A criminalist, or forensic scientist, visits crime scenes to make observations, collects and preserves evidence. As a criminalist, you may take photographs, make sketches and collect fingerprints to use to analyze the evidence. You may also spend time in a lab, using chemicals and microscopes to draw conclusions. Databases of DNA and fingerprint records are commonly used by criminalists to determine who was present at a crime scene. Criminalists sometimes testify at trials.
Many criminalists begin their career in criminal justice as uniformed police officers and are promoted into the position of a criminalist. However, law enforcement agencies often hire criminalists who do not have police experience. The first step to getting a job in the field is to earn a bachelor’s degree in forensic science with a focus on chemistry, biology, and mathematics. Forensic science programs can often be found in the criminal justice department of mid-sized to large universities.
Six months to three years of on-the-job training is typically required before a criminalist can work independently. The training period is necessary to ensure that new criminalists understand how to properly collect, document, and analyze evidence. Criminalists who analyze ballistics may need up to three years of firearms analysis training. Criminalists who collect evidence from crime scenes work throughout the day and night, so you may be required to work overnight shifts. However, your hours may be more predictable if you spend most of your time in a lab.
Criminalists must have strong critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. These attributes will help you analyze evidence and make decisions based on the information you collect from the crime scene. Criminalists also have to be professional. You will be required to visit gruesome crime scenes to collect evidence. You may have to speak with victims and suspects. You cannot allow your personal opinions to interfere with the way you handle the crime scene and analyze the evidence.
Salary and job outlook
The median salary for a criminalist is more than $51,000, with the top 10 percent earning more than $82,990. The field of forensic science has gained popularity in recent years so competition is stiff for many criminalist positions. A bachelor’s degree with some work experience in the field will give you a slight advantage when you apply for jobs with law enforcement agencies and police departments.