Forensic Science Guide: Careers in Forensic Science
The current pop culture of today, particularly in the form of television programming and Hollywood cinema, has cast a very bright light on forensic science as of late. A career in forensic science is one that incorporates a blending of science, law enforcement, civil, criminal, and family law, as well as the justice system. Forensic science can be a very interesting, intellectually stimulating, and fascinating career that holds many opportunities to turn tragedy into justice. It is a service-driven profession that exists to help keep communities safe from crime and the criminals who seek to do those communities harm.
As an ongoing effort to provide the best resources on forensic science, compiled below are comprehensive subsections with links to useful websites that explain this discipline, list the career options available within this field, and provide career path information. This resource is meant to provide students, teachers, and aspiring forensics specialists with information on careers in the field of forensic science.
American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS)
The American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) is an international organization made up of many law enforcement, legal, and justice professions. In terms of membership, it includes the United States and Canada in North America, as well as 61 other nations globally. Its objective is to lead in the advancement and collaboration of relevant sciences as they pertain to the enforcement of the law and the upholding of justice. The AAFS also promotes best practices, research and development, education, competency, integrity, and professionalism within its membership.
The AAFS has created 11 forensic science discipline sections, or career tracks. These careers involve a range of professions, including the following (in alphabetical order): criminalists, dentists, digital evidence experts, doctors, document examiners, engineers, lawyers, physical anthropologists, physicists, psychiatrists, teachers, and toxicologists.
Forensic Science Discipline Sections
Criminalists seek out the truth through objective studies of the physical evidence of a given crime using the scientific method in order to draw conclusions about a given situation, event, or piece of evidence. Criminalists must determine which evidence is important and relevant, and which evidence is not. Relevant evidence must then be tested and interpreted to determine what really happened. These interpretations are then cross-referenced with other evidentiary factors, such as witness testimony. In addition, criminalists must prepare reports on their respective findings as well as be prepared to testify as an expert witness and explain their findings in a court of law.
Digital & Multimedia Sciences
The technology of digital media has revolutionized the field of forensic science. Several specialties exist in the Digital & Multimedia Sciences profession. These professionals may oversee digital forensic laboratories, conduct research and development, and publish articles, books, and textbooks on digital forensics. Their goal is to utilize these technologies in ways that solve crimes through the legal system.
Forensic engineers are engineers who investigate crimes that need the objective, innovative, and problem-solving eye of an engineer to solve. Through the utilization of the fields of science and mathematics, forensic engineers find answers to questions that arise from such illegal activities as arson, manslaughter, murder, personal injury torts, and wrongful death. Forensic engineers need to seek out an education in numerous engineering fields, such as civil, electrical, materials, mechanical, and traffic.
Professionals of the General forensic science discipline section make up a catch-all of those who do not fit into the other 10 categories. These professionals fall under a diverse array of professions, including the following:
- scientists with expertise in such forensic areas as analysis, communications, education, clinical research, and computer, field, and laboratory investigations;
- administrators and accountants
- artists and sculptors (e.g., facial reconstruction)
- polygraph examiners
The professionals who work under the Jurisprudence section are involved in the civil, criminal, and family laws of the legal justice system that require use of the specialized evidence of forensic science. Often highly technical and scientific, how the courts use this evidence varies. Thus, not only judges, attorneys, and paralegals play a role in the legal system, but so do the expert witnesses who may be called by the courts to offer testimony. These expert witnesses may come from a variety of the other forensic science discipline sections.
Forensic Odontologists are dentists who act as consultants to forensic teams. Odontologists apply their knowledge of dental science to both physical and biological evidence, such as human dental remains or bite marks. The goal of this scientific application is often to determine the identity of a victim or perpetrator. Odontologists require the same education as a dentist or medical examiner.
Forensic specialists working in the section of Pathology/Biology deal with diseases that are extracted through autopsies and then examined. Through autopsies, forensic pathologists determine the cause of death of a given deceased person, be it through homicide, suicide, natural causes, or by undetermined means. Forensic pathologists determine the cause of death in suspicious deaths when requested by a coroner or medical examiner.
Forensic anthropologists apply physical anthropology to forensic science in order to identify the remains of the deceased as human and, if human, by name. Other identifying factors include age, race, gender, and time of death. Forensic anthropologists often deal with severely decomposed or even skeletal remains. Forensic anthropologists assist the judicial system in finding closure for both deceased victims and their families.
Psychiatry & Behavioral Science
Forensic psychologists and psychiatrists apply the behavior sciences and psychiatry to the field of forensic science in order to resolve issues under civil, criminal, and family law. These professionals analyze and form hypotheses on human behaviors and work closely with both lawyers and judges. They also often act as expert witnesses in court.
Forensic documents examiners analyze and interpret the evidence that presents itself through documents. From paper type to fingerprints, these professionals determine such evidentiary factors as the source, age, authenticity, and use of the documents as they pertain to a given case. Such determinations can be critical to solve a case, obtain a criminal conviction, or win a civil lawsuit.
Forensic toxicologists apply toxicology to forensic science. As a result, medicine directly intersects with the law in the form of mediolegal death investigations. These professionals analyze the role that chemicals, poisons, and/or drugs play in a given legal case. The identification and interaction of toxics with both the environment and human bodies through its administration, absorption, distribution, affect, and elimination is a key task of forensic toxicologists.
Additional Forensic Science Career-Related Resources
- All-About-Forensic-Science.com is a free and comprehensive online guide to forensic science, including the various career paths available within this field.
- About.com offers career information on forensic scientists, including job descriptions, educational requirements, and employment and salary statistics.
- CriminaljusticeUSA.com provides a brief overview of a career in forensic science: job description, education requirements, special skills, salary and benefits, working conditions, and future job outlook.
- The College of Criminology & Criminal Justice at The Florida State University offers Advice About a Career in Forensic Science by Adjunct Faculty member Dale Nute.
- Consulting and Education in Forensic Science is a website on this professional field that has a careers page, offers a Careers in Forensic Science information booklet, and provides a link to schools offering a forensic science degree.
- ForensicScience.org details the job description of a forensic scientist.
- CareerToolKits.com provides information on forensic science careers, including coursework and experience recommendations.