Science Careers: Work as a Forensic Scientist

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Thanks to the explosion in popularity of big budget TV thrillers like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, whenever the words ‘forensic scientist’ are uttered they tend to bring certain images to mind…

Police tape and people in white boiler suits poring over a crime scene with a fine-tooth comb.

Types of forensic scientists

DIGITAL FORENSICS   Involves the investigation (and often recovery of) evidence found in digital devices - mostly in cases to computer crime. 

FORENSIC ANTHROPOLOGY  The examination of human remains to help explain how somebody died or to solve a crime.

FORENSIC ARCHEOLOGY  The study and examination of historic objects or human remains.

FORENSIC BOTANY   The application of plant sciences in criminal investigations, normally to help connect a victim to a suspect or crime scene. 

FORENSIC ENGINEERING  Concerned with explaining the reasons why particular products or systems fail, in cases of personal injury or damage to property. 

FORENSIC LINGUISTICS  There are three main applications - the provision of linguistic evidence; understanding use of language in judicial processes; understanding language of the written law. 

FORENSIC PATHOLOGY   A field of pathology focused on ascertaining cause of death.

FORENSIC PSYCHOLOGY   The intersection between psychology and the judicial system - understanding the psychology behind criminal behaviour.  

FORENSIC TOXICOLOGY  A forensic toxicologist performs tests on the tissue samples or bodily fluids to try and detect particular substances. 

Forensic scientist salary

The salary of a forensic scientist can vary from company to company, but is ultimately defined by experience. The more experience you have, the more you will be paid. The National Careers Service offer a guide to how much a forensic scientist can expect to earn at different stages of their career.

  • STARTER: £20,000 
  • EXPERIENCED: £25,000 - £35,000
  • HIGHLY EXPERIENCED: £45,000 or more

A day job like no other

Forensic investigators play a crucial role in the modern legal process. It is their mission to claw together all the evidence from a crime scene and present the facts impartially to the police or legal professionals like solicitors or barristers.

Part of this process could involve identifying and analysing material like blood, hair, fingerprints and clothing fibres and figuring out who they belong to.

The work carried out by forensic experts could therefore be critical to whether a suspect is locked behind bars or allowed to walk free.

Why are forensic scientists important?

Forensic scientists are crucial to the investigation process because they are trained to meticulously study crime scenes, compile toxicology reports on drugs and poisons and even look at handwriting samples, combining analytical skills, science expertise and an inquisitive nature.

The scientific and technological breakthroughs of the past fifty years or so have brought with it the ability to eradicate a lot of uncertainty in criminal investigations, and diminish the influence of psychological mind games in the courtroom.

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Science degree employment prospects

The creation of this whole new industry has been so well publicised, it’s little surprise that it has become a widely popular university course for undergraduates.

In 2017 nearly 9,000 university students were studying relevant forensic and archaeology-based science degrees, so there’s a healthy amount of competition to say the least! That’s not even counting students doing related degrees like forensic psychology and criminology.

“To show you mean business it’s possible to gain accreditation from The Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences”

However, overall employment rates for science graduates are promising, with qualified candidates more likely to secure professional roles after six months than peers who studied other courses.

Last year, 54% of graduate hires from the Top Undergraduate Employers comprised of former placement students and interns. It's so important - now more than ever - to get undergraduate work experience before you graduate. 

Science internships are an opportunity for you to get this type of experience, and get an insight into what it is really like to work as a forensic scientist.

Who would suit working in forensic science?

To succeed in this industry, you need to have a scientific background, (surprise), but alongside this you need to be multi-skilled, with natural observational and analytical talents, possess patience and the confidence to present and support your findings.

It’s safe to say this isn’t a career that will suit everybody. However, if you have these skills and are naturally inquisitive (think modern day Sherlock Holmes in a chemical suit) and want to play a crucial role behind the scenes in the legal process, this is a role that’s likely to appeal to you.

Forensic science degrees and work experience

Aside from the obvious forensic science courses, other undergraduate degrees which are relevant to a career in this field include the likes of: crime and investigative studies, psychology and crime and applied criminology and forensic investigation, to name just a few.

To show you mean business, it’s possible to gain accreditation from The Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences, which will be crucial if you wish to reach the peak of the industry in the future.

While it is difficult to find placements, internships and insights in this field, due to the sensitive nature of the work and the impact it can have on legal cases, it is possible to find other relevant work experience schemes.

This is no reason not to take a gander at what other science & research-related placements and internships are out there, as any relevant scientific or analytical experience will add something to your CV, while exposing you to real-life projects.

Top global organisations like Cancer Research UK, GSK and IBM offer relevant work experience opportunities.

If you are considering a career in forensic science, getting some professional work experience while you're an undergraduate will drastically improve your chances of securing a graduate role. Check out our guide to science placements to find out which companies are hiring students and how you can apply.