forensic scientists isolate DNA strands from an individual’s body fluids to compare that person’s unique DNA to a sample of others.
- Fingerprinting – Performs all work related to the comparison of latent prints recovered from crime scenes and evidence submitted to the laboratory against fingerprints on file to make a positive identification. Digital technology allows crime lab professionals to compare prints at a rate of 400,000 per second.
- Document Examination – Document examination includes many areas of expertise including forgery, document dating, and analysis of handwriting, typewriting, computer printing, and photocopying.
- Toxicology / Controlled Substances – Performs analysis on blood and urine samples for alcohol, illicit drugs (i.e., marijuana, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine), prescription drugs, steroids, poisons, and other substances. In addition, this position provides support for the breath testing program by maintaining and performing calibration checks on the instruments, and provides expert testimony in these areas.
- Trace Evidence – Involves the examination and comparison of trace physical evidence which includes, but is not limited to, fibers, paint, glass, hair, tape, explosives, soil, tire tracks, and gunshot residue. For example, analysis of a hair found at a crime scene can determine factors such as whether the hair belongs to a human or animal, and through simple side-by-side comparisons a forensic technician can match a hair found at a crime scene to the person who left it there.
- Firearms / Explosives / Toolmark Identification – Includes the examination and testing of firearms, matching bullets to the gun that fired them, scene reconstruction such as muzzle to target estimations, as well as studying arson and explosives evidence. This position also involves matching identifying characteristics of a tool, such as a pry bar, to the object on which it was used, such as a door frame.
Forensic lab techs work under the supervision of chemists and forensic scientists. Because the results of their work can contribute to a verdict of guilt or innocence, forensic technicians undergo meticulous and thorough training before working independently. This training is provided by a senior lab technician or scientist. Depending on the specialty, such training can take six months to more than a year. They have to understand the instrument they’re using, what it’s doing, what it’s telling them, and how they might get a false positive or false negative reading.
Students planning careers in forensic science are typically detail-oriented problem solvers and curious by nature. They must have analytical minds with the ability to detect and communicate patterns. Strong math skills are important, since geometry and trigonometry help investigators evaluate critical evidence like the angles of lethal blows and the trajectory of bullets. Forensic lab techs need to be calm, careful, and able to concentrate. If you are easily nauseated, this job may not be for you.
Although they are technical experts, forensic scientists also need to possess good speaking and writing skills. A career in forensic science requires the ability to summarize the results of lab findings and to testify in court. They have to take notes, write reports, and be articulate enough to explain complicated science to a jury. They must be well prepared and confident in their testimony, in addition to being poised and having a neat personal appearance. Forensic scientists often receive special training in how to be an expert witness, which may include moot court practice and actual court observation.
Today’s modern forensic laboratories are accredited, and forensic lab techniques are becoming standardized. There are written procedures detailing how to do the analyses, and everything must be accurately documented in a report that is able to stand on its own in a court of law. Prosecuting attorneys rely on the crime lab’s expertise in preparing a case. They have to know that the procedure was done properly, and that the result would be the same no matter which lab did the test.
Most forensic scientists work in crime laboratories run by city, county, or state governments. The next largest group works for federal agencies including the FBI, DEA and BATF. Aspiring forensic lab technicians should have a four-year bachelor’s degree in one of the life sciences, chemistry, physics, forensic science, criminal justice, or a related field. The best degrees for entry level positions in a crime laboratory are:
- Bachelor’s degree in a natural science (i.e., Biology, Chemistry, Cellular and Molecular Biology, Biophysics, Physics, Physical Anthropology), Forensic Science, or Criminal Justice, with a strong emphasis in chemistry for most positions; or
- Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry, Biology, or Forensic Science with an emphasis in genetics for DNA positions.
Whatever the degree, frequently required are courses in pharmacology/toxicology, quantitative analysis, and statistics. Laboratory experience involving analytical instruments, either in an academic laboratory or through an internship program, is helpful. Computer courses are also recommended, as employers prefer job applicants with computer skills for modeling and simulation tasks, and to operate computerized laboratory equipment.
Students do not need to specialize at the undergraduate level. In fact, broad training allows bachelor’s degree holders more flexibility in job hunting. Once on the job, forensic lab technicians must stay well informed of advances in the field by attending conferences, seminars, or additional classes. Voluntary certification, available through professional societies or certifying agencies, will demonstrate professional competence in one or more specialties. Some employees obtain a master’s degree in order to become a lab scientist. A Ph.D. is usually required for advancement to administrative positions such as lab director. Those with a Ph.D. also may teach forensic science at the college or university level.
Forensic lab technicians make anywhere from $32,900 to more than $82,990 per year. The median wage was approximately $51,570 in 2010, as reported by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Advanced education and experience results in higher salaries. Jobs with federal or state agencies also tend to have better-than-average benefits. Their work week is typically a standard one, although in some cases lab techs are called upon to do emergency or time-sensitive analyses during nights, evenings, weekends, or holidays.
Because of advances in technology and the increased use of forensic evidence, employment for forensic lab technicians is expected to grow at a rate of about 19 percent in the next decade. Competition for jobs, however, is keen. Due to shows like CSI and NCIS, what was once a hidden aspect of law enforcement has moved to center stage and more people than ever are interested in this growing field.